This week on Midnight Screenings, I’m looking at the two finest films from one of my favorite modern horror directors, and one of the men who brought midnight cinema to the mainstream: John Carpenter.
John Carpenter’s recently re-appraised The Thing works on many levels. But most fascinating is that it works in a way completely, and seemingly intentionally, divorced from Carpenter’s other horror-masterpiece, Halloween. As I am not the first to observe, his 1978 game-changer centers an almost eternally faceless horror that can infiltrate mundane suburbia at a moment’s notice, like an ever-present shadow we’d prefer not admit is there. In The Thing, the horror belongs all too well. It’s not faceless. It’s quite the opposite: it has “the” face, in that its face is humanity, or rather, as I’m not the first to notice, it has any face. And not in a metaphorical “we’re the monster after all” sense, although that atavistic stone can be overturned for those looking. It’s primarily interested in something more earthy and visceral that is nonetheless profoundly human and lonely. The monster’s face is quite literally the human face – it enters into the human body and takes it over while occupying the human form. In doing so, perhaps as a none-too-happy accident, it causes us to question our very identity.
The premise is quite simple, but it’s a masterstroke of confidence. Twelve men, including Kurt Russell’s stoic loner MacReady, are stranded on an Antarctic research station when they unearth an alien haven been frozen in the ice for centuries. It slowly makes its way through the men, infecting them, and in fact taking on their very appearance in doing so. None of the remaining men can be too sure of who the others are, and…well…I’d be lying if I didn’t say “the monster is in all of us”. But complicated themes don’t make great genre films. Great filmmaking to bring simple but pointed themes to guttural life do, and The Thing is about as gutturally well-constructed as any horror film made in modern times.
Of course, the film is most famous for its creature effects that had the badge-of-honor effect of turning off most “mature” film-goers at the time. The special effects are chill-inducingly goopy and eerily earthy, although the fact that they were of the nasty, gory, tactile kind kept people from truly connecting with the film upon its release in 1982, especially when coming out around the monstrous (couldn’t resist) blockbuster hit that was E.T.. Not only is the monster adept at hiding, but it has a sense of style. It doesn’t just attack people, it opens up a stomach to reveal giant teeth, or detaches a head to surreptitiously scurry off on spider like legs. And above all, it seems real, like something hewn from flesh and blood. Nothing breaks off cleanly; the transformations are grotesque in the way you’d expect a human body to be when melded to a space monster, and they give the film an air that is both crushingly real and concrete as well as more abstractly amorphous.
My personal favorite touch, and something seemingly only possible with practical effects, is perhaps unintentional: most of the puppets and animatronics used can’t move with lifelike fluidity, and they instead jitter and jerk around with an almost ruthlessly alien poetry. It gives them an otherworldly “non-real” feel that would likely be written off by many as “fake”, but the flowless rage adds an undeniably chilling surrealism to their movements, almost to the point of abstraction. We want them to move fluidly, to conform to our human notion of movement, and they refuse to. We can’t control them, just as the film’s characters can’t.
But Carpenter is equally at home in the quieter scenes of lonely ennui, important since much of the film is an exercise in slow-building atmosphere. Early on we watch a dog walking through the station. We know something is wrong but we’re not given an explicit reveal of it. Carpenter teases us as he walks in and out of rooms, all the while giving us mostly negative, empty space to unease our need for vision and clarity. Carpenter directs the film with a baleful energy that frequently explodes into manic overdrive, constructing a mood at once out of time and depressingly here-and-now. There’s a surfeit of atmosphere, the kind which gnaws at you and refuses to get out of your head, with life construed as an almost out-of-body experience.
The film’s hyper-naturalistic audio, which often uses “real” diegetic sound rather than score (ironic considering Carpenter’s mastery behind the keys, although Ennio Morricone’s unnervingly subdued music works wonders when it needs to as well), is also cathartic-ally ravaging. Of course, the alien’s sounds are depressingly, spine-tinglingly unreal – often sounding like warbled screeches from an instrument equal parts synth and brass – and they’re astoundingly unnerving. Elsewhere, we get “big” sounds enhanced to illogical extremes, like the noise of a flamethrower clicking when it ought to fire, to capture the enhanced reality of the film and that, above all, Carpenter and these characters are men of action. They thrive on acting in any form, doing anything, and moving too quickly and brashly and without nuance (thus the unnaturally big sounds) to do whatever they can rather than to think. Carpenter doesn’t judge them so much for this as explore how their unthinking decisions are the only way for them to come to terms with their new reality and the perpetual boredom of the lonely station – the titular thing, for all it does, at least gives them something to do. Caught in something that triangulates fear, anxiety, and excitement, they jump at it whenever they can, understandably so, but often to their ends.
