Thursday, November 5, 2015

John Carpenter, part IX: That damned thing that Earth wouldn't own is dripping, dripping in the Cosmos House tonight


Perhaps the best practical effects in horror meet the most sustained paranoia in horror, and the result is an abiding nihilism that, somehow, is a hell of a lot of fun to watch.  We arrive now at John Carpenter's very first outright masterpiece.

Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Bill Lancaster (based on the story by John W. Campbell)
With Kurt Russell (McReady), Wilford Brimley (Dr. Blair), Keith David (Childs), T.K. Carter (Nauls), Richard Dysart (Dr. Copper), David Clennon (Palmer), Charles Hallahan (Norris), Peter Maloney (Bennings), Richard Masur (Clark), Donald Moffat (Cmdr. Bennings), Joel Polis (Fuchs), Thomas G. Waites (Windows), Norbert Weisser (The Norwegian), Larry Franco (The Norwegian Passenger), and Jed the Dog (The Thing)

Spoiler alert: moderate

If you look at contemporary reviews of John Carpenter's The Thing, what you'll find is a treasure trove of shameful criticism, its content ranging from the willfully duncey, to the moralistically shrill, to the objectively fucking wrong.  It is shocking to know that upon its release The Thing was a complete critical and commercial failure.  Fortunately, we've advanced since then—and we know that it's an honest-to-God masterwork.

And like many masterworks that revolve around a mystery, The Thing offers a single cunning premise, but pursues it in such a way that it becomes dauntingly complex—even insoluble.  Yet, in its basic material, it is just so damnably straightforward:

Deep in the Antarctic exists an American research station, populated by a team of men.  About a third are scientists; the other two thirds are support staff.  You wouldn't necessarily be able to tell one group apart from the other, though the scientists tend to be smaller, more mild-mannered, more frequently-bespectacled.  Frictions exist, though they seem mild.  They're stuck in this place with a job to do, whatever that job is.

No, their troubles begin when they spy a helicopter flying toward them, marked with the insignia of their nearest neighbors, the Norwegians.  For reasons that will soon become all too clear, but couldn't be more opaque in the moment, the helicopter is chasing down a fleeing dog, while its passenger takes shots at it, and eventually throws thermite at it.  Assembled to witness this bizarre scene, one of the scientists takes a stray bullet to the leg; the Norwegian accidentally blows up his own damned 'copter; and Garry, theoretically in charge around here, blows the aberrant Scandinavian's head off before he can do any more damage.  As things quiet down, they take in the dog out of natural pity, before anybody has answered the question: "Why were those men trying so hard to kill it?"  But to find out, Dr. Copper and the Americans' own helicopter pilot, MacReady, head to the Norwegian base.  Venturing inside, they see further evidence of mass madness.  Then they discover the body—that impossible body—burned in the snow.  The scientists work on this mystery—and the dog, kenneled with the rest, reveals that it was never anything so simple as a dog.

That's when they realize that whatever the Norwegians found out there in the ice never died.  Worse, it can become what it consumes: they have already seen some of the abominations it has eaten over the course of its galactic travels.  Dr. Blair understands better than anybody what they face—which is why he smashes everything that could let them escape.  They do not initially share Blair's violent pessimism; but his paranoia will spread and fester as the Thing claims them, and becomes them, one by one.

But, hell, if you don't know what happens in The Thing by now, then I just don't know how to fix you.

With The Thing, John Carpenter finally got to be Howard Hawks, remaking the latter's seminal sci-fi production, The Thing From Another World.  The 1951 film was itself based on the short story, "Who Goes There?" by John Campbell.  However, The Thing '51 was an "adaptation" only in the sense that both works take place in a polar region (albeit not the same polar region), and that in both works some scientists happen to find a frozen alien.  In all other regards, the '51 movie is so terribly unfaithful that it's kind of surprising that they gave Campbell either credit or money.  Thus, when Carpenter got ahold of it, he had an opportunity not just to pay tribute to his favorite human, but to make a film that finally did justice to Campbell's fantastic imagination—while wisely disregarding Campbell's overheated and occasionally grating prose, and deepening the flat uniformity of Campbell's characterizations.

