Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, March 29, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1982)

8. The Thing

“The Thing” is a good example of how public opinion can shift over the years. Coming in the wake of “E.T.,” the film was eviscerated by critics, dismissed as heavy on gore and little else, and greeted with hostility by the public. It was a blow against John Carpenter’s reputation as a proven hit-maker, one he would never really bounce back from. In the intervening thirty years, things have changed. “The Thing” is now regarded as a landmark in special effects, one of the director’s best pictures, and a masterpiece in the sci-fi and horror genres. It is even considered by some as one of the greatest horror films ever made.

The film is only a loose adaptation of Howard Hawks’ original “The Thing from Another World,” instead drawling more from the original novella, John Campbell Jr.’s “Who Goes There?” The story is a study in chilly isolation and nightmare imagery. Like many of Carpenter’s previous films, it is both an ensemble piece and a siege picture. However, unlike “Assault on Precinct 13” or “The Fog,” the threat comes from inside, not outside.

Carpenter has his best handle on atmosphere here since “Halloween.” “The Thing,” if nothing else, is skillfully orchestrated in tone and mood. One of the earliest shot in the film is a pan over the snow covered hills of the Arctic. A first time viewer wouldn’t know why the seemingly mad Norwegian is gunning after that husky. A sense of mystery is maintained throughout the first act. One of the biggest departures from the original film and the book is that the main cast isn’t the first ones who discover the Thing. Instead, they have to investigate the Norwegian camp, discovering an abandoned building and charred, bizarre remains. Why the change? Strictly to fuel more mystery, create questions of “why,” “who,” and “what” in the audiences’ minds. The first creepy shot in the movie, and the film’s first use of Carpenter’s trademark steady-cam, involves the strange dog wandering down a hallway, stopping to look at a shadow on the wall before walking off. Upon this rewatch, I realized the dog couldn’t make its move until it was on its own. It’s the first sign of a sinister, insidious intelligent.

Small moments like these prepare the viewer for the well-spring of nightmarish special effects the movie unleashes soon after that. When it comes to practical make-up effects special effects, animatronics and puppetry, Rob Bottin’s work has never been topped. “The Thing” features some of the most disturbing special effects ever put to film. The monster is all twisting, squirming, crunching limbs, tentacles, and slime. The dog kennel scene slowly escalates, the walls of twisted, mutated flesh building. When a blossom of death, a mouth/hand covered with teeth emerges from the dog(s)’ diseased form, it becomes clear to the audience that this Thing doesn’t come in peace. The body horror has an almost surreal effect. The shot of Bennings, turning to face the others, its hands twisted into claws, releasing an unearthly howl, is like something out of a nightmare. The defibrillator scene is another tour-de-force of cringe-inducing special effects. Yellow gibs squirm inside the monster, nightmare faces shooting out it, heads crawling away. It’s hard to believe all of this was accomplished with only latex, wires, and pumps. Critics of the horror genre frequently say it relies solely on special effects. If any film proves that monster effects themselves can make scares, “The Thing” does.

“The Thing” confirms its horror classic status by featuring two all-time great jump scares, and a few other pretty good ones. The dog kennel freaks the audience out by building on horrifying images. The defibrillator scene springs those same images on the audience totally out of the blue. It’s a real shock and the freakishness just keeps coming immediately afterwards. If the defibrillator scene is unexpected, the blood test scene measures suspense. Each time the hot cord is about to touch down in a dish of blood, the audience’s leans forward in anticipation. The viewer’s expectations are pulled completely taunt when the trouble starts again, causing the watcher to jump out of his seat. There’s no relief since the horror keeps on coming in the form of more monstrous, twisted flesh.

The blood test is another turning point in the script. It ends the paranoia-thon that comprises the meat of the second act. After the threat of the Thing is revealed, nobody can trust one another. Blair goes nuts. There’s a burnt body in the snow outside, power outages, and slashed clothing. Everyone is on edge, MacReady especially. The film mines tension out of that paranoia, since anyone is bound to react in a number of ways. The stand-off before the blood test is probably the peak of this type of suspense. After the monster is determined, “The Thing” becomes a men on a mission flick. This is encapsulated in MacReady’s monologue to the remaining troops. Though “The Thing” is widely considered a study in paranoia, it just as much a movie about people coming together in times of adversity.

The third act is honestly a little disappointing compared to the fantastic first two. We know early on Blair is the Thing and everyone is working together, deflecting the monster’s plot. It’s the movie at its most slasher-like, the monster chipping through the remaining cast members. MacReady facing off against the monster alone shapes up to be a great one-on-one finale. The floorboards rippling forward is a pretty good jump scare. The story’s Lovecraftian roots become obvious here. Exhibit A: Giant tentacles reaching out of the ground. While the Blair Monster is as grotesquely horrifying and fantastically realized as any of the film’s other combination, MacReady shouting swears, jumping away, and blowing the monster to smithereens is a little underwhelming. The movie makes up with that with the final images, taking the story out on a note of ambiguity and bristling winter cold. The last shot of two men, sitting together in the cold against a dying fire, feeds into the film’s twin themes of paranoia and brotherhood.

The ensemble cast is really the only problem I have with the film. There are too many characters here and only a few of them get any development. MacReady is one of Kurt Russell’s best performances. He has no problem going dark, getting some paranoid jitters in a few scenes. Ultimately, MacReady proves himself as the right man for the job. He’s less a standard hero then just an everyman that keeps his head on the straightest and survives. It lacks the tough guy bravado of Russell’s other performances in Carpenter’s films, instead showing a more considerate side.

There are some other strong standers in the cast. Wilford Brimley really gets to go over the top as Blair while also showing some creepy, alien other-worldliness near the end. Keith David is nicely hot-headed as Childs, the film’s second most likable character, and Donald Moffat provides some comic relief as the frustrated Garry. The rest of the cast is thinly developed. There’s the squirmy Windows, stoner helicopter pilot Palmer, laid-back cook Nauls, dog-lover Clark, Fuchs the scientist. Beyond these general ideas, we don’t have much to go on for the rest of the cast. It doesn’t damage the movie any but I wonder if it would have been an even tighter affair with a slightly trimmed set of characters.

Carpenter’s curbs some of his own tricks from “Halloween” here. The icy cold of the Arctic is emphasized with chilly blue/purple lighting and dark shadows. Ennio Morricone provides a creepy score, full of scrambling strings and slow, electronic droning. Though not quite perfect, “The Thing” is incredibly good and fully deserves its reputation. It’s a film that particularly rewards re-watching. First time viewers wonder who the Thing is. Multiple viewers wonder when someone became infected, where the monster moved off-screen, and watch the infected individuals more carefully, looking for signs. It’s a film that inspires investigation and new discovery, sure signs of a great film. [Grade: A]


Sean Catlett said...

Fuck yes The Thing. Some fun facts!

I couldn't get my girlfriend past the first five minutes, in spite of my assurances that the dog deserved to die.

Some scenes are funnier on repeat viewings. Example: "Murphy says get the flamethrower!" "... WHAT?!"

Other Carpenter films don't come close to how much I love this one. Big Trouble in Little China is next down the list, and it's no The Thing. He was ON FIRE.

There's no greater pleasure in this life than watching the expression on someone's face change to utter horror the first time they see the defibrillator scene. It's the reason to have children.

Bonehead XL said...

I was worried I went on a little long about the defib scene so I'm glad to hear someone else loves it. Easily in my top ten all-time great horror moments.