Wednesday, 6 November 2013

John Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy Review (Part One) - The Thing

1980's badassery in a nutshell.

The Thing
Directed by: Who else?
Written by: Bill Lancaster and John W. Campbell (Source Novel)
Distributed: Universal Pictures
Released: 26th August 1982
Genre: Sci-fi Horror, Body Horror
Rating: 18

Picture this: the year is 20XX and civilisation has long since collapsed. The cities lie in ruins, a harsh synth soundtrack highlights daily life, and society is ruled by two vicious metal-plate clad gangs: the Practical FX Crew and the CGI Wimps. The latter gang attack with imagined, intangible weapons and spout the virtues of Avatar, whilst the former are dedicated to forcing the heathens to revere their one true God - John Carpenter. Jesus, someone call Geneva and inform them that there are analogies being tortured.

When I look back on all the horror movies I've watched over the years, chances are my favourite at any given time was directed by John Carpenter. With a career spanning on and off forty years, the man not only knows horror - he embodies it. Whether it be: slasher (Halloween), body horror (The Thing), or even a twisted ghost story (The Fog), whatever Carpenter turns his hand to it usually ends up worshipped by some part of the horror community. In this series of reviews I will be focusing on his seminal Apocalypse Trilogy: three vaguely linked films (The Thing, Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness) from 1982, 1987 and 1995 respectively. And when I say vaguely linked I do mean it. Throughout there's a shared theme of unimaginable cosmic threats to humanity, but to say it's all connected is a bit of a leap; it's a bit Tarantino-esque really.

We'll start with The Thing.

Not that one.

It's usually at this point the cinema nerds will interject and proclaim, rather gloatingly: "You do know the film's a remake of the The Thing From Another World (1951), right?" True, but Christian Nyby's take is so far removed from the novella Who Goes There? and 1982 version, that people usually just treat it as a separate entity. Not a bad film in its own right, TTFAW is strange in that it's more of a creature feature than sci-fi horror; Nyby's vision of the Thing resembles something from an anti-chartist drawing. But I digress.

The Thing follows eleven researchers (and Kurt Russell) isolated in an Antarctic Research station for the winter. After an encounter with crazed Norwegian researchers the group uncover grisly goings on in the attackers' own base. There they make a remarkable discovery with the potential to affect all of mankind - a crashed UFO and alien corpse that's in worse condition than Cavity Sam. Naturally, the corpse is revealed to be a living nightmare; capable of self-replicating and polymorphism. With no means of communication, or escape, the men have no choice but to fight off this bizarre threat. Something which proves incredibly difficult given that their entire defence is limited to basic hunting weapons, utility tools (flamethrowers and dynamite) and harsh language.

Initially, this set up seems to be nothing more than a slasher with an icky coating. The researchers make poor decisions, wander off alone, and get picked off one by one; it's essentially what would happen if the citizens of Candy Land made Mr. Creosote their mayor.  But very early on we see how Carpenter and Lancaster utilise various aspects of the setting to combine the nuances of psychological horror with the visceral nature of body horror. There's a sense of isolation which runs throughout - the men are trapped in a remote wasteland, with absolutely no chance of outside assistance. The remoteness of the location, incredibly hazardous weather conditions (the crew are 'wintering over') and lack of comforts beyond the most basic, help to create an oppressive atmosphere even before the Thing appears. It explores similar territory to The Shining: showing how fragile the human psyche can be when there's nothing to take solace in. Where The Thing differs is that unofficial protagonist MacReady (Russell) is not alone during the story, and is able to take comfort in companionship - at least until distrust rears its ugly head. Because who can you trust when faced against a shapeshifting foe capable of replicating the personality of anyone it assimilates? I think they call that the Unabomber approach to social relations.

"So you see I didn't want to be a recluse, but aliens were trying to kill me..."

As the film progresses and the men begin to succumb to paranoia, we see the different ways it affects them: MacReady distrusts the others and thus is forced to be the self-reliant hero; Biologist Blair (Wilford Brimley) goes nuttier than the Nutty Professor in a Knutsford Nut Factory, destroying the base's vehicles and communications, whilst camp leader Garry (Donald Moffat) becomes rather fond of fondling his gun. It's similar to that most insidious of epistemological concepts - the Other Minds theory. The theory suggests that we can never definitively know if others experience life the same way as ourselves, or even exist beyond their bodies. We effectively see this play out here: the characters are able to identify one another, but there's no way for them to identify what's going on underneath the flesh. Leaving the team little recourse but to try and work out who is actually the monster. This ultimately leads to the infamous 'blood test' scene - the one that looks like an AIDs test performed by MacGyver.

