When John Carpenter‘s “The Thing” was released in the summer of 1982, it was condemned by the critical community and casually ignored by audiences, who favored the cuddly, Reese’s Pieces-eating aliens of “E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial” over the abominations Carpenter and visual effects artists Rob Bottin and Stan Winston dreamed up. But that film, in the years since, has proven hugely influential, even prompting a prequel/reboot that took place right before the events of Carpenter’s film began (it was awful) and countless imitators. The latest unofficial “The Thing” rip-off comes in the form of Austrian horror movie “Blood Glacier.” Unfortunately, this low budget chiller is unable to capture the same kind of awe and terror that made “The Thing” so powerful, although its attempt to be more character-based and emphasis on practical effects is somewhat admirable. Somewhat.
The movie begins with a hilariously ominous title card detailing the undeniable effects of climate change (“The skeptics fall silent…. Life on earth will change forever”), before introducing us to our main characters: a ragtag bunch of scientists stranded at a wayward research installation in the Austrian Alps. What becomes very clear is that none of these scientists are actually the main character; instead Janek (Gerhard Liebmann), the station’s crusty, alcoholic technician and makeshift guide, will serve as the lead (and emotional anchor).
While out one day with one of the scientists, they come upon a giant glacier that seems to be primarily made out of (wait for it) blood. Janek’s beloved dog Tinni, meanwhile, is attacked by what appears to be a rabid fox, although once Janek and the scientists return to the base camp, strange things start to occur. The scientists, meanwhile, are trying to furiously diffuse the situation because the next day a government official, who could potentially fund their research for years to come, is visiting the station (also visiting the station: Tanja, a scientist who Janek fell in love with years ago and who left unceremoniously, never to return).
It turns out that the blood glacier is lousy with single-cell organisms that look like some kind of red algae. As one of the scientists explains, they are “tiny gene laboratories,” combining the DNA of disparate animals with willful abandon (and shades of the underrated Penelope Ann Miller creature feature “The Relic“). Anything that ingests the red stuff from the blood glacier (or ingests something that has already ingested red stuff from the blood glacier) will probably turn into some kind of hideous hybrid monster and seek out the only thing that it truly wants: blood. The same scientist who delivers this exposition also does some outrageous theorizing, suggesting that werewolves, Egyptian gods, and mermaids were probably all victims of whatever the hell is inside the blood glacier. Right.
The rest of the movie plays out very much like “The Thing,” with the small cluster of scientists, technicians, and, later on, government officials, trying to fight off the invading mutant monsters and dying in spectacularly gruesome ways. All of the actors seem pretty committed to their performances, despite the sometimes laughable scenarios they find themselves in (this is one of those movies where none of the characters seems to have ever watched a scary movie themselves, or they would know how deeply fucked they all are).
It’s just that the monsters in “Blood Glacier” look lousy. It’s really commendable that director Marvin Kren decided to go with largely practical effects, opting for animatronics and puppetry over more sophisticated, computer-assisted wizardry. But the design of the creatures is a muddled blur, and it’s hard to get a good look at the monsters for long enough to pick apart what they’re actually supposed to be the mutant variation of. Plus, the monsters themselves look like Frank Darabont‘s wonderful “The Mist” as acted out by a troupe of amateur puppeteers. Sometimes the monsters just look they are flung at the actors from just off-screen.
What’s odd too is that despite that initial text about climate change, there is very little attention paid to the actual, real-world issue of the melting ice caps and global warming. Genre films have long been the place to address social concerns without tackling them directly and making them so preachy that no one could stand to watch them. Filmmakers like Tobe Hooper and George Romero have built entire careers on slyly satirizing political injustice through their super-smart midnight movies. But Kern and screenwriter Benjam Hessler are either uninterested in actually saying anything about climate change, or unequipped to weave those messages into a movie where winged insects explode from pustules on a guy’s neck. Either way, it’s a shame.
But “Blood Glacier” isn’t a complete wash. There are a handful of really good scares, the emotional investment is in the right place, with some truly raw dialogue sequences between Janek and his former love, that ends with an oddly squishy, heartwarming ending that is just too good (and perverse) to give away here. And Kren nimbly conveys exposition, largely through off-screen action alluded to but never seen. (Thankfully, sitting through “Blood Glacier,” we never felt like we were watching an icicle melt.) When it comes to low budget horror movies, sometimes the less you see ends up being the most effective, with implication always beating explicitness, especially when it comes to characters explaining things or traveling from one location to the other. Kern should have applied this same philosophy to the unconvincing, Ed Wood-worthy monsters, and “Blood Glacier” would have been a much more successful film. [C]