It’s that time of the year guys. The three month stretch where every month brings along an amazing holiday that, even with differences in theological preferences, brings everyone together. December is just a month where every week brings along some end of year holiday. And aside from the smug douchelords, Thanksgiving brings everyone together in November. And since this is October, we got Halloween coming along for us all. It’s a month of scary, with most of us getting into horror movies for the month. So we here at PCI are gonna take a look at some of our favorite horror movies. Andrew already took a look at his movie earlier this week, seen here. Now it’s my turn. And for further viewing pleasure, take a look at my past writings on the Saw franchise here, and my Wes Craven memorial earlier this year here. Buckle up.
Can you ever really know somebody? That’s a question pretty much something we have to deal with every day of our lives. Is the person we chose to spend our days with still in love with me? How bout the friend at work who I confide in, is he discreet with my thoughts? Or what about the server at a restaurant? Is my food being served without a custom ingredient being added in? We go through this world assuming the people around us, who choose to be around us for a long period of time, are trustworthy. But what if they change? Or can we ever really know someone at all? It’s a hell of an existential dilemma and one that is pretty ripe for cinema to really delve into. Enter John Carpenter.
John Carpenter was on a pretty good run in the late 70s, early 80s. He made a name for himself with the little indie flick Assault On Precinct 13, blew the world apart with his game changing Halloween, scared the drive in crowd with his low key chiller The Fog, and thrilled audiences with his dystopian action flick Escape From New York. So it was about time that he got the chance to cash in on his successes. And he decided to do so with a hard R, nihilistic sci fi horror flick based on an old movie he loved as a child. That movie he loved was The Thing From Another World, and he would end up taking the bones of that movie and crafting one of the greatest movies ever made.
The Thing was a movie that did not succeed on a financial level or a critical level. It was a huge bomb, no thanks to being released in the wake of E.T. But it didn’t help that it was a movie unlike anyone had ever seen before. Carpenter didn’t make something safe and family friendly. Nor did he go back to the style of Halloween, hiding things in the shadows and going for subtle violence. No, he was going in the opposite direction. This was a movie that was gonna show you every horrible thing happening to the body, and with effects that couldn’t even be believed when seen. But where the violence was going completely in your face, the story itself was steeped in suspense and paranoia.
The movie is set in the desolate, arctic wasteland of Antarctica. We’re in the company of a group of men on an unspecified scientific expedition, isolated from the rest of the world. Their lethargic life is thrown into the frying pan when the a dog comes running into camp, being hunted by two Norwegian scientists in a helicopter. The guy’s at the American camp don’t know what to make of this, but they put the Norwegians down and try to figure out what the deal is. But while they do that, the real issue comes out. The dog is not what it seems. It’s an alien from another planet, having crash landed on Earth Millenia ago. The Norwegians thawed it out, not realizing what it can do. No idea that this alien is a shape shifter, able to completely copy any living organism it comes into contact with to a T. So when the Americans come to figure this out, the question emerges. Who here can I trust?
There is a never a moment where you are completely in the know after the alien reveals itself. Thanks to the writing, but more specifically to Carpenter’s masterful direction, you never have any idea who is who and if the alien is in the room. Much like these guys, we are just as on edge. Anything can happen. The rules aren’t explicit. The alien can show up at anytime. Hell, it’s never even clear if the victims know they’re the alien. Does it kill the victim and replace them, or infect them unknowingly? All we know is that it’s a sneaky bastard and is everywhere. And thanks to his precision at crafting a perfect image that heightens the tension, and his storytelling instinct to never show anyone get attacked, uncertainty is the name of the game. Just look at the iconic blood test scene. We have not seen anyone alone. Haven’t seen anyone get attacked. So when Mac starts to test the blood, we have no idea what to expect. Hell, the test might not even work. And what’ll happen if someone tests positive. Carpenter plays it absolutely perfectly, dropping out the score and letting the camera linger. On Macs face before he does the test, then on the person he tested’s face. And he perfectly plays the reveal to absolute perfection. In a career of immaculately directed work, this is his crowning achievement.
Without his cast, the movie may not work as well as it does. This is due to the fact that Carpenters style of economic storytelling does not allow for much time to delve into backstory or get into any real sense of who these guys are. We need to know them by action and the performance of the actor. And here, Carpenter accrued the best cast he ever had. Led by Kurt Russell as de facto leader, MacReady, this is a cast of blue collar men stuck in a shit storm. But these aren’t simple men. They’re on a scientific expedition in isolation for a reason. Even the non scientists, like pilot MacReady or military man Garry (Donald Moffat), are smart men. With the guidance of seemingly head scientist Blair (Wilford Brimley), we get to know the basics of the situation and they go about figuring out how best to survive. No silly nonsense like wandering around when hearing a sound in the distance. No getting stoned and taken by surprise. And thanks to the lack of females, no wandering off to have sex at such an inopportune moment (which subtly adds to the tension the men feel). Only because the situation they are in is so above their level that they get taken out. Any little slip up will get them, and no one is perfect. Russell is the man here, giving maybe his best performance. He takes on the leadership role almost begrudgingly. And the fact of the matter is, he isn’t the best leader. He’s kinda crazy. And the rest of the cast is great too, with Keith David doing career best work as the macho Childs. Brimley is legendary here, playing the smarts and the insanity of the situation like a glove. Everyone does the work necessary to make these guys instantly likable and knowable, so their fates have weight for us.
Carpenter has never been one to pull punches with his endings, and this one is one of the best he’s done. It’s an ambiguous ending, much like the one in Inception. The story is over, but a big question mark is left over the movie. But like Inception, there’s a few options that make sense within the story being told. And the beauty of it? They’re all absolutely bleak endings, just on various levels. One of them is a heroic ending in it’s bleakness, while another is absolutely nihilistic as to be completely unsettling. And it fits the movie like a glove, because it too is not safe and completely wrapped in mystery.
Carpenter is my favorite director of all time. I can watch his work at any time and just be completely filled with joy, even in bleak movies like this. He was a visual master and a storytelling genius, favoring archetypes and economics to simplify the work so as to make everything else more complex. His work also manages to work in multiple genres. The Thing itself is a sci fi movie, a horror movie, and an action movie. And even if he never made one, all of his movies have massive Western influences. And like mentioned, the man never pulled punches. He was a jack of all trades, making even bleak movies like this entertaining to watch. And this movie is his grandest statement. It does everything I like in horror, even subverting and adding things I didn’t know I needed. It’s rich thematically (it can be viewed as an AIDS crisis metaphor). It’s horrifying and gruesome (thanks to Rob Bottins unparalleled effects work). And it just works. Singular in cinema, this is my favorite horror movie and one that needs to be viewed around the Halloween season.