One of my younger associates (an English/French teacher … stop laughing, Jonah) has finally decided to get caught up on some good films that he has not had a chance to see. I don’t mind saying that I have a modest film collection that I like to view from time to time. He took a look at my catalog, and selected a lengthy list of films he wanted to see, so I have started a loan program for him. I am, of course, all about education, and am thrilled when I can share something with someone else.
So, as part of this, now that the summer film season is over, I am going to start a series of reviews on some older films, and I cam going to share a bit as to why they rank among my favorites. Maybe I will even inspire a little viewing for some readers. I’m going to start with the films that I am lending out to my colleague.
I think films can be great for a number of reasons. With few exceptions, great films have to tell great stories. Films have to set the mood properly, and have to create an environment. The writers and actors need to allow for character development or at least establishment. Mood and environment encompass a great many things: music, set design, cinematography, vsual and sound effects, costuming and makeup. Costuming and makeup can overlap into character development, though a lot of that is on the writer and actor.
Not all films emphasize all of these elements equally, nor should they. Take a very strong film like As Good As It Gets. There is virtually nothing to establish mood or setting, but character development is everything, and it required strong writing and acting to pull off.
John Carpenter’s The Thing, requires a slightly different approach.
Some background: The Thing is based on a 1938 novella by legendary author Joseph W. Campbell, Jr. The novella was included in the Science Fiction Writers’ Association Hall-of-Fame (edited by Ben Bova) in 1973 as one of the most significant written works of science fiction of the last century. In 1951, Howard Hanks adapted the short story into The Thing From Another World, which required changes to the Campbell story because of the limitations of technology in 1951, in addition to the limitations of censorship and standards of the time. Hawks’ story changes the direction of the story and turns it into a Cold War allegory. The film is considered a classic despite its shortcomings (the Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry in 2001).
John Carpenter enjoyed the film and the original story, and in the mid 1970s began plans to make a film that would be a more faithful retelling of the novella, rather than a remake of the Hawks film. In John Carpenter’s blockbuster Halloween, fans will note that The Thing From Another World is playing on television Halloween Night, and is thus in the background of many shots that take place in the last hour of that film.
As I noted above, The Thing, is not really a story of character development, rather it is a film that is based predominantly on mood and setting. In my opinion, with the exception of Alien, The Thing is the finest example of a gothic horror film ever made (typically this is an honor reserved for the 1931 film versions of Frankenstein or Dracula, but I don’t think either of these are definitive gothic horror stories, let alone the definitive examples. One of the critical aspects of gothic horror is that the characters are isolated from society. Much of Dracula takes place in London. One of the crucial scenes in Frankenstein takes place near a town at Frankenstein’s home. That’s not really isolation. There are recurring characters in gothic fiction: the wanderer, the buffoons (to break the tension, and thus intensifying the more anguishing emotional effect). The Thing has these.
The story: Antarctica, 1982. The film is set at the start of the Anarctic winter at an isolated United State Science Foundation research station. Life is boring as the station if getting ready for the winter. The station’s helicopter pilot, MacReady, is playing a computerized chess game. He is borderline alcoholic, possibly brought on by time in Vietnam. He is a sore loser, pouring a class of Jim Beam into the computer when he unexpectedly loses. That morning, the station is confronted with an odd event. A dog comes running into the camp, pursued by a Norwegian helicopter, with one occupant shooting at the dog. The copter lands outside the camp, with the shooter emerging with a grenade. The grenade slips, destroying the helicopter, but the shooter escapes to continue firing at the dog before he is shot by the station commander, Garry.
Attempts to radio the Norwegian base are unsuccessful, and unsure as to what happened, MacReady takes one of the station doctors, Copper, to the Norwegian station. They arrive and find the station still smoking, mostly burned down. They find a strange burned carcass in the snow outside one building, and find another corpse at the radio with his wrist slit. There was clearly a fight that has resulted in massive bedlam. They also discover a partially melted block of ice with an empty depression in the middle; as if something were inside of it, and is now gone. They recover some video tapes and documents before loading the strange burned carcass onto the helicopter.
