Friday, August 04, 2017

John Carpenter Revisited: THE THING (1982)

Art by Christopher Shy (www.studioronin.com)
A few weeks ago, I got to see John Carpenter’s THE THING in 70mm at The Egyptian Theater in Hollywood.  Although I’ve probably seen the film at least a dozen times over the years, it still managed to surprise me.    

The first thing that really jumped out at me this time around was in the sound design.  The 70mm print was accompanied by a six-track stereo mix, and I would swear that the wind had its own designated track.  I’ve always admired the spare score and minimalist sound design of THE THING, but this time I could practically feel the arctic wind in my bones. 

The second thing that struck me was just how gooey this film is.  I know, I know—nothing new there.  But for some reason, I suddenly understood why audiences in the summer of 1982 had such a visceral reaction to the film.  Personally, I’ve always paid more attention to the shape of The Thing—the way it fills a frame—than to the slime coming off of it.  This time, however, I really focused on the slime—the way it caught the light, the way it moved.  Now I can understand why some critics have said that THE THING is a movie about the AIDS virus.  Certainly, it’s a film that inspires revulsion at the sight of bodily fluids.

When I started thinking about what film I’d pair with THE THING on a double bill this week, I was leaning toward a classic monster movie.  THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD was the obvious choice.  That film is a personal favorite of Carpenter’s, and it was directed by his hero Howard Hawks.  It was also the nominal inspiration for Carpenter’s THE THING—although the two films are very different beasts.  Hawks’ film is a xenophobic Cold War thriller about a humanoid alien that drinks blood.  Carpenter’s film is more faithful to the John W. Campbell source story, about a shape-shifting entity that attacks like a virus.

James Arness in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD
Carpenter has said that the essence of his film is in the “blood test” scene, which was imported from Campbell’s novella.  That scene is what drives home the film’s central theme of mistrust and paranoia, and that theme is what makes THE THING particularly relevant to the time in which it was made.  The director later explained: “Not only can we not trust that we don’t have diseases or that we’re not some sort of killer inside, but we also don’t trust each other, in general, because of skin color or ideology.  I think it’s a film that’s as true to its time as Hawks’ version in 1951 was true to its time.”

Digging a little deeper, Carpenter has cited the Hammer film QUATERMASS 2 (released in the U.S. under the title ENEMY FROM SPACE) as a major influence on THE THING.  Some critics sum up QUATERMASS 2 by calling it a British INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS—but the film is much more innovative than that lazy description implies.  In QUATERMASS 2, alien pods are launched from a secret government “moon base” outside of London.  When people in the surrounding area touch them, the pods burst and spread a dehumanizing infection.  The main sign that a person has been infected is a small flesh wound, usually on the face or neck.  Once infected, people essentially become “zombies,” mentally enslaved by some kind of alien force.

In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, a man is subjected to a particularly high dose of the infecting agent, and it turns him into a horrifically wet and sticky-looking Tar Man.  He runs around screaming, “Don’t touch me!”  The makeup is cheap but it’s still an effective scene.  I found myself practically screaming at the hero of the film (who for some reason casually kneels next to this hideous looking man, as if to give him a hug), “Don’t touch him!” 

Eventually, the film visualizes its “thing from another world” as a kind of BLOB-like Garbage-Monster.  According to one of the scientists in the film, the thing is a composite of “tiny [alien] creatures that can join together and expand into things a hundred feet high.”  Again I say: The imagery is a bit silly—but it sticks with you (no pun intended), because it’s just so damn weird.  Carpenter’s movie, with its infinitely more sophisticated effects, works for the same reason: You just can’t believe what you’re seeing.  That’s why I’m sticking with my claim that QUATERMASS 2 is a bigger influence on Carpenter's film than THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. 


But it’s still not the film that I decided to pair with THE THING this week.  Instead, I chose David Cronenberg’s RABID, which is another modern horror classic about trust and goo.  I recently re-watched a roundtable interview that Mick Garris hosted in 1981 with John Landis, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, and it solidified—for me—the connection between these two films.  At the time of the four-way interview, Carpenter had just completed THE THING and Cronenberg was working on VIDEODROME.  Simply put, these guys were at the top of their game.  It was the heyday of gooey monsters—guys like Dick Smith, Tom Savini, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin were kings—and guys like Carpenter and Cronenberg were giving them opportunities to push the boundaries of horror cinema.  No hyperbole there.  These filmmakers weren’t just creating horror imagery that no one had ever seen before; they were creating horror imagery that still has not been topped, thirty-five years later.


