10 November 2010

John Carpenter's "The Thing"

The Thing-2008 Blu-Ray
The 2008 Blu-Ray edition. Source
Here's another sci-fi horror film I watched for the first time recently. The Thing dates from 1982  and is a pretty impressive horror flick, given the detailed set designs, effect shots, out-there make-up and creature design. 

The basic gist: scientists at a research station in Antarctica are plagued by an alien monster that unfortunate Norwegian scientists (on a separate base further away) unleashed from the ice. What's scary about The Thing is that it can assume the identity of its victim, so you can't exactly tell it apart from humans or that cute Alaskan malamute that showed up at the base one day....

Let's talk about the creature that is The Thing. I know in my last post, reflecting on H.R. Giger's creature designs, that the Alien monsters leave me wondering, "What the hell was that thing?" John Carpenter's The Thing leaves me wondering, "WTF?" This is not a bad WTF. It's just that, like Alien, I've never seen a sci-fi horror monster like this before.

The creatures of Alien were disturbing because they were dark, absolutely inhuman and unrecognizable, weirdly sexual, bio-mechanical looking things. The Thing could be considered unrecognizable since it's an amalgamation of creatures it has tried to copy...but in The Thing I can at least recognize which part is the dog, which part is the human, which are the spider-like legs, and which is the leftover spaghetti noodle dinner (ha!). What you can't recognize is The Thing itself, because it's hidden behind all of those other things. That's pretty scary.

The movie is heavy on the gross factor. Every time I saw the creature take a victim, or leave a corpse of itself behind, I just wanted to scream, "Ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!" The Thing tries to mimic life by synthesizing it; most of the time for the duration of the film it looks like The Thing hopped into a blender of raw meat, pasta, puppies, and people--very gooey, very bloody, very messy, and a giant ball of absurdity. I would've laughed hysterically at the creature if ti wasn't so disgusting! 

When people think of horror, they tend to think only of what frightens them. If we think of the very literal meaning of the word horror, it encompasses not only the sensation of fear, but revulsion, shock, and disgust. The Thing didn't scare me, but it definitely grossed me out, so it would fall under the definition of horror by that mark. What scares me more (and this applies pretty much to all horror for me) is not the thing or event itself, but the idea of what it is, what it means.  The Thing is a body-snatcher (body-masher, heh!) and therefore something unrecognizable and almost undetectable once it has assumed the form it wishes to.

The Thing-Dog Monster
Screenshot of the 1982 film (Source).
What makes The Thing a successful film is that it does not rely on just the monster. Body-snatching and assuming identities (in that lovely parasite-host way) is no doubt going to bring about heavy paranoia, and John Carpenter definitely focuses on this to generate additional thrills. I really liked that I couldn't always tell if Kurt Russell was the hero or villain. I enjoyed seeing everyone turn on each other and unravel, and the scenes where Kurt Russell has tied the remaining survivors together and to their chairs in order to test their blood--this is great stuff. 

Using Antarctica as your setting also helps up the ante on paranoia and tension. There's nowhere you can run--if you aren't cooped up on the base you're outside freezing to death. You can't get any more desolate and isolated than Antarctica and its ferocious winter! And as the numbers of scientists dwindle, all you have left is yourself and everyone else. If you know you aren't the monster, then that leaves everyone else to doubt and accuse. It's very easy to understand why each of the men on base turned against each other.

Even better? The depressing non-ending ending. There's nothing like leaving a film still feeling a little paranoid, still doubting whether or not the Thing is gone, and which human is real and which one isn't. Keith David and Kurt Russell are the last men standing, and you have substantial reasons to doubt both of them. The characters have a substantial reason to doubt each other as well--they can't account for each other's whereabouts or what happened when they separated from each other. By this point the base is blown up, and the two are sitting with their weapons, "Waiting to see what happens."  

Work Cited

The Thing. Dir. John Carpenter. Perf. Kurt Russell, Keith David. Universal Pictures, 1982. DVD.

1 comment:

  1. I would agree, this is a classic example of the questionable horror. Who is who? and what is what? and all of that. I also agree,that the use of Corn Syrup dyed with red coloring and latex skin for tearing is disgusting and brings back a disturbing element that is hard to find in modern film. I have not watched "The Thing" in quite sometime I believe it may be time to re-visit. you did raise a great point about the end of the film. I recall the two men sitting and waiting but at this point in the film I had not second guessed the creature being alive or holding on to its parasitic host! the creep factor has re-ignited itself!

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