There’s also a wonderful sense of location throughout the film, or rather a lack thereof. The perpetual snow outside is crushingly concrete – a continual presence and a marker of loneliness and white doom to match the film’s often eternal blackness, elsewhere only lit with neon colors when the men use red flares that give the environment an irradiated, cosmically warped quality. All the while, the environment becomes so abstracted (damn, there’s that word again!) so as to seem more like a battle between amorphous colors than a real place – in fact, we can see so little of anything human or concrete or normal that it all appears somewhat fleeting in its inhumanity. It captures like nothing else the surreal inhumanity of the location and how its only truth is the unknown, the reality that these men no longer have a ground for their lives and perhaps, in their loneliness and distance from society, never did. They no longer have the benefit of location to guide and comfort them – only darkness. To this extent, it seems intentional that we never get a good look at much of the inside of the station. We don’t know its layout, and it adds to the tension because we’re never sure where we are. Furthermore, we are never geographically sure of where the characters are in relation to each other, the very essence of the film’s conundrum about men who don’t truly know each other. They are all perpetually lost, as we are.
In any other film, a lack of character development would be a serious flaw. Here, it’s transformed into a great strength. We don’t know these people; they’re just bodies. And that’s exactly the point. At the beginning of the film, the men are lonely, hidden away from civilization with only each other to bond with. It is arguably their very loneliness, in fact, which makes them friends. As the film progresses, their very community makes them all the lonelier as they become increasingly desperate and increasingly strained. The film does much more than pay lip-service to the interpersonal tensions between the characters; in fact, it’s arguably the film’s most prominent villain. What we’re afraid of is the seeming mundaneness of everyone, what could lie beneath, and deep down, that even among friends, we truly know nothing about their core identities, and maybe they don’t either. In other words, that we are inherently alone.
Paranoia, nerve, and anxiety drive the film, all enhanced by the situation these men find themselves in, but also ever-present, as the film reflects, in society. As their numbers dwindle, we realize that they are no more alone than when the seeds of doubt were first sewn. The themes of human doubt and paranoia are clear holdovers from the the film Carpenter’s vision was based on, Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (Carpenter was an avowed Hawks fan, making it strange that this 1982 has no strong, Hawskian women in it, or any women at all), as well as the short story “Who Goes There?” upon which that film was based. But while that film was very much a product of its time – the 1950s – and follows suit as an exploration of the fear of the outsider, namely the Communist (that film’s message is a rather unapologetic pro-American militarism), Carpenter was of a different time and his film follows suit as well.
He was a product of the ’70s American New Wave, a time period in American history and a filmic cannon seething with a more nihilist cynicism about a much scarier fear than the lone outsider masquerading as friend. This film was produced on the fringes of the New Wave, right before its ultimate end, and it echoes its time-period as well as the former film: a perpetual social decay and a paranoia at not any particular target but any target. The fear here is not that one person may be an outsider lose among the moral citizens. It is instead the fear that in an increasingly connected world, even as we are all perhaps watching each other and being watched over by everyone around us, none of us, even as we endlessly watch, can truly “see” behind the superficial and connect with each other (the shifts in between the two films rather well mirror the differences in the mid-’50s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the late ’70s remake).
Yes, we don’t really get to know the people in The Thing. But more importantly we get the sense throughout that the characters in the film don’t really know each other – in a sense, it’s a study of masculinity, with MacReady the only one to really contemplate and sit back and think about the others rather than to “act” like other men are wont to do, and he comes out the most reasoned for it. When he does act too harshly, tragedy strikes. But these men don’t have time for tragedy, and even more scarily, they may not care about the others around them, which is why they react more with a standoffish selfishness than anything else. They were perhaps always inhuman bodies eternally distant and devoid of emotion, literally corpses strung up by their own inhuman loneliness. They’re a microcosm of a society in a perpetual bottle-neck of anonymity.
As in Alien, released three years before-hand, the film uses the protagonist’s attempts to document the film’s experiences through recording tapes, disrupting the film’s constant silence only to be subsumed again by it. Throughout the film, we become increasingly aware no one will hear these recordings. More importantly, and more hauntingly, we become aware that he knows no one will, and that’s the very reason why he feels the need for them – they hide his loneliness from himself.