Horror movie speed dating or the simple pleasures of the physical
I’ve already established my love of John Carpenter, so I’ll establish this early on, The Thing is my favourite John Carpenter film. Like Alvy Singer I’m glad we got that out the way, now we can happily move on and not have that awkward moment when I announce my undying love for The Thing when you’re blatantly a Halloween kinda person. We’d pause, take an uncomfortable sip of our drinks and desperately try to catch the waiter’s eye for the bill.
But that won’t happen now so I can continue… There’s a terrifying sparseness to Carpenter’s early films that focuses his work supremely. Whatever genre he works in his minimalist approach exposes the core of the film, removing anything that doesn’t serve the story or the tone of the piece.
The Thing is a supremely simple story. 12 men, stationed in an Antarctic research station are picked off one by one by an alien creature that can mimic other life forms. That’s it, no fat, no excess, but all that space allows our minds to wander. With no explicit thematic target for the film to aim at, we start applying our own meaning, we start relating the groups spiralling paranoia to our own experience or whatever’s flavour of the month on the news, viruses, terrorists, religious fanatics, economic collapse, melting icecaps. That’s why I think, after initially terrible reviews, The Thing’s stock has risen. Like the beast itself it’s pretty damn difficult to kill, it transforms to suit the time, invisibly it becomes about us, about the world we live in and more than likely the next generation of film buffs will think exactly the same thing. We’re all infected.
But for all its political, biological, psychological subtext, it’s also great fun. It skips through genres without us even noticing; sci-fi, horror, whodunit, thriller, action, a surrogate western….and yes a siege film, Carpenter’s speciality; either defending…Assault on Precinct 13, Prince of Darkness, The Fog, Ghosts of Mars and to a degree Halloween, or attacking Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, the end of Vampires and They Live.
We’re scared but we daren’t look away because we might miss a clue because of all the genres it transforms into, horror is its most dominant. The horror genre, unlike nearly all others, has never been out of fashion. It may vary internally, but it’s always horror and although they may wear different disguises the root motifs very rarely differ. The Antarctic base is a haunted house, the beast in the men is a werewolf and they are picked off in true slasher style and so on.
In my opinion a horror film should be one or both of these things, scary and/or gory…I know I might be stating the obvious here, but in many horror films this simple factor is overlooked (Scream, ironically enough too busy telling us how much it knows about the horror genre, is neither). The Thing is supremely both. It’s scary in the ‘something jumping out on us’ way and even more effectively in the ‘slow, creeping terror’ way, that nerve jangling anticipation to nothing, which builds up unrealised fear in us like unused adrenaline shaking your muscles.
The camera creeping through the hallways, the men casting distrusting eyes on one another and the husky…Jesus the husky freaks me out. And it’s gory, so very gory, Rob Bottin must have dropped all the acid he could and spent a month in Gigers house reading Lovecraft to come up with what we see in the film. The creature effects are still unbeaten to this very day, you only need to watch the pointless, imagination void that’s the 2011 prequel to realise this. Bottin’s effects are actually there, a simple factor that adds a hypnotic terror to the gore. CGI’s lack of ‘physicalness’ is not its main flaw. It’s the fact that it’s usually applied so lazily, an easy fix. Let me say now I’m not anti-CGI retroist, there are some truly wonderful examples of CGI artistry, but usually used in perfect synchronisation with physical effects, production design, lighting, sound, a good script, etc etc to aid the film. I often find CGI’s not a team player. Anyway don’t take my word for it, go and watch the heart resuscitation sequence again. I’ll wait don’t worry………………………………..great isn’t it!
It looks real and feels real because it’s as close to real as a head pulling away from its body, sprouting legs and walking away possibly could be (and is also accompanied with one of my favourite lines in movie history, mainly because it’s so realistic and I won’t believe it wasn’t adlibbed, Palmer’s “You gotta be fucking kidding”) The characters too are sparse, but with barely an inkling of backstory we still root for them, distrust them, fear for them and even at times laugh at them (Garry’s rant while tied to the chair). Character here is formed by action and within the escalating paranoia, inaction. It’d be perfect if each copy of The Thing came with a memory erasing device so we could experience the film fresh each time; to join the men in their terrifying lack of knowledge.
In wonderfully atmospheric sequences we drift around the men, dwelling momentarily on each one as they lay suspicious eyes on one another, each one set out in a small pocket of light from the darkness behind them. It’s here we make our choice, who’re you siding with?