Atmosphere has always been Carpenter's forte, and it really comes across in The Thing. And I'm not just talking about the aforementioned paranoia fuel. No, for me the opening half hour is the strongest. The opening scene with the surviving Norwegians chasing after the infected dog is remarkable. It throws the viewer right in, showing that something has gone desperately wrong but perhaps not exactly what we initially imagine. Set against the immense panorama of the Antarctic wasteland, the fevered chase sequence conveys a sense of helplessness in a place without hope. And if you were watching and still didn't feel the crushing oppression, then the baleful electronic score by Ennio Morricone surely will. Just listen to the main theme. For me it evokes notions of forbidden knowledge and perfectly highlights what is to come.

"It's like a night out in Leeds, only far less disgusting..."

At heart the movie is a mystery. Important details are deliberately withheld: we never fully understand what the Thing is. Blair is able to identify that it's essentially a collection of self-serving cells, able to spread, adapt and multiply; but there's no grand revelation as to the true nature of the monstrosity. The assumption of what it is and where it came from is left to us to decide. In the opening scene we see the UFO crash land, which could be said to be either the Thing's own craft or some unlucky alien bastard's. Again, Carpenter refuses to elaborate. For those who enjoy being spoon-fed this will undoubtedly be frustrating, but I personally consider this to be a good thing. A good mystery will hand us pieces of the story and allow us to draw our own conclusions. 

People often mistake ambiguity for bad storytelling, but this isn't necessarily the case. It is possible for a cohesive narrative to leave room for interpretation; you only need to look at Jacob's Ladder or Silent Hill 2 for proof of this. In The Thing, it's not important that we are shown exactly what happened to those misshapen broken corpses in the Norwegian base, nor do we need to know why the creature came to Earth. How we interpret the details doesn't change the story, but gives it a personal touch. Which is one of the reasons why the prequel is held with such disdain; there's little point in explaining a back story fans have had thirty years to mull over. 

It should be no surprise then that the most enjoyable aspect of the movie is the men's efforts to solve the mystery. The sections spent in the Norwegian base investigating the carnage and strange findings are ominous and fraught with tension; becoming more compelling in hindsight as we discover history is, in effect, repeating itself. The team's efforts to root out the infected, and the creature's own guerilla tactics feels like they're taken straight out of an espionage thriller. There's a war of wills being waged, a sense of the Thing playing the men of against one themselves; which is contrasted brilliantly with the all out assault of the horror scenes. A monster which prefers to plan its manoeuvres  to exploit its environment and the mindsets of its victims is depressingly unique in a slasher style film. Jason Voorhees and his ilk will have already disembowelled, skinned and turned you into a fleshy wank cloth before you had chance to get the chess board out. 

To this end the main cast are all well portrayed. The late great Roger Ebert criticised the film for poor characterisation, but I don't think that's the case at all. It's no Raging Bull and I wouldn't say that any of the characters are particularly memorable, but they come across as real people dealing with an impossible situation in a realistic way. Over the course of the film the strain wears on them: they make illogical choices, turn on each other, and even become distrustful. Which is of course how someone is expected to act under such duress.  Windows (Thomas G Waites) losing the keys, ultimately allowing the Thing to sabotage the blood, feels like a believable mistake one would make. As does the highly competent MacReady employing guilty until proven innocent techniques on his colleagues. And for a horror film what more could you ask? The way the characters develop is relevant to the story being told, and for a claustrophobic body horror piece it works just fine.

However, one thing which can prove particularly jarring is the lack of female characters. There's technically one female presence in the entire movie: the AI in the Chess game, portrayed by Carpenter's then wife Adrienne Barbeau. And even then the computer is destroyed five minutes in by MacReady, in what can be described as an incredibly symbolic move. It's fitting in with the tone of the story: a gloomy, hopeless fight to the death has no place for emotional attachments. Which is not to say that female characters have to be two dimensional plot points but, generally speaking, the inclusion of women in horror is done purely to add emotional investment and additional 'motivation' for the male protagonist. A respectable critic would probably try to draw allusions between the lack of feminine influence and the men's reliance on brutality at the cost of reason and civility. But my name's Iron Criterion and not Molly fecking Haskell, so you're getting a dick joke instead: there's more hanging sausage in The Thing than at Lincoln Sausage Festival.