In The Thing, our principal cast are the whole of the world.  This is Carpenter up to his usual tricks: his work is defined by uncanny, depopulated and isolated universes, where just about the only people who exist are those with a narrative function.  This is precisely what makes his approach to characterization—that cramped, Hawksian intimacy—work as well as it does.  Yet it's never felt more natural than it does here, with our heroes marooned by the great, oppressive expanse of the wide-open white.

Why, even the radio doesn't work.

We get a real sense of everyone, and one way The Thing rewards rewatches is how sharply it draws its ensemble.  But you don't need me to tell you who the film's two great gravitational centers are.  There's Wilford Brimley, whose Blair, snarling in Brimley's drawl, is almost scarier than the monster.  And, of course, there's Kurt Russell, delivering perhaps his finest performance as MacReady, who (not unlike Ellen Ripley) would seem to emerge organically from the cast as its leader and most tenacious survivor if we weren't aware of the fact that he's the film's star.  In his third collaboration with Carpenter, Russel is pure grit, eschewing the squinty, half-comic masculinity he evoked in Escape From New York.  Instead, Russell discovers something smaller, realer, and more effective, as he layers terror and depression atop anger and spite, while possessing some kernel of genuine heroism even so.

This is a representative image.

The Thing has two modes, and if it had hewed to either one for its entire running time, it would still be a great movie.  But instead, it alternates between them: first, the slow-burn atmosphere of body-snatcher horror to make you second guess everything you see, soaking your brain in the same paranoia as our heroes; then, to punctuate that unbearable suspense, The Thing lashes out with sudden charnelhouse violence, of a kind never seen before and rarely seen since, offering a series of miniature climaxes that do nothing to actually release the tension.

Though each reveal sequence is action-packed, it lets you know just how adaptable and ineradicable the Thing really is.  (Most horrifyingly of all, there are hints that it still lives even in microscopic quantities; if this is the case, then everyone who did so much as breathe around the monster's several charred corpses must already be in the process of becoming it.)

Blair knows the score.

This alternation is the key to The Thing's unique success—it's a body horror film of more-or-less unparalleled visual spectacle, thanks to Rob Bottin's landmark special effects (The Thing can be plausibly argued to be the apex of cinematic gore technology), but it's combined with a chiller procedural where the human spirit is tested scientifically against the ultimate cosmic horror, and though humanity's defeat is essentially foreordained, we are encouraged to hold fast to hope, because obviously Carpenter thinks it's a lot more fun to smash hope than it is to simply confirm despair.

Miraculously, though, it's never as dour as that sounds, and Bottin's superb grotesqueries probably have a lot to do with that: oh, sure, the Thing presents the most terrifying physical and psychological threat in the galaxy, a creature that would wipe out our individuality and ultimately eat our entire biosphere, but that doesn't stop it from being pleasurable to watch as it twists and writhes and melts and boils, transmogrifying into all manner of twisted tactical forms.  (The use of pus-yellow and decay-green in the creature's internal color palette is perhaps the most inspired touch, suggesting not just malleable alien flesh but our own bodies' reaction to it as an invasive disease.)

How delightfully nauseating!

Of course, John Carpenter's virtually never made a movie that wasn't at least trying to be pulpy fun—no matter how depressing it probably ought to be.  Notably, although The Thing is a spiffy universal allegory, capable of alluding to all sorts of evils, when you have a movie featuring an all-male cast, an invisible disease, and a harrowing blood test—and when that movie is also released in June 1982—the temptation to impose a specific "GRID"/AIDS metaphor upon it is frankly overwhelming.  This is the case even for Carpenter, who concedes that the parallels are there to be drawn.  But if it was any kind of direct inspiration, then it had to be on the very margins: insofar as the timelines of The Thing's pre-production and the ice-breaking story published by The New York Native don't mesh at all, it appears to be a complete coincidence, however staggering.

Indeed, even assuming screenwriter Bill Lancaster did come from the future, it seems unlikely that the one thing he decided to do about AIDS was write an allegorical movie about it.  (Plus, the blood test is from the book.)