Back at the station, the team pieces together some details. The video shows that the Norwegians had found some large object buried in the ice, and had used thermite to melt the ice. The charred remains that were recovered show an odd mix of human organs. MacReady leads a team to the site that where the Norwegians had found the object in the ice, while others continue looking through the Norwegian documents. Macready and his team find a crashed space craft that the Norwegians had liberated from the ice. Back at the station, the Americans learn that the Norwegians had also found the remains of the space craft’s passenger.
That night, the Norwegian sled dog undergoes a transformation, into an alien creature, and attacks the other sled dogs in the American kennel. The Americans are able to kill the alien with a flamethrower. They then begin to discover the truth. This alien creature is actually a microbe that invades an organism’s cells and duplicates them, allowing the alien to move around undetected. This is more disconcerting as the Norwegian dog had been roaming the station for the better part of two days, leading the men to realize that any one of them could be infected. Copper determines that there is a blood test that could be used to determine an infected individual, but upon entering the lab, they learn that someone has destroyed the station’s blood supply that was crucial for the test. Now they are certain that one of them is not who they seem to be, and paranoia sets in.
The other station’s doctor, Blair, begins a computer simulation, and realizes the true horror: if the alien microbe makes it to civilization, the entire Earth will be doomed to infection and replication within a few years. Blair kills the remaining sled dogs, and destroys the helicopter and snow cats. After destroying the radio equipment, Blair is caught, sedated, and locked in a remote cabin.
The station’s cook finds a part of MacReady’s clothing that appears charred, implying that his clothing had been torn off and bloodied, perhaps while manifesting himself as the thing, and cuts him off in the Arctic night. MacReady makes it back to the station and threatens to kill all of them with dynamite. He has determined a new test: blood exposed to extreme heat shouldn’t react, but if each blood cell is one of these microbes, they will attempt to run from a hot needle. He forces everyone to give blood, and in the process finds that two of the team members are infected. They are killed, but not before one of them kills another of the group.
The remaining team members go out to give the test to Blair, but find he has escaped. They notice some of the floor boards in the cabin are loose, and discover a tunnel under the cabin that leads to an ice cave with a partially constructed space craft. they destroy the space craft, and decide that they must all resolve to die trying to kill Blair … that if they don’t, Blair will simply allow himself to freeze until a rescue party arrives to recover the bodies, and hitch a ride back to civilization. They proceed to raze the station. Two of them find Blair and are killed. MacReady finally uses dynamite to destroy the powerhouse with Blair inside.
The film ends with a lost member of the team, Childs, showing up again. MacReady shares some alcohol with him, noting that they won’t last long. Childs asks if they should try to reach civilization, but MacReady seems content to simply wait and freeze.
Which is exactly what he predicted the monster would want to do …. Fade to black.
The Thing is a compelling survival story. Certainly the stakes are not simply individual survival, but the survival of the planet if the team is unsuccessful. This story unfolds at first like a mystery before becoming more of an adventure story. In keeping with its gothic roots, the film is mostly set in the dark of the Antarctic winter, with the team marooned at the station, unable to leave or even communicate. Not only is escape from their fate impossible, but a call for help is equally impossible. It is isolation taken to an extreme. The dark, cold, stormy outside is only interrupted by the spartan station, boring and artificial day-to-day life that is the existence (I wouldn’t say, life) of the team. Another aspect of setting the mood is the music. John Carpenter usually scores (and occasionally performs) the music for his films. For this film, he turned over the scoring to legendary composer Ennio Morricone (Morricone is probably best known for his ocarina and flute theme for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). Morricone uses a very minimalist approach to the score (similar in some respects to Jerry Goldsmith’s score from Planet of the Apes), though Morricone includes some synthesizer music in addition to some recurring base line which echoes a heart beat throughout the theme. It adds to the sense of desolation, loneliness, and isolation that the American team must feel.
There is no character development, per se. Rather, each member of the team occupies a different niche. MacReady, as noted, is not a people person, nor is he really a leader … yet, he is the protagonist. He is hardly a classic hero, who has apparently just enough sense to not so much figure out what is happening, but piece together the small parts of the mystery that the rest of the team are able to figure out. I think making MacReady too smart removes some of his humanity. The character as presented is an all-to-human person who reacts more out of his own sense of preservation at first, before realizing that escape is impossible, and he simply must resign himself to dying to save the Earth (and without the usual heroes fanfare, because no one will likely know what he did) MacReady’s portrayal is easily a character that you can relate to. Garry, the leader of the station, is a stock character: the leader who has more confidence in his abilities than he should. The cook, Nauls, plays the role of the buffoon, allowing for occasional humor. This has the effect of raising the mood so that later the mood can be lowered, allowing the audience to feel the sways in emotional resonance being presented.
