Tuesday, March 26, 2013

John Carpenter: The Thing

Every Halloween, I end the night with a “comfort food” type of horror film. Films like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Beyond, Suspiria, The Church, Psycho, or Alien may not be considered the best horror films (although most on that list certainly qualify), but they make for a nice, familiar end to the night. Another film I often consider to end the night on is John Carpenter’s brilliant science-fiction/horror hybrid The Thing. Ask me on the right day, and I might even tell you that I like The Thing more than Halloween. While Halloween — as we’ve already discussed in this retrospectiveembodies everything that is great about the horror genre and is pretty much the perfect horror movie, The Thing, however, adds another, more cerebral, layer to both the horror and sci-fi genre. There are moments throughout The Thing that are so perfectly executed — that so expertly showcase the bleak tone and evoke such a perfect tone of dread — that I could be convinced that I’m looking at a more complete and complex (and yes better) film than Halloween.

The “complete and complex” part is easy to see, for Halloween is a horror stripped to its most simplistic elements — a boogeyman stalks its prey. The Thing, though, adds the element of paranoia to an entrapped group. We’ve already seen in numerous Carpenter films (Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13 most notably) that he loves the Hawksian theme of a group in close quarters facing some kind of outside threat, and it is executed to perfection in The Thing. The film opens with a beautiful aerial shot of a dog running through the snow. As the Norwegians in the helicopter frantically discuss their play to get the dog, the viewer very briefly thinks they’re simply just trying to retrieve their lost dog in this vast, expansive landscape. But, we soon see that the Norwegians in the helicopter are actually trying to kill the dog, which is an alien having reawaken from the snow taking the shape of the dog. When the helicopter lands outside of the American Antarctic research camp, it explodes. Curious as to what just landed on their doorstep, a few of the researchers inside, led by pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) decide to fly over to the Norwegian camp to see what the deal is.

As they arrive at the camp, they come across an eerily quiet camp before realizing that all of the members of the camp have been killed. Upon their return to the base, the dog — having been caged — is going crazy, and as the research team looks on, it sprouts tentacles and begins morphing into a grotesque alien creature before being burned.  Of course, things are never that easy, and as a part of the alien escapes that cage, it begins to latch onto and overtake human form. And so it begins: the research team—and the viewer — are never sure which member of the team the alien has morphed into as the trust of this small, isolated community quickly deteriorates.

The idea of an evolving extraterrestrial was, obviously, not new at the time. Alien, released by Fox three years earlier, introduced audiences to the idea with their Xenomorph alien creature. and Universal — no doubt wanting to capitalize on the success of Ridley Scott’s slasher in space — believed they had their man in Carpenter to create a bigger, more intense (and profitable) version of Alien. The Thing (and Alien, too) is essentially an 80 minute version of Hitchcock’s example — in the essential text Hitchcock by Truffaut — of the difference between surprise and suspense. In the book, Hitchcock explains a scenario where two separate audiences watch the same film, but in one film the audience is privy to a bomb under a table whereas the second audience doesn’t know about the bomb. In this scenario, the audiences view the scene very differently. The first audience sits in suspense wondering when that bomb is going to off, perhaps altering everything they interpret in that moment. The second audience has no idea the bomb is there, so they will view the scene in an entirely different way until the bomb goes off, giving them a jolt.

The Thing is tremendous at introducing its “bomb” relatively early in the way it lets the audience fret over who is the alien because we know fairly early on in the proceedings that at least one of these guys has to be an alien. The audience is just never quite sure — like the entire research team — who it is, and it makes for a great paranoid thriller as well as a viscerally violent and jolting horror film. Whether you’re a viewer that prefers horror that surprises you (or a better word these days may be “shock”) or keeps you in suspense, one of the brilliant things about The Thing is that it has both in spades. Carpenter balances the two here better than in any other film he made; it’s really quite the feat.

Kurt Russell is great (once again) as MacReady. It’s probably my favorite Russell performance in a Carpenter film. It’s kind of a sneaky-good performance, too. On the surface, there doesn’t seem like there’s a lot for Russell to do in The Thing. It’s not as showy as Snake Plissken, and it’s not as big and campy and fun as his performance in Big Trouble in Little China, but it’s steady and Russell says so much with his face throughout the film. We can see the hopelessness in MacReady’s face. He has a plan, sure, but so what; what’s the point of having a plan in a situation that laughs in the face of such things. There’s a moment in The Thing where MacReady is recording his thoughts on killing the alien (pictured above), and there’s just this look of “so what?” on his face — a sign that there’s no way these men return the same after this ordeal, so, in a sense, they’ve already lost. Bleak, indeed. The rest of the cast is up to the task, too. Great character actors like Donald Moffat and Keith David are standouts here as is Wilford Brimley; it’s another example of Carpenter’s mastery with ensemble casts, especially those comprised of great character actors.

