Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Horror Comes in All Shapes and Sizes

The Thing (1982), or 12 Angry Men in the Antarctic.

The Plot: Scientists in the Antarctic are confronted by a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of the people that it kills.

The Tagline: Man is The Warmest Place to Hide.

The film is currently rated #163 on IMDb's Top 250 list.

The best horror films are those that play just as much on our psychological fears as on monsters or blood. The Thing achieves this in many ways. First, its plot unfolds such that isolation and danger create alienation among the characters which then leads to paranoia. You can never be sure who is who. Secondly, it disturbs the audience visually and aurally with grotesque creations that are deformed, ooze slime and bleed mucous, and attack everything in sight, usually with horrible dismemberment.

Some background: The Thing is one of five collaborations so far by director John Carpenter (shown here with his voluminous cranium) and actor Kurt Russell. The other four are Elvis, Escape From New York, Escape From LA, and perhaps the masterpiece of them all, Big Trouble in Little China.

Samurai films have the legendary collaboration of Akira Kurosawa had Toshiro Mifune. Gangster films have Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Horror and Sci-Fi have John Carpenter and Kurt Russell.

Yes, I consider Elvis to be horror.

The Thing is the second film version of John W. Campbell Jr.'s short story "Who Goes There?" It was written in the late 1930s and kicked off the trend of shapeshifting in science fiction.

Campbell Jr.'s story was so popular it influenced four earlier films: The Thing from Another World (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978), and Alien in 1979. The 1950s films had communist subtexts; commies looked like everyone else, and could hide anywhere and undermine us all. The later films put more science (and horror) into the science fiction. Only the 1951 film was a direct adaptation of "Who Goes There?" until Carpenter's 1982 film. However, the 1951 film did away with the shapeshifting element and instead was more of a Frankenstein type monster. James Arness, later famous as Marshal Matt Dillon on "Gunsmoke," was chosen to play the monster, mostly because he was 6' 6" tall. John Carpenter's version takes Campbell Jr.'s material and turns it up to 11. Therefore it is not a remake of the 1951 film but a new(er) adaptation of the same source.

Dan O'Bannon, lead writer of Alien, rather obviously based his own screenplay on The Thing from Another World rather than the original story. Interestingly, Christian Nyby is credited as director of The Thing from Another World and Howard Hawks as producer, but anyone familiar with Hawks will tell you that the dialogue and camera style is very much Hawks. The rumor is that Hawks directed quite a bit of the film but since Nyby did the majority of the technical day-t0-day shooting Nyby got the credit. Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg had a similar relationship on Poltergeist (1982). Spielberg co-wrote and produced Poltergeist for Universal Studios but was directing ET (also 1982) at the time for MGM. Due to contractual issues, Spielberg was not allowed to shoot any other film while ET was in production. Spielberg directed most of Poltergeist (based on interviews with the cast and Spielberg's recognizable style) but Tobe Hooper was given credit to avoid a lawsuit with MGM.

So, what is the significance of the isolation and alienation in The Thing? The cast consists of twelve men, variously scientists, doctors, pilots, cooks, and other laborers, at a US research station in the Antarctic (it was an Air Force base in the Arctic in the 1951 film). Early in the film, the character Windows (evidently a technician of some sort) has trouble reaching anyone else on their radio equipment. They are thousands of miles from civilization in a hostile environment. Geography is an adversary. The exteriors of the film were shot near a glacier in Stewart, British Columbia, a real-life no man's land. The characters' egos and personalities begin to work against them under the strain of the job too, like cabin fever. When the Norwegian research team nearby arrives at their camp trying to kill a sled dog, the US team decides they must have gone nuts from too much time in the snow and cold.

All the characters in the film are male (despite the 1951 film featuring two women). The only "female" is the Chess Wizard computer, which Kurt Russell fries by pouring his J&B Scotch Whisky into the circuits when "she" checkmates him, effectively killing "her." This also reinforces that the characters are not in normal co-ed society. Their only other companions are sled dogs, which quickly become a source of conflict as well.

The music by famed film composer Ennio Morricone repeatedly uses an ominous heartbeat-style rhythm, suggesting not only a foreboding feeling but also a vaguely organic tone. As the story progresses, the characters must confront this bizarre alien force that works by consuming, assimilating, and finally imitating any other life-form it touches. Thus the paranoia sets in. Even among your friends, how could you tell a perfect replica? Especially one that is intelligent enough to build an interplanetary spacecraft. It is even smart enough to fake a heart attack. This is in contrast to the usual invasion story such as Alien, where the characters are able to band together to fight the menace. In this case, the menace could be your friend standing with you face to face and you wouldn't know for sure. The characters have no true friends to trust. The men turn on each other, not knowing friend from foe (or alien), and one legitimate human is killed by a gunshot wound to the head. A film depicting just these aspects, without the science fiction, would be effective enough.

So what is the significance of the ooze, the pus, the disgusting blood, guts, and mangled body parts of The Thing? Julia Kristeva, in her article "The Powers of Horror" explains the psychological aspect (p 65). Throughout civilization, unclean things and unclean people have been ostracized for being polluting forces. It became such a strong aspect of society that it turned into religious law. Filth was "promoted to the ritual level of defilement." Blood and other body fluids had to be excluded from regular society, for hygiene and other reasons. Women who had just given birth or were menstruating were denied access to temples or religious ceremonies in Ancient Greece and Rome. Other films like the Alien series take this to new levels: the xenomorphs are precisely as dangerous as they are, besides the tail and claws and double-mouths, because they bleed acid. As Parker says in the first film, "It has a wonderful defense mechanism. You don't dare kill it." Humankind has a strong aversion to seeing what makes us tick physically.

The creature in The Thing is so bizarre as to be incomprehensible. It not only drips bodily fluids but changes shape, combining dogs with people with god knows what else. John Carpenter disturbs us by showing graphic autopsy scenes of elaborate half-changed organisms. As Roger Ebert put it in his review back in 1982, "There are times when we seem to be sticking our heads right down into the bloody, stinking maw of the unknown, as the Thing transforms itself into creatures with the body parts of dogs, men, lobsters, and spiders, all wrapped up in gooey intestines."

As for the gender issue raised earlier, the alien monster itself has no discernible gender, or discernible anything really. And that's the horror of it: we can't make sense of it. The characters only know that it is eager to assimilate them too and thus must be destroyed. It has a deliberately amorphous, very otherworldly shape. As John Carpenter said in the documentary Terror Takes Shape, "I didn't want to end up with a guy in a suit." He points out that, as brilliant as Alien was, at the end of the film you still see an actor in a big rubber suit. A man's chest spontaneously opening up in a huge pincer to rip another man's arms off, then its head pulling away and growing spider legs to escape, is definitely not the average man in a suit.

1 comment:

  1. You said that man is the warmest place to hide. That is a very interseting statement as it is relevant. It is also interesting because of the fact that the cold doesn't seem to kill it, and the only way it is destryed is by burning it.

    Have you read Who Goes There? I wondered how the Thing was portrrayed in the story. If it was more like that in the Howard Hawks version or the John Carpenter version.

    Anyway good post. I enjoy reading you blogs.!