Friday, November 5, 2010

The Horror Within (My Favourite Films Volume 18)

If I had to pick one film to show to an alien race to try and explain the concept of horror, specifically the horror film, I think I’d pick John Carpenter’s The Thing. It can be understood without any significant reading into the zeitgeist that produced it. You don’t need to be an American or have much understanding of the political climate of the early 1980s, you don’t need to have seen the Howard Hawks produced The Thing From Another World, of which Carpenter’s film was an ostensible remake, nor do you have to have read Who Goes There? the story by Joel Campbell, which both films take inspiration from. In fact you don’t need to know much at all; I was maybe 5 or 6 when I first saw The Thing and it scared the Christ out of me but more than that I connected with its desperate story and thoroughly enjoyed repeat visits to the cold Antarctic setting. As with Aliens, another childhood favorite, I could connect with the action in a clear enough fashion, enjoyed the brutality of both the heroes and the villain, the swearing, the creature design, the relentlessness of the story and as I got older came to see it as a film so carefully designed and meticulously constructed that the idea of calling it a horror film doesn’t really do it justice. It is a story of paranoia, of loss, of Lovecraftian terror, of men trying to apply science, reason and finally common sense to the unexplainable, of man’s multifaceted struggle with things he can only attempt to comprehend. Though to be fair it is first and foremost the story of an Alien that really wants to take over the bodies of twelve men trapped in an isolated location who in return really want to kill the thing. Because it is such a simple story, it’s possible to scour it for subtext (Vietnam, AIDS and socio-feminist related readings have all been offered) and while I think that’s a valuable and telling exercise, I’m going to simply judge it in terms of its place in the genre because it is in many ways the ultimate genre film.

The Thing
by John Carpenter
In the endless expanse of the Antarctic landscape, a helicopter and its two occupants chase after a dog. The dog looks back at them as they unload bullets and grenades feebly; it seems to be knowingly outfoxing them. The dog makes it to United States National Science Institute Station 4 before the two men can do much damage. The pilot accidentally blows himself and the chopper up with a grenade and though the surviving man tries to explain himself the Americans at Station 4 don’t understand a word of what he says; he’s Norwegian, you see. They understand when they’re being shot at however and the man is killed by Garry, the military official in charge of the station, when the Norwegian misfires and hits one of the men, Bennings the meteorologist, in the leg while aiming for the dog. The guys take the dog in and begin wondering what it is that would have caused two men to chase after a dog with intent to kill. The men, besides Garry and Bennings, are Norris, Childs, MacReady, Fuchs, Blair, Windows, Palmer, Nauls, Copper and Clark. After stitching up Bennings’ leg, Copper opts to go find the Norwegian camp and gets MacReady, one of the station’s two helicopter pilots to take him there. What they find is chilling, in every sense of the word. Looks like the fellow with one of Garry’s bullets in his crown got off easy; one of the men has cut his own throat with a straight-razor (but seems to have frozen to death before he finished bleeding) and another looks to have been burnt alive, though he doesn’t look all human. They also find a big block of ice that looks to have held something big that was recently extracted. They bring back the burnt man-like mass to camp where Blair attempts to perform an autopsy. Everyone watches in shock and horror as new discoveries are made but no one is more shaken than the dog; it’s almost as if he recognizes the burnt-up mass of flesh. When Clark the vet puts him in with the camp's other sleigh dogs that night, something rather unexpected happens. The dog quickly sheds it’s skin and becomes something unspeakably hideous and gooey as it wraps tentacles around the other dogs. The men burn it before it can lift itself into the rafters with the giant fists it sprouted from its back.

It takes some imagination on Blair’s part to discern what went on but considering that every man in the camp saw the transformation with their own eyes they’re willing to buy just about anything. Blair pulls the creature apart and finds evidence of it trying to look like a dog, like the thing was in the middle of imitating a dog when they killed it. After inspecting some tapes they collected from the Norwegian base, MacReady and Norris head to the spot where they pulled the block of ice from the snow. Not only do they find where it was pulled out, they find the charred remains of a gigantic spacecraft buried beneath a hundred thousand years worth of ice. MacReady draws a timeline which the guys take with a grain of salt; he’s no scientist after all. The Norwegians thaw the thing out, it gets to some of their bodies, they try to contain it by killing whomever it touches (and themselves to prevent being taken over), but it gets out in the body of one their dogs, which tries to occupy other dogs. Though that makes a kind of sense, it’s hardly a comfort to the men at Station 4. How long before the man-thing defrosts and decides it would prefer, as the film’s slogan promises, a nice warm-blooded body to inhabit? And if it can imitate any organism it wants to, how will anyone know who’s human and who’s not? It’s either going to be a very long or a very short winter.
The Thing is John Carpenter’s best film, it is one of the best remakes of all time, one of the best genre movies of all time, features some of the best special effects of all time and one of the most terrifying and interesting premises of all time. Not bad for a little sci-fi/horror movie with three locations, is it? It is superbly crafted to ensure that every scene shocks and surprises and to make sure you never feel at ease. It is only on second viewing do you understand how loaded every gesture is (even the simple act of a dog licking your face becomes foreshadowing in the take-no-prisoner’s world of Bill Lancaster’s script and John Carpenter direction). Every element that would ordinarily damn a film like this (simple sets, the odd bout of pseudo-science, the lack of female characters, the no-nonsense direction, a seeming reliance on effects over characterization [though under scrutiny this turns out to be false]) becomes a strength. The film had few allies upon it’s first release; if the critics of 1982 could see just what’s happened to some of the classics since Carpenter’s film, they’d perhaps have kept their mouths shut instead of trashing a film they didn’t understand. The problem was they were not willing to play The Thing’s game. They wanted a film that showed respect to them and to Howard Hawks’ original; Carpenter’s film does neither on its face. The Thing’s atmosphere is built in to every frame, the performances are invisible, everyone taking a backseat to the crisis on their hands, and the effects are quite gruesome. Carpenter’s characters are not exactly charismatic (though most are likable) and it's only when he kills them off at times you least expect it that you realize how much you like them. In some regards it seems like we have the makings of an Italian horror film; the scenes at the Norwegian camp resemble some gory painting halfway between Fulci and Argento, the Ennio Morricone music beautifully underscoring the action (of all film scores; the simple ‘dun dun’ theme gets the most impact with the least movement), even the characters seem drawn from an Italian film (Windows looks a touch like some Italian character actor, Fuchs like Richard Dreyfuss by way of Al Cliver in The Beyond, Bobby Rhodes would make a career pretending to be as naturally cool as Keith David is here and thanks to all that hair Kurt Russell looks like a cross between make-up man Rob Bottin and Ray Lovelock in Let Sleeping Corpses Lie). Carpenter had shown his affinity for Italianate visuals and atmosphere in his previous film, The Fog, but The Thing manages to synthesize the visuals of his and his crew’s inspiration (Argento, EC comics, Lovecraft, Hawks; I detect shades of Jaws, but Spielberg and Carpenter were both students of the same generation of teachers) and craft a language all it’s own.