Teaming up once again with cinematographer Dean Cundey, Carpenter creates what is arguably his most atmospheric film. The long empty corridors throughout the research center or the snow-shrouded exterior shots have an eerie emptiness to them — as if we’re just waiting for something to jump out at us. But Carpenter, as per usual, is more interested in keeping his scares quietly (the one thing we can always appreciate about Carpenter is that he doesn't give you a cheap jolt with music stings) in the background (see the aforementioned screengrab), and, yes, there are a lot of upfront scares (the defibrillator scene is standout in Carpenter’s oeuvre), but these long, “empty” shots get to the heart of what Carpenter is really going for here: existential dread. Adding to that, I like how Carpenter builds tension with the use of fade out/fade in transitions that suggest a very unspecific passage of time; the story could be taking place in the typical 24-48 hour time frame Carpenter loves to set his stories in, or it could be much, much longer. Oh, sure, when it’s all said and done The Thing is a “just” a scary movie, but at times it feels like so much more. Leave aside for a moment the great effects shots and scares and simply look at The Thing as an exercise in cerebral horror — the film where the audience knows the bomb is under the table is just waiting for it to go off.  Here, the bomb is in the shape of 12 men trapped in a research center, unsure of who really is human.

The almost unbearable tension throughout is best represented by the scene where MacReady — after being left for dead on the outside — returns to prove that he isn’t the alien and to prove who is. The “blood sample” scene is so well constructed; it goes down as one of the very best moments Carpenter ever filmed. As the camera observes (quietly, it must be stated, as Carpenter and legendary composer Ennio Morricone know that a scene this tense needs to be observed in silent suspense, and they wisely use silence to their advantage throughout the film) the action, the audience (aware of the bomb under the table, to continue the metaphor) has been conditioned to believe, through a variety of horror tropes, that the person who is actually the alien is Garry (Moffat). And so we wait for the moment where MacReady tests Garry’s blood and reveals that he is indeed the alien. However, Carpenter is brilliant in how he gives us the jolt before we ever expect it. So, in essence, he has given us in one shot the suspense and the surprise.

There are countless scenes throughout The Thing that give the viewer a feeling of dread — both cerebral and visceral — and Carpenter and effects man Rob Bottin (with an assist from Stan Winston) do a great job of making scary what Carpenter called “just a piece of rubber.” Again, it’s a different kind of dread than is found in Halloween. Here, the dread is in the distrust of the community. There’s something deflating about how the longer the ordeal goes on, the more likely these people will never trust each other, leading to these men making some really stupid decisions ("Trust is a hard thing to come by these days” is one of the most telling lines from the film). Because of the more cerebral aspects of the film, the visceral jolts compound the suspense instead of rendering them moot with “look at me” theatrics. Certainly the “piece of rubber” is a thing to behold in how they pulled it off in 1982, but it never once overshadows the ultimate tone Carpenter is reaching for.

It all leads to one of the bleakest, most nihilistic endings Carpenter ever conceived. And it’s this ending that did the film in. A happier ending — with MacReady being rescued and having his blood tested to prove he wasn’t an alien — was filmed (at the suggestion of his editor, who rightly predicted that audiences wouldn’t go for such an ambiguously dark ending), but Carpenter didn’t use it. He preferred the bleaker coda to the film; an ending that suggests that MacCready or the only other surviving member of the group Childs (David) could also be the alien, and the only remedy is for the two of them to wait things out — no doubt freezing to death in the process. It’s a helluva an ending that is a great punch to the gut, but it’s easy to see why in the same year as E.T. (released by the same studio, too), The Thing — even though making a slight profit at the box office — was considered a failure.

At first, Carpenter didn’t quite get why horror fans shit all over his film. Perhaps the paranoid tone of the film went over their heads. Perhaps they weren’t ready for such a nihilistic ending in what came across as nothing more than a mere creature feature. Whatever the reason, the filmmaker was perplexed that audiences were unresponsive to the type of film he thought they were asking for. Again, Carpenter’s theories about having a monster in your movie (previously discussed when I tackled The Fog where he talked about putting the monsters “under lights”) is that if you can, you should show it. And Carpenter achieves something remarkable in how he’s able to make the monster an impressive effect and make a cerebral horror film; it’s the best of both worlds. So, yeah, it is a bit weird that the film was such a financial flop. E.T. may have had something to do with (people seemed to want friendlier aliens in their multiplexes), and it certainly had something to do with his odd choice of making the benign Starman. Had The Thing been released a few years earlier, it’s likely that more people (not just die hard horror fans) talk about it in the same way many now talk about Alien.