Yet as entertaining as it is, The Thing must be close to JC's most severe film.  The situational humor typical of Carpenter rapidly vanishes.  After the monster arrives, there are only two or three jokes in the movie, and only one isn't poisonously bitter—"I'd rather not spend the rest of this winter tied to this fucking couch!" is certainly not much of a conventional laugh line, whereas only at the nihilistic extreme of The Thing's climax does MacReady get to indulge in his sole recognizable moment of quippy, 1980s-era badassery.  (Tragically, there's one excursion into unintentional comedy.  It's the kind of brazen nonsense endemic to Carpenter's movies, even his best ones, but sticks out like a sore thumb in a movie that's otherwise so rigorous.  Obviously, I refer to the scene where they discover that the Thing has nearly finished building a spaceship out of helicopter parts.  No, it's not any less stupid for being directly derived from the source material.)

Still, what's a single film-breaking scene amidst such splendor?  Other than Bottin, I haven't even mentioned the inordinate craft put into The Thing.  Carpenter's mastery of suspense is at its height: the inclusion and elision of details is flawlessly conducive to the thriller aspect of the story, confounding any attempt to know who's been replaced—Carpenter happily admits even he doesn't know precisely who, when, and where—but somehow it never seems like he's cheating (even though he is).  Naturally, Carpenter had his ace cinematographer Dean Cundey on hand.  Inasmuch as it's unambiguously the best work they ever did together, there's a solid case to be made that it's the best work of Cundey's whole career, between the stark, almost black-and-white images of "Antarctica" in daytime, transitioning into those deliriously beautiful contrasts between bright red flares and the blue-lit snow at night.  Strangely, to compose the score, Carpenter reached out to Ennio Morricone, a favorite of his—and why wouldn't he be?—yet, more strangely still, the music of The Thing is all-but indistinguishable from toned-down Carpenter.  (Maybe that even explains why he ever wanted another composer: as awesome as Carpenter's melodies are, one might suppose that his own unfiltered sensibility wasn't quite appropriate here.)

Perhaps the sheer physical presence of the sets deserves the highest praise; as near as I can tell, production designer John Lloyd never did anything remotely like The Thing (nor quite as good), but what a job he did here!  Split between hellish location shooting in in northern British Columbia and soundstage shooting on temperature-controlled Universal sets that were only "comfortable" compared to wintertime Canada, there has perhaps never been a more believable recreation of the South Pole that wasn't actually documentary footage.  Meanwhile, the budget-driven decision to use the American station as a stand-in for the Norwegian base—only filmed at the end of the schedule, after they'd torched it—subliminally but unmistakably underlines the absolute doom presently bearing down upon our heroes, and indeed our whole poor human race.

In later days, The Thing would come to be organized into Carpenter's self-described Apocalypse Trilogy, a series of three movies—The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness—that share no continuity with each other, but are nonetheless joined by their cosmic threats, and their despairing endings.  It's darkly amusing that The Thing, somehow, is the most optimistic of the three.  What's amazing is that it's not even the best.

Score: 10/10


  1. I GOT this movie in the summer of '82, going back for repeat viewings, even dragging my (unimpressed) mom to see it. Box office, schmox office, The Thing is a rollercoaster ride, and I've loaned and/or given more than a few VHS tapes & DVDs to friends for decades.

    1. Excellent! I'm a little jealous. I've always wanted to see it on the big screen, and technically I've passed up the opportunity at least twice, mainly because it's very, very hard to justify the trip and the expense when 1)I own the movie and 2)I know they're just showing the same blu-ray I've already seen, and not a 35mm print or a 4K DCP, anyway.

      I'm glad that The Thing has been revived the way it has, although its (initial) failure presents one of the really interesting counterfactuals of 1980s cinema--what would've happened if all the people who have seen John Carpenter's The Thing today had actually seen it in June 1982? Would Carpenter be at the top of the heap of film directors today? (Or, at least, until his retina detached, as it did in 2014?) Would people say, "Why doesn't Steven Spielberg make fun adventure movies like John Carpenter still does?" Anyway, I can't imagine we'd have seen Carpenter go the full Schindler's List--but who knows? Would he have matured into a "serious" filmmaker the same way Spielberg did? And wouldn't that have been terrible?

      Of course, nothing changes how bizarrely dismissive (most) folks were of The Thing in '82. I'm glad you got a chance to see and enjoy it, but it puzzles me to no end that so many didn't.