the thing about The Thing

John Carpenter’s THE THING has long been a favorite of both horror and science fiction fans for its perfect mood, taut pacing, and its faithful adaptation of John Campbell’s unforgettable short story, “Who Goes There?” First written in 1938, the tale lacks the Cold War paranoia of the Body Snatcher films, and touches an existential, primal childhood fear of the unknown. Are people what they seem?

The opening credits, with the dissonant, haunting score thrumming in the background as a helicopter follows a sled dog over the endless, snowy expanse of the Antarctic wasteland, is how most of us remember the story beginning, but first, we see our lonely planet in the darkness of space. But it is not alone; an object circles, then crashes and burns into the atmosphere. A tiny flaming speck, like an insect or even a virus to the massive planet, but we know how dangerous those tiny things can be. Every scene sets a paranoid, chilling mood that eases us into willfully suspending our disbelief for the fantastic tale to come, of an invasion on a cellular level. The dangerous speck of a spaceship is replaced by that of a grey dog fleeing across the snow, looking back over its shoulder eerily at its pursuers, in a way a dog never would. A man with a rifle is shooting at it frantically, panicked beyond reason.

The dog heads toward a research station, where we meet our only companions for the rest of the story, without introduction. They seem pretty laid back except for the one man in uniform, Garry, who represents the only presence of authority in this remote outpost at McMurdo station, and he is disrespected by his peers, treated almost as a joke. They seem more like fierce independents: bikers, mountain men, cowboys, MIT computer nerds, rather than scientists. In fact, we never even find out what they’re doing out there, except escaping the shackles of civilization. The dog runs into their camp as they come out to investigate the approaching helicopter, and their visitors immediately wound one of them, trying to kill the dog. They shout in a foreign language, and their aberrant behavior- who would want to kill a dog that isn’t attacking anyone?- is taken for cabin fever, and they die before any explanation can be given.

I don’t intend to synopsize the film, or do a shot by shot study of it, for that has been done. There are entire websites devoted to it, such as Outpost 31 or these reviews by people who’ve actually lived in Antarctica. I’m more interested in what makes the film so effective, and popular enough to spawn a prequel 30 years later. And yes, my expectations are quite low for that film, even if it ends with two Norwegians, the last alive, chasing a dog across the snow in a helicopter. Hollywood no longer takes risks like having an all male cast, unless the film is Oscar bait. While it has no basis in fact- women served in Antarctica since the ’60s- it makes for a tight screenplay that can safely ignore romantic subplots. Unless you think Blair and Doc Copper were a secret couple. Maybe that’s what Doc’s nose ring signified? That’s a nice little touch that we notice again now that big screen TVs and HD transfers are commonplace, that Doc has a nose ring, very uncommon in the ’80s, showing him to be a bit of an odd character like his compatriots.

The story isn’t perfect; do we ever learn who sabotaged the blood supply? Like that famous murder in THE BIG SLEEP, where even author Raymond Chandler was hard pressed to explain who did it? Some things are best left unexplained. I don’t want to know where the aliens from ALIEN come from; I didn’t want to know about Hannibal Lecter’s childhood, much less Michael Myers’. The unknown is an important function of horror, and coupled with the isolation of the Antarctic continent, the paranoia of the hidden menace, and the fear of a death that ends with your identity truly stolen, THE THING offers up a panoply of terrors from the beginning. The creature itself, a mockery of the living form, doesn’t just steal your face or your corpse; it turns your organs into modern art sculpture and uses them as weapons. We see a flower of dog tongues that H.P. Lovecraft enthusiasts love to point out, because it resembles the Elder Things from his novella “At the Mountains of Madness,” and Carpenter is definitely a fan of his work. Not until a year later with David Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME would body horror stand on its own; here at least you’re dead and being mimicked. Cold comfort.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

Another risk taken is the infamous ambiguous ending, which thankfully never spawned a film sequel. There was a comic book mini-series called The Thing from Another World that took off with the ultimate fan betrayal by making Kurt Russell’s MacReady be the infected one. I never want to know if Childs or MacReady are real, or a thing, to use Mac’s words. It is unnecessary for the story, and it robs us of that unease in the pit of our stomachs when the film’s unsettling soundtrack rises up again for the end credit roll. We know Mac and Childs are slugging whiskey, watching the camp burn, and the two men- or the man and the thing- will be frozen statues staring each other down when the rescue team comes after the long winter. The script by Bill Lancaster- whose only other credit is another fave of mine, THE BAD NEWS BEARS (full review)- is so sparse that Carpenter’s direction seems to fade into the background, as if it’s a documentary. The reveals often occur in the back of the frame, like the famous spider-thing head that tries to sneak off on its own. The rest is close, accentuating the cramped quarters of the compound or the loneliness of the outpost, with nothing but mountains for miles and miles around.