The film was the first major studio assignment for Carpenter. On the surface, it seemed like a home run: here the man who loves Howard Hawks more than any filmmaker gets the chance to remake one of his more famous genre productions. But the lack of continuity in crew from Carpenter’s previous films may have soured him on the big studio films. It’s still a “John Carpenter film” (he would never cede that), but it’s the first film where he didn’t write the script, compose the music, and work with his usual tight-knit crew. Some of those things are expected with a big studio film as the director’s duties are ratcheted up significantly on a studio picture. But Carpenter never seemed to be the same after The Thing. Because of the film’s “failures,” he wasn’t able to adapt the Stephen King film he wanted to make (Firestarter, which ended up going to Mark L. “Commando” Lester, so that tells you a little something about how the studio felt about Carpenter after The Thing) and was instead given a “lesser” King adaptation in Christine.  The Thing, thanks to home video, enjoyed a huge resurgence as not just a cult hit but as a major horror film and is now (rightfully) considered one of Carpenter’s best films.


  1. I, like many, worship this movie and I do believe it´s Carpenter´s BEST. This is a great post on a great movie. Carpenter may have peaked with this but he made some great movies after this one, shame that they all more or less flopped...God, would have loved to see John Carpenter´s Firestarter.

    1. Yeah, I would have loved to have seen that version of Firestarter as well. I think I agree with you that this was Carpenter's peak. My only hesitation is my out-and-out love for Big Trouble in Little China. I have also yet to see Prince of Darkness (I've heard good things), and I really love Ghosts of Mars. So, even though I would never say those movies are as good as The Thing, I still think (and hope with Prince of Darkness that he had a lot going on with those films.

      Thanks for checking this out and for the kind words. I appreciate it!

  2. I saw this during its initial run and while I considered myself a fan of Carpenter and willing to go with him almost anywhere, the shifts in tone, from small Hawksian chamberpiece to extravagant monster/FX setpieces, did not mesh together, certainly not at the time, as they seem to since - perhaps because we have become used to extravagant FX and crazy action beats since then from Hollywood. The out-there state-of-the-art effects undermined the paranoia and atmosphere, similar to your comments re "The Fog."

    The film no doubt has been influential and is a shaggy-dog favorite of mine in a kitchen-sink "Never seen anything like this" kind of way. But back in 1982 it wasn't that the film was bleak or paranoid. That was fine with us SF and JC fans. I remember thinking Carpenter didn't demonstrate the measured control of his craft he usually did and that "The Thing" was too much and yet not enough, trying too hard and not sure of what it wanted to be.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. I agree.
      When the film first came I felt the effects was too much 'over the top', esp compared to Alien.
      But it still bears rewatching.


    2. Interesting, Roger. I actually thought the "small" and "extravagant" mixed really well here. The thing that bothered me about The Fog was the editing at the end. Carpenter decided to cross-cut his best setpiece (the lighthouse radio station) with the goofiest part of his story (Hal Holbrook's priest). It didn't mesh for me. I think it was because the whole film had been nothing but atmosphere, leaving whatever was in the fog to the viewer's imagination. Whereas rather early in The Thing Carpenter tips his hand rather early with the dog scene. So we know there's an alien, we know that the terror in the movie is going to be effects driven, and we know that at any moment the alien could spring itself on the members of the research team.

      I like that aspect of The Thing, and I think that it's a totally different film than The Fog, which is a film that primarily works on what is not seen whereas The Thing's paranoia works because of what we have seen. I think his ability to balance the FX and the paranoid atmosphere shows Carpenter at the top of his game.

      Thanks for the comment, Roger!

    3. Anon @ 4:21:

      Hmmm. Do you think people think that had The Thing come first. I realize that Alien is a masterpiece; however, are the effects (shock moments) in Scott's film more toned down than what Carpenter did? That's what I always find interesting about the backlash against The Thing. People call it over-the-top in its gore and effects, but I don't see how the defibrillator scene, for example, is any more shocking than the chest burster.

      And, as Carpenter would say, they're both films that essentially use "pieces of rubber" to try and make things scary.

