I have a theory that nobody really wants effective horror movies. Or effective horror anything, really, because to be horrified is to be repulsed, to be made smaller, if you will. To paraphrase Mrs. Radcliffe (the mother of the Gothic Horror novel), terror expands the soul and horror contracts it. I think about this whenever I think about the reaction to John Carpenter’s 1982 classic, The Thing.
Because at the time, in what is sometimes seen as a right-wing cultural backlash in the wake of Regan’s election (history, like Star Wars prequels, rhymes—and sucks), The Thing was labeled a kind of “pornography”. (I’m going off memory now so I can’t tell you who labeled it such, but my memory matches John Carpenter’s.) It didn’t do well, generated bad press, and basically ended Carpenter’s career. Yes, he went on to make many more movies but his confidence was shaken and he was never really given a budget again. (Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, came out the very same weekend, and also disappointed at the box office.) Nowadays, The Thing is generally regarded as his finest film, and a masterpiece of horror.
Not for nothing, but the theater held this showing in its largest auditorium and it was sold out. Had more people pre-bought tickets, they would’ve opened a second screen.
Carpenter always wanted to do Westerns, but he came of age as a writer/director when the Western’s decade-long dominance came to an end and, of course, came to prominence as the director of Halloween. But you don’t have to look hard at a Carpenter’s film to see the Western influence, and the ghost of Howard Hawks. (Assault on Precinct 13 is basically a low-budget, urban remake of Rio Bravo. The original Thing From Another World was produced by Hawks, and some have argued directed by him, but that’s a story in itself.) When he’s on his game, this non-sentimental Western style—tough people in tough circumstances—throws the supernatural elements of the story into sharp contrast in a way that few other directors can pull off.
I don’t think I’ve actually seen this movie since it came out. I own the DVD and started listening to the commentary but I didn’t get past the first 5-10 minutes (getting uninterrupted movie time is nigh impossible for me at home, which is why I go to the theater). I was (predictably) much less engrossed on this viewing than I was as a boy, but I was sort of surprised not just at how well it held up, but how expertly made it is.
First, has there ever been a director who got so much mileage out of a dog standing and staring?
The two most bravura scenes (the CPR scene and the blood test scene) are sheer wizardry. Beautifully shot, timed and executed, they hold up 35 years later, despite the outdated special effects technology. And when I say “outdated”, I mean “we don’t use them any more”, not “we shouldn’t use them any more.” I mean, almost nobody would do this because CGI is so much more forgiving, and for every brilliant Rob Bottin—he was 23 at the time—you’re going to get 100 Charles Band/Ghoulies-style animatronics. And for every Carpenter, knowing exactly how to light and angle the shot, you’re gonna get a Don Dohler who just turns out the lights.
Dean Cundey was the cinematographer here, and he would go on to work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Apollo 13 before ending up (as the boys on Red Letter Media like to point out) lensing Jack and Jill and Scooby Doo and the Curse of the Lake Monster. Let’s hope this guy gets a comeback.
The effects are still effective, is what I’m getting at, even today as I’m aware of all the tricks being used. It’s not important, I generally say, whether effects are “realistic” but it is important that they convey a persuasive aesthetic. And while Venom was fine, and probably the sort of thing you couldn’t do effectively any other way, I can’t help but notice I have a different reaction between “that’s a cool prop, a thing in the real world” and “that’s someone like me applying an algorithm to some pixels.”
More surprising to me was that, despite there being a dozen characters, they actually do seem to use their short screen time to demonstrate real character, not just bodies to be picked off. Carpenter worked with screenwriter Bill Lancaster (whose other credits are all The Bad News Bears-related) and had a strong hand in shaping things. Besides Kurt Russell’s MacReady and Keith David’s Childs, even more minor characters, like Palmer (David Clennon, Gone Girl), the cynical stoner who utters the immortal words “You gotta be f***in’ kidding”, feel straight out of other Carpenter films.
As much as I enjoyed the film back in the day, I would have agreed with the sentiment that it was somewhat nihilistic and the ending unsatisfyingly ambiguous. Upon a re-view, though, I didn’t get that vibe at all: Everyone’s actions, even when incompetent—and there’s a fair amount of believable incompetence, like dropping a grenade when you’re panicking—seem very sensibly survival driven. Even the nervous breakdown of Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) makes sense when you realize that he sees the bigger picture.
And as for the end, well, I think it’s actually pretty clear that our heroes have won. It’s even broken down earlier on: If either survivor is The Thing, he could simply fall upon the other and kill him. If both were The Thing, they’d have no reason to pretend they weren’t. I think it actually has a happy-ish, if rather paranoid, ending.
It’s just one of the many things you can find in the original criticism that I think is just plain wrong. Because I think what happened is that this movie really freaking horrified people, including movie critics, and they responded by attacking it.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? If something really and truly horrified you, you’d probably attack it. That’s why most “horror” movies these days are compilations of jump scares, smash cuts and cheesy CGI.
Nobody wants to get TOO scared.