My favorite scene.

It was a brave thing for Carpenter to tackle this one after getting panned for THE FOG; he could’ve done another slasher, or another post-apocalyptic hit like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but he once again chose to go in a new direction. Horror, science fiction, but something we’d never seen before. And one we are likely to never see again, with the advent of computer generated effects. Pioneers Rob Bottin and Stan Winston used every effects trick in the book, even stop motion, to create the Thing, and its visceral design is effective even today. On occasion you can see its slip showing; something done in reverse perhaps, but all you need to watch is Doc Copper getting his hands amputated and his “patient’s” head tearing itself off to be impressed at the horror effects, which are arguably the best of the traditional model work you’ll ever see. Carpenter took this level of detail down to the title sequence, paying homage to the 1951 Howard Hawks film THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, which due to budgetary concerns changed the original mimic creature into a plant-based, bloodsucking lifeform that brought its own set of challenges.

I don’t think of this film as a remake, but another adaptation of the story, one truer to the simple question it asks: what if something could mimic us perfectly, down to our personalities; would that really be us? Taken over cell by cell, betrayed by our own DNA, would we know we were a “Thing” until it decided to strike our friends, or defend itself? The film never answers these questions, but does ask them. Amazingly enough when compared to its life on video, THE THING was both a commercial and critical failure upon release, panned by viewers and critics alike for its brutal gore and bleak ending. Being 11 years old at the time, I never had a chance to see it in theaters, but it was one of the first things I taped off HBO, and watched until it shredded. Along with ALIEN, this was one of the formative films of my early years, and skinless, bizarre dog-like creatures are what populate my nightmares. IMDb trivia states that this is Carpenter’s favorite of his own films, and I have to agree.

This post was written for the John Carpenter blogathon this week at RADIATOR HEAVEN. Make sure to go there and check out J.D.’s posts there. I always learn something new, even about films I’ve seen a dozen times.

© 2010 Tommy Salami

Schlocktoberfest!

Okay it is not terribly original for a movie blogger to do horror movie reviews in October, but I’m doing it anyway. My Netflix queue, DVD rack, and download folder (for the out of print rarities) are clogged with horror films I’ve been told I must see, and favorites I haven’t watched in a good while. I’ll try to have a horror movie every day, but with the new car I may have less time for bloggery.

Horror movies are their own beast. It’s hard to be truly scared by a movie as an adult. Sometimes if you’re home alone with all the lights out at night, you can get so absorbed in a horror film that the scares still work, but it’s been difficult for me. And the theater experience is even harder nowadays with jackasses talking, texting, and getting calls during movies. Before I begin this horror movie marathon, let me name my favorite horror movies and why I enjoy them so much. Most branded my childhood brain and therefore sit on the pedestal of nostalgia. It is very difficult for new movies to compete with such memories, but some have managed.

1. Poltergeist is my all-time favorite scary movie. A normal family composed of little-known actors in your standard Haunted House movie, but with so many bizarre occurrences that you are drawn in to their terror. This is also what Richard Pryor used to call a “dumb white people” movie, because “black people would move the fuck out of the house!” And I suppose that’s true. If my walls bled and disembodied voices growled “GET OUT” I’d probably high-tail it out the window in my underwear. But we can suspend disbelief for a little while, and imagine being sucked into the static of the television, or having chairs rearrange themselves behind our backs, or that creepy tree out our window suddenly decide we look pretty tasty. Some of the effects are dated- the fake faces that get torn apart, mostly- but the rest are still terrifying. When Paula Prentiss turns around and her kitchen chairs are neatly stacked on the table, it’s one of the most subtle, creepiest scenes put to film. It merges creepy classics like The Uninvited and The Haunting (1963) with Tobe Hooper’s gory sensibilities for the perfect mix of the unknown and the unfathomable.


2. The Thing (Carpenter version). Probably the pinnacle of stop-motion and traditional effects, and taking place on the loneliest spot on Earth- McMurdo Station in Antarctica. A dozen men braving the coldest of winters, we are immediately thrust into an unlikely science fiction story where anyone can be not what they seem. The sense of paranoia and isolation is driven home by the amazing score, and the “things” are still some of the most bizarre creations on film. Kurt Russell went from being a Disney movie kid to an utter bad-ass with Carpenter, and as the unseen enemy winnows down the cast we have no idea what will happen next. We’re on the edge of our seats. It’s Hitchcock-level suspense in a horror context.

