Monday, November 27, 2006
Posted by Octopunk
Now we're talking! John Carpenter's The Thing is one of the staples of my pre-driver's lisence teens, and it still holds up. This was an early video rental for us (probably early 1983), and I recall my dad and I watching this one really late with all the lights off. By the end of the third Thing manifestation, this movie had done what no other movie has matched -- it made me tremble.
Gone is James Arness or even a hulking figure in a torn flight suit -- this creature is a shapeshifter and this movie's take on shapeshifting will make you wince. The transformations are hideous displays of truly chaotic flesh, the old forms bloodily ripping themselves apart, giving way to a wet fireworks display of writhing tentacles, sprouting insect legs and gooey viscera. The imagination and skill of the effects team is a major character in this film, not only for the many blink-and-you'll-miss-it gore moments, but also for the sculpted set pieces on which the camera can linger, like this dead beauty below that has forensic scientist Wilford Brimley groaning in disgust.
The set-up to this story boasts all kinds of good weirdness. It opens with two men in a helicopter chasing a lone dog across the Antarctic tundra. The starkly beautiful scene is offset by the fact that the men are desperately trying to kill the dog. When the pooch reaches an American science base, its pursuers' mania to kill it results only in their own deaths and a big puzzle for the Americans. Investigating the Norwegian base the strangers came from, Kurt Russell and company find forboding clues to the mystery. The base is destroyed, and a man sits with his wrists slashed, the blood a ragged red icicle dropping from his hands. There's a large block of ice resembling an empty coffin, and a specimen of twisted human flesh frozen in the middle of a baffling transformation. Even before we know what happens, one thing is quite clear: it was really, really bad.
While they're sifting clues, however, their own bad scene is much farther along than they know. The Norwegian's dog wanders all over the place before being put in the kennel and going all monsta, so when the good Dr. Brimley figures out the Thing's methods, he knows they're way past Far Too Late. This alien only needs to infect a host with one cell, and eventually the host has completely transformed. It's a whole different ball game.
Like the orginal, the remake has a brooding sense that the Thing is always somewhere on the compound. I kept careful track of the cast this time, and sure enough spotted one character who goes out in the snow and just never comes back. It's bad enough that the Thing is out there in the cold, lurking, but the shapeshifting takes it even further. It's always someone on the compound. Gone is the human camaraderie from the original, in this movie it's all these guys can do not to shoot each other in the head. Their grasp of the situation is constantly slipping further away; by the time they devise a way to detect who's human, their numbers have been winnowed down considerably.
A couple things about this movie fascinate me. One is the amount of crazy stuff that's going on off-screen. The original had that going on, too, but a lot of that was about the logistics of keeping the monster effective. The remake isn't afraid to get its stuff right up in your face, but still it's smart enough to not show us everything. Near the end the remaning humans investigate the power outage and discover the generator's gone. "Well, can we fix it?" asks Kurt Russell, not understanding. "MacReady, it's gone." Which means the Thing can either be that strong in human form or, more likely, shaped itself so it could haul off the generator. Isn't that weird?
The other thing I dig is the notion of an organism that carries in a single cell the knowledge to construct a flying saucer out of spare parts. Like the original, we never really hear the alien talk -- only roar and howl and gurgle in frightening ways (the creature sounds in this movie are fantastic). Sure, we hear it say lines when it's acting human, but it's never clear what the alien's point of view is, whether its separate manifestations help each other, how smart it is when it's in dog shape, etc. Like the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the main drive seems to be expansion. Beyond that the motives remain a mystery, and we're stuck with just the transformative exploits to think about. At least the Thing uses its imagination in these oozing, malevolent performance pieces, never more so than with the incredible head bug here.
As the last strains of the Ennio Morricone sountrack played over the dark image of the burning camp, I sadly ushered out another year's beloved Horrorthon. My Thing double feature was a perfect way to go out, but still my list of intended viewings stretched out ahead of me. Ah well, that's for next year.
Great contest, guys. Some top-notch stuff churned out this year. This event remains one of my favorite things on the calendar, and it's a priviledge to compete with fans and writers such as yourselves.
That's fifty for me. I'm pretty sure JPX is already past me.
at 12:21 AM