  3. Great post! I love this film. It's one of the few remakes where I love the remake as much as the original -- though I did see it after bleak endings became more "in" and it wasn't so much of a jolt. Bleak just wasn't done in 1982, and I think Blade Runner suffered some of the same backlash The Thing did. Though why Escape from New York, er, escaped the criticism so much is beyond me, perhaps because it wasn't as bleak, and as you said, was very much in the vein of films like Death Wish and so had more popular appeal.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Stacia! Always great to have you around in the comments section. I like your observation about Blade Runner suffering the same fate. Yeah, I think Escape from New York is more hip, counter-culture cynicism than existential dread. It has a bleak setting, sure, but it's all under the guise of a Rock 'n Roll neo-western. Plus, Plissken's wry awareness of how shitty things are makes for a different viewing experience than MacReady's weariness and hopelessness over what's happening inside the research center.

  4. A friend and I get into semi-frequent arguments about whether Halloween or The Thing is Carpenter's best movie (they are, for both of us, Nos. 1 & 2). I fall on the Halloween side, as I think it is more perfect: not a cut out of place, flawless use of music, good clean script. But where he always gets me, and I cannot deny, is that The Thing is more "effective" - it hits harder on a more primal level. Even as I am largely unmoved by gory movies these days, this is still one of the very few that consistently hits me right where I live.

    My point being, great job digging into the way that it works on that half-intellectual, half-visceral level, and I have to say that as much as you've been knocking it out of the park with these Carpenter pieces, this is the best one yet.

    1. Yup. It's a debate my brother and I have often, too. I usually fall on the side of Halloween, as well, because of its flawlessly simple premise. I also think it's more impressive how he took the low budget of Halloween and made it look just as elegant as The Thing. But, yes, you're right: The Thing is so much more of a punch to the gut. Halloween is that kind of horror film that exhilarates in how wonderfully executed and restrained it is. I still find myself giddy after a viewing of Halloween; I find myself in a very different (more contemplative, maybe?) mood after watching The Thing.

      If I were to separate my "comfort food" horror movies into a dichotomy, I suppose Alien, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Suspiria would fall into one category and something like The Beyond and The Thing would fall into the other. The first group is a set of films where I enjoy the ride they take me on. There's a certain giddiness to watching those narratives (and the scares or impressive setpieces contained in those films) unfold. I enjoy being unnerved or scared by them time and time again...and it's usually an unnerving or scaring that wears off immediately after watching the film.

      The second category (and I'm sure there are other horror films we could add to this list) stays with me much longer. The mood and the visceral gore are something not easily forgotten (especially the Fulci). It's a different kind of "comfort," I suppose -- a different kind of "good scared."

      Anyway. I don't know if any of that made sense. But there ya have it. Thanks for the kind words, Tim. It's nice to know that people are enjoying these pieces. I can't promise quality on the next two...I suppose it has something to do with the movies I'll be talking about, hehe.

  5. Only wish Carpenter would take another look at this, or any of his early films, trust his instincts, and make another film with the same level of passion and heart. Unfortunately, I think the failure of THE THING broke his. Like maybe he doesn't want to share his true feelings with us anymore, without the snarky, self-effacing humor that plagues ESCAPE FOR L.A., VAMPIRES, GHOSTS OF MARS, etc. IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, which I really like, could have been a classic sans that niggling sense the director wasn't really taking all this crap seriously. Such a shame.

    1. I think he did with Ghosts of Mars. I know I'm in the minority on that one, and, yes, that film is much more cynical than '80s stuff, but I think he put just as much energy and effort into Ghosts than he did in The Thing. So it's no wonder he felt really, really burnt out when Ghosts bombed. But yes, he has an attitude now where sure, he'll talk about his old films if you pay him for an appearance. I saw an interview with him after The Ward had been released, and all he talked about was how he hated the process of making movies. All he wanted to do was be at home playing his Xbox. The sense that he isn't taking anything seriously is an interesting recurring theme that I'll talk a lot about when we get to those films you mentioned. I agree with you that it could be argued that his attitudes towards all things movies post-The Thing can be attributed to how the film was so poorly received. You see it big time in his next two films, Christine and Starman: this is a man phoning it in. But thankfully Big Trouble in Little China and They Live re-energized him.

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. Yeah........Carpenter at the top of his game........in fact I'll go as far as to say that "The Thing" is at the top of just about any horror director's game! The tension and the special effects in this film is and are purely astonishing. I wonder what Rob Bottin ( the FX maestro) is doing now?
    Check out the DVD special features on Mr Bottin......he is a wacky guy........I guess you have to be to do this kinda stuff. I truly hope his make-up and FX skills are still used in some format. He is a genius!