3. Alien. Sure, you could say it is science fiction, but it is just a monster movie moved to space, where no one can hear you scream. Still one of the best and most memorable taglines ever written. Ridley Scott and Dan O’Bannon put together a great cast and made them cozy and believable, and then subject them to visceral, instinctively repulsive situations with H.R. Giger’s primal monster designs. He took simple, primal forms like the spidery, handlike “face hugger,” which not only grabs your face but essentially fucks it and pumps a larva load into your chest cavity. When it bursts out of your chest, it now resembles a snake- another creature, like spiders, that people tend to fear and hate on a primal level. And the final design goes beyond Freud to resemble a sleek black creature both phallic and technological- while later movies make it clear that it is a natural beast, Giger’s own style has always been “bio mechanics,” making uneasy mergings of flesh, steel and silicon, not unlike Cronenberg’s horrific visions in Videodrome. The story is a simple slasher tale as the fodder is devoured and the virginal female remains, but damn if it doesn’t scare you on a visceral level.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086541/
4. Videodrome. I saw this last year and regret not getting into David Cronenberg earlier. Much like Alien, it plays on our fears of the great progresses in technology. Here a late-night TV channel is affecting us, and we are not sure what is reality and nightmare anymore. The stunning visuals are still creepy today, and while the “breathing videotape” is quite dated, James Woods and his poor “hand gun” are still cringe-inducingly horrific. It helps to remember when not every station was owned by a cable conglomerate, and you could see some strange shit just flipping the channels. The mood of the film is incredibly bleak and gripping, and the ending is unexpected, shocking, and a true classic. This may not have big scares, but creepiness and sense of dread throughout are impeccable, and must be experienced.

5. The Shining. This is one of Kubrick’s masterpieces, and Stephen King fans be damned, it is still one of the best horror movies ever made even if it strays far from the storyline. It takes several viewings to understand just how fucked up Jack and family are before they arrive at the Overlook Hotel, and what happens there is now among the greatest haunted house tales ever put to film. This film is an old friend to me now, and I watch it every year when the snow comes down. Like The Thing, it makes use of the isolation winter brings, and the cast is full of archetypal characters. Jack with the rage bubbling beneath the surface, fearful Shelley Duvall who is obviously an abused wife, though we never see it, and little Danny, the child of an enraged, unloving father who flees to an inner world and deals with powers he cannot comprehend. I’m not sure if Scatman Crothers is the first Magical Negro on film, but he’s definitely the best. The film also has a lot of dark humor, that it takes several viewings to realize in its richness. Check out Scatman’s art collection, for example. All these years later, I’m still on the edge of my seat when they try to escape the hotel and its hedge maze. It’s a tale by a master storyteller twisted to a master director’s ends, and while it may not be King’s vision, it is still an unforgettable one.


6. Jacob’s Ladder. Without this movie there’d be no “Silent Hill.” Tim Robbins is a Vietnam Vet dealing with what he thinks are flashbacks or effects of a chemical they used on the battlefield, and the entire film is one gigantic mindfuck beginning from there. He soon can’t tell what is real and what is not, as his visions get increasingly terrifying and bizarre, reminiscent of The Thing and Cronenberg’s body modification fetishes. Once again the director draws us into an unfamiliar world more disquieting than scary, and Robbins’ paranoia is quickly infectious. Playing on our familiar nightmares where we remember things that may not be real, this movie stays with you long after it ends.

7. The Descent. This is one of my favorite recent horror flicks and while it has its flaws- namely the interchangeable characters- it also works on a dream-level and pulls a great switcheroo in the middle. A group of athletic gals meet to go spelunking as they do once a year; this time in remote Appalachia. Playing on familiar fears of claustrophobia and darkness, of course they run into trouble and need to find a new way out of the cave; also, no one knows where they are, because it is a new-found system and one gal “wanted to be the first.” So we also get that lurking sense of dread that comes with being lost in the woods, another archetypal fear from fairy tales and childhood. By the time we find out they are not alone in the caves, we are already engrossed in a great survival horror tale, and this take on the Sawney Bean tale amps things up to 11. It is also unclear if this is reality or a dream, and the bleak ending is one of my favorites.

So that’s 7 for now. Why not 10? Well, I have a month to watch 30 horror films and see if I can find 3 more I consider great. There are plenty of modern, good horror movies, but the great ones have been elusive. Calvaire and High Tension out of France have come close, but have more style than substance. They are definitely worth seeing. I’m told that Them (remade in America as The Strangers) is worthy of the title, and both versions are on tap. [Rec] is supposed to be zombies meets The Blair Witch Project, and has many fans. That will be considered. Hell, I may revisit Blair Witch, since I missed it in theaters and only saw it on a small screen. A lot of people love it, and the “lost in the woods” vibe, with weird happenings that may or may not be supernatural is a great premise.

This month I will also be watching a few Paul Newman films I’ve missed, and if I see anything in the theater or with Firecracker (who doesn’t like horror much) I’ll try to squeeze them in here. It will tax my blogging skills to the max. So watch this space for the inevitable meltdown!