They are taking extreme measures to resolve their lack of female contact.

In fact the story is so undedicated to providing closure that many have tried to apply different interpretations of it over the years: some portray the Thing as a cultural invader (Communism, Immigration) trying to smash down the boundaries of American culture and force them to conform. Others still, see it as an allegory for the largely unspoiled continent of Antarctica defending itself against the encroaching influence of humankind. That's all well and good, but I prefer to view it as one of the coolest men of 80's cinema (Russell, obviously) facing off against a creature which resembles a Kraken put in a tumble dryer.  The plot is pretty nonsensical at the best times, with a multitude of threads which are left unresolved, like: who destroyed the blood samples, who was the shadow on the wall, what happened to Fuchs and why certain characters end up disappearing then reappearing (see Childs for an example). So it's only natural that people like to end up elaborating on these little ambiguities. Even if they come up with some absolute tripe.

One thing I've always appreciated about The Thing is how good it still looks; which is surprising because films from the era usually had a shelf life of about five years. Effects artists Rob Bottin and his team clearly had a ball designing the monster's various forms, and there are so many memorable set pieces in the movie. Take the Dog Thing for example: designed by legend Stan Winston, it's a grisly collection of dog corpses, writhing tentacles and twisted limbs. The creature's entire scene is highly effective, and you do share the characters' shock and revulsion as you see this unholy amalgamation of forms for the first time. And of course, I simply must mention the infamous Norris Head Spider scene. Everything about the sequence is an absolute master class in body horror: Norris' chest opening up into mouth like orifice ripping off Cooper's arms, the huge multi-limbed form that pulls itself out of his chest, and even Norris' head ripping itself from the body and spouting spider-like legs. It's simply amazing; each set piece is designed to show the Thing as this impossible, living organism desperately trying to survive.

"Hello madam. Do you have time to talk about our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ?"

In my opinion, The Thing still stands head and shoulders above most CGI reliant movies. Knowing what we see on the screen was actually in front of the actors really adds to film's sense of horror. And even though some of the animatronics and stop motion are starting to look a little ropey, it's not particularly immersion breaking. In fact, I'd go as far to say that the peculiarities in the special effects add to the general strangeness of the Thing; something which can't be done with pristine, immaculately designed CGI creations. The best way to witness this is to directly compare the 1982 film with its 2011 prequel.  It's not a bad film, but the computer enhancements completely overshadow the otherwise fantastic practical effects, leaving it looking pretty artificial. To paraphrase Shakespeare's Sonnet 130: "Practical effects may not be the prettiest, but CGI looks like complete arse."

Of the films in the Apocalypse Trilogy, The Thing is perhaps the most well known. It wasn't a success in the box office, but it did open against Blade Runner which is like competing against Usain Bolt in the Arrogant Twat Olympics. Oh, and it has been suggested that ET - which was released two weeks earlier - apparently had some effect on the film's performance; because I guess people wanted to believe that aliens would rather wipe us out via overbearingly offbeat antics than through painful absorption. Time was recommending it to people was like admitting you're the vice-chairman of the Royal Society for Goat Bumming; but since the mid 90s it has been vindicated by a resurgence in popularity, remaining highly regarded by sci-fi and horror fans alike. Aside from the fantastic effects and atmosphere, the film is probably best remembered for its incredibly nihilistic ending (base destroyed, MacReady and Childs almost definitely set to freeze to death).

The most extraordinary thing about the ending is its ability to still ignite passionate debates amongst fans, some thirty years later. Is the Thing dead? Has it assimilated MacReady? How about Childs (Keith David)? It's infuriatingly ambiguous, and will probably never be answered - which is, quite frankly, delightful. The last scene is haunting: both men know they are certain to die and thusly try to spend their final hours forging an uneasy alliance, despite an intense distrust of each other. MacReady and Childs are lost (both physically and metaphorically), and by ending with no definitive answer the film leaves us just as lost. Oh, what's that: Heijningen's prequel pretty much resolved this? Would you like to know how I feel about the: 'creature is unable to replicate metal, therefore cannot be Childs,' theory?


So, Should You See It?

Absolutely yes. It's a resoundingly bleak movie fuelled by 'mature' aspects like paranoia and nihilism. The gruesome special effects have held up rather nicely, so if you've never seen it before you're in for a delightfully uncomfortable experience; just like the time Sam Beckett Quantum Leaped into an armless double amputee with an unending itch. 

Poor bastard.
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