See It Big: The Thing

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L’enfer
Julien Allen on The Thing

John Carpenter’s lifelong—and let it be said, entirely healthy—obsession with Howard Hawks found its outlet in this gutsy, technically remarkable remake of Hawks’s 1951 science-fiction classic The Thing from Another World. This project saw Carpenter afforded a sizeable studio budget, once the runaway success of Halloween had been concretized by solid returns from The Fog and Escape from New York. As the short making-of documentary Terror Takes Shape testifies, his creativity stretched every penny to breaking point, working as he was with physical effects throughout, in ghastly polar conditions. Tragically torpedoed at the box office by that other 1982 monster movie, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the film flopped, only to mutate thereafter into one of the first veritable VHS cult classics.

Reinstating The Thing to its rightful place on a (very) big screen in its original Panavision wide format will allow audiences to appreciate two somewhat contradictory but fairly pivotal aspects of the film: firstly Carpenter’s ability to fill a big screen with small things; secondly—and more demonstrably—the virtuosic coloratura work of his special makeup effects designer, Rob Bottin. Unlike in the 1924 Phantom of the Opera, where the terror begins and ends with the indelible image of Lon Chaney’s unmasked face, there are many unforgettable coups de théâtre created by Bottin in The Thing which are by turn disgusting, bewildering, sickening, shocking—and often completely hilarious—but not actually scary. If anything, these magnificent plastic pyrotechnics operate as a welcome release from what is truly horrific about The Thing . . . and that’s not knowing what it is that you’re really afraid of.

The Thing is not just an unnerving title: by its nature, the enemy, a corrosive alien organism which kills and replicates its prey, has no distinct face or personality of its own—a “conquer and survive” motivation is initially ascribed to it, but it defies any description (its first appearance is as a dog, leading the audience to conclude that the man shooting at the dog has gone insane); hence we hear impotent references throughout to “that . . . thing.” It only exists, visually, as either a complete replication of one of the characters (as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or more often, a repulsive glistening abortion of its own attempt to replicate. And while Body Snatchers was very quick to define the threat by reference to a familiar concept of global paranoia, The Thing—if we discount Wilford Brimley’s character being driven mad by the premonition of the monster incubating and destroying every human on earth—is really just haunted house drama, amplified and contained. Its impact depends on an extremely narrow field of sympathy, for doomed protagonists in a closed room of terror. If Carpenter really believed that it represented “the beginning of the end of the world” (contrast E.T., which hinted that our little lives hadn’t seen anything yet), that might have had more to do with what it said about humanity than the prospect of monsters taking over.

The primary aim of each character, confined to an Antarctic base and cut off from the outside world by a snowstorm, is his own immediate survival. For this, each man needs to work out who he can trust to help him. But if you don’t know what it is you’re afraid of, then by definition you’re afraid of everything. Once the essence of the danger is established as the possibility that any character might be “infected,” the film becomes a thrilling reimagining of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, wherein we discover that the protagonists, trapped in a sterile room with only one another for company, are actually in Hell.

The close-quarters horror brings out the Hawks in Carpenter, focusing as it does in a deliberately heightened and “mainstream” way on the unavoidable complexities of human interaction. Characters who rubbed each other the wrong way at the outset are suddenly thrust together, loners in the group are singled out as suspects early; this all culminates in an unbearably tense dialogue/action scene wherein John J MacReady (Kurt Russell, who is no more trusted than anyone else, but who has the presence of mind to go first dibs on the flame thrower) rope-ties all the survivors onto a bench and tests blood samples from each of them to try and trigger a defensive reaction from whoever is the Thing, all while the trussed victims bark their innocence, resentment, and fear at him. The satisfaction one derives from this sequence is in the absolute impossibility for the audience to relate properly to any of the protagonists—it’s a gruesome cloistered version of Ten Little Indians, offering a conveyor belt of corpses, but with the added twist that the killer changes into the victim on each occasion.

Sartre’s famous aphorism from No Exit: “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (“Hell is other people”) is widely misunderstood as a nihilistic view of human relations, when it was really intended to denote the torture of existing only through others’ opinions of you (the ‘room’ in No Exit famously has no mirror). By channeling Sartre through Hawks, Carpenter makes us sympathize more strongly with characters because they are not trusted than because they are about to be emasculated, which considering the unbridled lack of restraint exhibited in the set pieces, is no small accomplishment on the director’s part.

So what of these “other people”? Here is where Carpenter seems to have taken inspiration directly from Ridley Scott’s Alien (a film which itself owes a huge debt back to Carpenter’s postmodern futuristic vision, Dark Star), by having his cast of characters comprise a group of ostensibly unremarkable, and even somewhat tedious, male scientists. Viewed simply as a smorgasbord ready for consumption, they are as far removed from genre stereotypes as possible (apart from a computer which talks with Adrienne Barbeau’s discombobulated voice, there are no women for starters—exceptional for a Carpenter film, let alone a horror, and a huge derogation from his Hawksian approach). But he takes it even further: respected theatrical character actors Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat, and Peter Maloney are among the collection of nerds all easily brushed aside by Russell’s MacReady when it comes to getting serious about engaging with—and destroying—the Thing. Though these straight bats, rather like Gregory Peck in The Omen or indeed Donald Pleasance in Halloween, seem cast to add credibility, they will all be violently transformed into some of the most joyously repulsive entities in horror cinema—comic relief from the taut cheese-wire atmosphere of distrust and fear is provided by sheer graphic implausibility. Just as Veronica Cartwright’s face in the chest-bursting scene in Alien is reported to have been ascribed to the actress’s genuine discomfort upon viewing the effect for the first time, when Thomas Waites, on seeing Charles Hallahan’s disembodied head grow arachnoid legs, turn upside down and scuttle out of the door in silence, says: “You have gotta be fucking kidding,” it’s hard to imagine the line didn’t originate from one of the cast or crew on first surveying that particular spectacle. He says what we’re all thinking, for sure.

The Thing is playing October 27 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the series See It Big, co-presented by Reverse Shot.