Bottin’s visual effects are unrivaled, even today. Bottin and Carpenter were both wary of staying away from H.R. Giger’s designs for Alien, still fresh in their minds when they began planning the film in 1981. I think it speaks volumes about their various successes that not only does The Thing not resemble Alien in anyway, it completely avoids seeming like a sci-fi movie. I for one have never really thought of it as anything in the universe of Alien (though check out the extra appendages on the queen at the end of James Camerson’s sequel; they’ve got Bottin’s signature writ large; that Stan Winston worked on the scenes with the dog thing I think could be seen as pre-proudction on Aliens) as it speaks a different language. The stories have a lot in common, though Campbell covered the ground in Who Goes There? before Ridley Scott had ever read Dan O’Bannon’s script. First of all, Dean Cundey’s widescreen cinematography is half-business, half-mood, all great. The gorgeous snowy landscapes and the scenes of the camp at night have a kind of blue-collar poetry about them; this is truly the end of the world. And what was Ridley Scott trying to achieve with his space ship if not the kind of broken down and hopelessly average interiors that Carpenter’s characters dwell in? Also I think that Bottin’s creatures avoid looking earthly in a way no one’s ever seconded. For all the genius behind the design of Giger's titular Alien (of which there was plenty), it does retain a humanoid shape. The only thing human about Bottin’s creations is in their feeble attempt at looking human. The rest is so far from normal, so freakish and distorted that they become works of art in their own right. Everyone from Stuart Gordon to James Gunn has tried their hand at copying Carpenter’s work with Bottin but no one’s come close. The Thing was, by Carpenter’s own admission, all about the monsters. If they weren’t the most fucking awesome monsters you’d ever seen, the film wouldn’t have worked.
The reason I think that The Thing manages to be unnerving when we aren’t staring down the snout of some hoary beast, is because for the first and last time Carpenter and co. had total control over the look of the film; he had it once again on Ghosts of Mars but that film wound up a pale imitation in this and every other regard. Your average cinemagoer in the early 80s had no clue what an Antartic research station looked like so both the drab interiors (with their indefinably spooky corridors and maw-like doors) and the frozen exteriors all set the viewer on edge. The outside looks like a jagged and macabre ice castle in the thick of the falling snow and the lighting design, which was actually perfectly natural, is all manufactured blues and oranges. The frame jumps with strange colours once the action picks up and never rests. The film’s final location, the generator room is a special creation, the camp’s own inferno where the final and most terrible hell-spawn dwells (harking back to Harryhausen as well to every creature we’ve seen thus far). The lighting, all hellish chiaroscuro, compliments the final clash with the unknown perfectly just in time for Russell’s final put-down. The blue-collar aspect is most evident in the dialogue; when not in Hawksian rapid-fire yet lackadaisacal conversation, the men sound conspicuously like a couple of bored, stir-crazy working stiffs. How often do people attempt and fail at that sort of thing? I think Lancaster understood (and Cameron took note) that when ordinary people take on something, their fight becomes your fight in a way it doesn’t if you’re watching he-men or detectives or gladiators taking on something supernatural; they’re more likely to rise to the occasion. Carpenter’s guys don’t want the beast to win but mostly they don’t want to get killed; an impulse I think we can all understand. Even as paranoia mounts and no one’s sure about anything, their dialogue remains refreshingly human. The film’s best lines are gut reactions to some pretty horrifying images; I don’t know whether Keith David, Richard Masur’s Clark or David Clennon’s Palmer has the film’s best line, but almost everyone gets an instantly quotable zinger that would just be so much swearing in any other film. What’s more, upon further inspection, you realize that no line gets wasted. Take the petty argument about who’s going to search for Fuchs with whom; knowing what we do about everyone involved and who turns out to be a thing, it makes perfect sense. The dialogue and Carpenter’s camera miss nothing. In other words the film wastes no time, no words, no glances and no energy; everything helps the action along, everything contributes to the miasma of mistrust and the end soon comes hurdling at us at lightspeed. It is efficient, grisly and creepy, like the organism at the core of the story; and just like the thing of the title it gets under your skin. In other words, it is a horror film par excellence, full of writhing shocks and spider-legged creatures from another world; like the best of Lovecraft it knows no master, plays by no rules and scares you to death, but you keep coming back for more.


Dizzy said...

This sounds terrifying

Scøut said...

It is absolutely terrifying.