In my mind, this interview marks the crest of a high and beautiful wave.    Carpenter was about to unleash the king-daddy of all horror movie monsters—and I submit that he was doing it at least partly in response to the truly nightmarish (and equally brilliant) visions of filmmaker David Cronenberg, who had just blown everyone’s mind with SCANNERS.  Years later, in a behind-the-scenes featurette for THE FOG, producer Debra Hill talked about how she and Carpenter had been forced to re-think THE FOG because of films like SCANNERS: “John and I were always big fans of ‘what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see.’  But the idea was that audiences wanted to see more guts, they wanted to see more gore.”  After THE FOG, Carpenter went all-in on Cronenberg’s philosophy of horror, which he sums up succinctly in that 1981 roundtable interview: “I don’t think there’s anything that should not be shown in films.”


RABID is not David Cronenberg’s best film, but it’s an exceptionally good exploitation movie—and, in my opinion, a damn good companion and counterpoint to THE THING.  Both films are about fast-spreading viral infections that threaten the foundations of civilized society and the survival of the human species.  At the same time, the characters and environments in these films could not be more different.  In RABID, patient zero is a highly sexualized woman (played by a famous porn star, no less) who seduces her victims in a populated city, and unknowingly infects them.  Her victims don’t know she’s dangerous, so they practically invite her to attack. 

In THE THING, patient zero could be any one of a number of men trapped together at an all-male research outpost; everyone is afraid of being attacked by anyone... and there’s not going to be any foreplay.  I’m sure someone has written about Carpenter’s film as a metaphor for homosexual panic, and I know Carpenter himself has suggested that one possible reason for the film’s commercial failure was the absence of women and sexuality.  Perhaps he didn’t know the exploitation movie audience quite as well as Cronenberg did—but he obviously knew how to make a genuinely terrifying monster movie.

Today, there’s no getting around the fact that THE THING is one of the greatest horror films ever made.  So why did audiences in 1982 respond negatively?  I’ll submit this theory: It’s been said that horror is about the delicate balance of two opposing impulses—attraction and repulsion.  Maybe audiences in 1982 were so thoroughly repulsed by THE THING that they just couldn’t embrace the terrible beauty of the Rob Bottin’s effects?   Certainly, it's not as easy as watching Marilyn Chambers for two hours (even though she has a repulsive vampire penis growing out of her armpit).   Was THE THING so unfamiliar, so shocking, so abstract, that even die-hard horror fans couldn’t fall in love at first sight?  Maybe.  Maybe THE THING has aged well because it’s more familiar today. We've learned to love it.

But there’s a flip side to that coin—which is that we’ll never be able to see THE THING again for the first time.  No Hollywood studio is likely to spend that kind of money on practical effects for that kind of monster movie.  And let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that it can be done digitally.  (Ahem, 2011 remake of THE THING.)   


This week, I also watched a behind-the-scenes featurette for Terrence Malick’s movie THE TREE OF LIFE, in which practical effects guru Douglas Trumbull talks about the beauty of “organic effects.”  Specifically, he explains that what he loves about organic effects is experimenting with different things and not knowing what the outcome.  A digital effects designer creates what they want to see; a practical effects designer can instead create the circumstances for something unknown to happen.  Carpenter’s THE THING is an organic monster movie; it lives and breathes and oozes, and you never know what it’s going to do next.  That's the beauty of it.

But let’s not give all of the credit to the effects.  THE THING also thrives on Carpenter's direction: the long, slow storytelling build; ominous tracking shots; carefully-crafted sound design; claustrophobic set design; alternately muted and hysterical performances.  These are all trademarks of the filmmaker's work.  And another reason why we’re unlikely to see a modern monster movie that tops THE THING is… well, the fact that there’s only one John Carpenter.

The commercial failure of this film abruptly stopped Carpenter’s career momentum, and sapped his confidence for a while, so it’s hard to know if / how the director might have topped himself if he’d been allowed to keep running and gunning at the very top of his game.  In a 2001 interview, Carpenter offered this tantalizing reflection: “Had it worked, my career would have been very different.  Very different.”  One wonders.

But this is not a negative ending.   Sure, THE THING ends on a decidedly apocalyptic note… but it’s also only the first film in John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy.”  So, in fact, we’re just getting warmed up…