In the end: these men are in Antarctica, not a place one is sent as a reward. This group is not the best of the best. Except for one or two scientists who are there doing research, it is easy to see that this motley group is here because they didn’t fit elsewhere or were trying to escape from something else in their lives. They get along out of necessity, not because they want to. Keep in mind though, this isn’t like The Dirty Dozen kind of misfits where they overcome their differences to win the day … even as the situation deteriorates, and it is to their advantage to stick together and stay sane, the element of paranoia keeps them apart. You almost wonder what is keeping one of the people who knows they aren’t infected from just killing everyone. I can only guess that it would have made for too short a movie, but it is easy to accept that the infected probably realized that given enough time, the uninfected would make their job easy by killing themselves.
What I really appreciate about this film is its ability to deliver such a dark emotional story. Especially for its time, 1982, very few films attempted, let alone succeeded, in creating an emotional space that gets as dark as this, while at the same time pairing it with a compelling story. John Carpenter, in later interviews and in the director’s commentary for the film, noted that the story had an accidental resonance in culture of the early 1980s: the story told of a microbial infection, spread via bodily fluids, which killed without being able to easily tell who had the disease, all while creating intense paranoia about who was infected and who wasn’t. It was hard to miss the accidental parallels between this film’s story and the emergence of AIDS in the early 1980s.
The film’s ending is intentionally ambiguous. Certainly, MacReady is willing to freeze to death, exactly as he thought the creature might do. Childs has been gone throughout much of the final battle. Are they both the last heroes standing, or is one of them hiding a secret? John Carpenter has refused to comment, leaving this to the nightmares of the audience to contemplate who has really won this battle. Author Peter Watts penned an interesting short story entitled “The Things” which is a retelling of parts of this film from the creature’s perspective; giving it a slightly sympathetic motive to the alien as a creature unable to understand the loneliness/individuality of the human race, and only wants to help (akin to the Borg from Star Trek). The short story was nominated for several international awards, including the 2011 Hugo Award.
Several films, for sake of the box office, refuse to take risks in order to attract audiences. I appreciate when directors are willing to take risks for making the film right. Gory films rarely are box office gold, and The Thing certainly risked a great deal in establishing the need for gore to show creature transformations (and subsequently did not make a ton of money at the box office). The practical effects in some levels don’t hold up to the CGI available today, but there is something to be appreciated from the quality of the practical effects that create the horror elements of the film. Another risk: no women. In 1982, it was unusual for women to be posted at Antarctic research stations. It would have been no problem to include a woman in the film, giving 52% of the available patrons someone to better relate to, but Carpenter stayed true to the original source material, and to the current reality. Trying to think through the addition of a female-male relationship added to this film, I can only think that it would have detracted from the story. On an aside, I think it would be interesting to see this story replayed with an all female cast, but I think a mixed cast begins adding an unnecessary element to the story. I say this with a great deal of irony, because the only gothic horror film that I would rank ahead of The Thing, is Alien, and that story in fact involved a co-ed team … but more on that at a later time.
For its pioneering darkness and quality, for its integrity to the already strong source material, and for providing a great emotional journey, I think The Thing, is a worthy film for those who want a good (but safe) scare.
Trivia: According to the (sadly) late Doctor Jerri Nielsen’s autobiographical book Ice Bound (which is a book I would highly recommend), it is tradition at the real US base the South Pole (Amundsen-Scott), upon seeing off the last plane and sealing themselves up for the winter, to watch this film. It takes a very special sense of dark humor to watch this film under those conditions … kind of like the sick and twisted folks who would show Snakes on a Plane or United 93 as in-flight entertainment. You have to love dark humor like that!
Awards of Note:
* IMDB Top 250 of all-time (#147 as of today).
* IMDB Top 50 Sci-Fi films of all time (#17 as of today).
* IMDB Top 50 Horror films of all time (#5 as of today).
* Scariest movie of all time (Boston Globe).