Keep watching the skies! Keep watch…oops, never mind: “The Thing”

September 17, 2009

200px-ThingPosterJohn Carpenter’s remake of 1951’s The Thing From Another World—abbreviated to simply The Thing (because, really, the whole “from another world” pretty much goes without saying)—was little loved upon release during the summer of 1982. Critics were understandably put off by its gore and violence and relentlessly pessimistic vantage point. After all, this was the summer of E.T.—a magical time when lovable, big-eyed aliens descended upon suburban California to fill the void left in a 10 year-old boy’s heart by the absence of his father. So, yeah, you can see that with your girlfriend or the John Carpenter flick that features a dude’s head separating from his body and sprouting spider legs and eyestalks and walking across the room. Hmmm…I wonder which one is more likely to lead to some action in the AMC Gremlin’s backseat…

It’s taken about a quarter of a century, but finally Carpenter’s version of the horror has finally found some modicum of respect.

Of course, remake a Howard Hawks classic and you’re pretty much asking for a critical gang-rape. Especially if you’re an outspoken, iconoclastic, young director known mostly for bumming around genre movies. Naturally, no one believed that Carpenter could follow up an act like Hawks (never mind the fact that Hawks himself was a genre director), so the deck was stacked against him from day one. Add the copious amounts of gore and extensive creature effects and you might as well have just run over Pauline Kael’s dog.

Hawks once said that in order for a movie to be good it needs three great scenes and no bad ones, and by this measure Carpenter delivers. The Thing is a long movie, but a lean one, and a tense, paranoid one. Carpenter’s movie doesn’t have an ounce of fat on its skeleton. It’s pure dread, fear, and hopelessness. Add to the mix some terrific performances and assured direction and you have a horror classic, unappreciated in its own time.

From point one, Carpenter gets a bad rap. His Thing hews closely to Joseph W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There?, which Hawks’s did not. Where Hawks reinvented the thing as a big, lumbering, alien other, Carpenter returns to the basis of the novella’s fear—the notion of an alien organism which takes over its host and mimics it. In fact, Carpenter’s story (as written for the screen by Bill Lancaster) sticks pretty closely to Campbell’s—even returning the action to an (Ant)arctic a research station rather than a military base. And while the unfolding action is obviously updated, it follows the same skeleton of Campbell’s story: Researchers in an isolated station come across a frozen alien creature which promptly thaws out, takes their form and begins hunting them. Wackiness ensues.

As a director, Carpenter can be hit and miss. He usually misses when he delves into political territory (They Live is terrific over-the-top ridiculous fun, but its politics would need a lot more thought to even be considered childish). When applying himself to straight, genre material, he’s a master craftsman who knows precisely how and when to turn the screws. With The Thing, he expertly balances community and isolation; camaraderie and suspicion; and shoots it through with pure, unrelenting terror. Almost every monster-on-the-loose movie ultimately isolates its characters, but Carpenter makes them essentially stranded on an island of plywood shacks and Quonset huts in the middle of a lethal wasteland. When the sun sets on the endless Antarctic night, so too does it on their chances of reaching the outside world.

He’s aided by a great cast of solid character-actors who form a veritable rouges gallery of “hey that’s the guy from_____” actors. There’s the guy from L.A. Law (Richard Dysart), the guy from the Quaker Oats commercials (Wilfred Brimley), the guy from Picket Fences (Richard Masur), and the President from Clear and Present Danger (Donald Moffit). Anchoring this cast is the great Kurt Russell, who has both the showiest role, and the most critical one. Russell is one American cinema’s most underrated treasures. He’s a heroic everyman who knows how to balance swagger and sense, managing to be both heroic and self-effacing. He’s a hotshot pilot here, but his recklessness seems more borne of boredom than temperament. When the thing things out on all of them, his quick ascension to de facto leader is so natural, you don’t even notice it.

Of course what The Thing is best known for—and drew the most criticism for–is its violence as seen in the alien’s gory transmutations. Yet, there’s actually not that much realistic violence done to these men. Unlike your Saws and Hostels, The Thing’s gore doesn’t come from teh various ways the humanbody can be dismembered, but from then-22 year-old Rob Bottin’s spectacular mutation effects. In a way the gore is overshadowed by the pure horror and surrealism of what’s happening to the bodies onscreen. Flesh splits, appendages burst forth, transform into vestigial limbs, organs, tentacles, then transform again and again. The alien has no true form. Instead it is mad amalgam of biology run amok. The film uses the awesome potential of biology to horrify us so thoroughly it’s little wonder David Cronenberg abandoned it as a trope in his films. How could you top The Thing?

Carpenter’s storytelling is unrelenting. His characters by turns rise to the threat they face, falter, turn against one another, band together. They are not the stalwart cardboard heroes we typically get (offset usually by one or two unreliables—villains or cowards). He also never compromises the fatalistic conclusion reached early in the film: that the only way to contain the alien infection is for no one at the base to make it out alive.

The Thing still stands as one of the best horror/sci-fi films of the past thirty years. Even the effects still hold up (and thrill in a way that the “anything goes” mentality of CGI can’t match). It got no love upon release, but has withstood the test of time. It can unapologetically stand beside its predecessor as a new terror for a new age.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: