Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Carpenter's Tools: The Thing

I seem to admit my ignorance with film theory and (somewhat) history quite often in my reviews, which probably isn't too smart, but I do try to be honest with you. I've particularly detailed my unfamiliarity with the horror genre, so when I say that the only film outside of the work of David Cronenberg that has impressed me more with its special effects than John Carpenter's The Thing is Ridley Scott's Alien, I imagine it will carry little weight. So let me approach this from a different angle to give Rob Bottin's effects the credit they deserve: they are so convincing even in their leagues-beyond-OTT spectacle that they drive the film as much as the plot itself, even though Carpenter never lets them steal his movie away from him.

After alluding and paying homage to Howard Hawks' films his entire career, Carpenter finally went for the whole hog and adapted the director's science fiction foray The Thing From Another World, an interesting but dated offering that doesn't quite rank in the master's upper echelon. Carpenter's version improves upon it in nearly every way: it plays off of the isolation of a station situated in tundra and the un-glamorized portrayal of its crew, but it dispenses with lengthy (if matter-of-fact) scientific explanations and uses its modern effects to craft a far more sinister creature.

That creature makes its way to a US research station in Antarctica indistinguishable from a husky. A group of frantic Norwegian scientists frantically pursue it in helicopter and try to shoot the thing, only to die in accidents and misunderstandings with the American scientists. The researchers return to their tasks, choosing to forget the bizarre occurrences of the day. They put the dog in the kennel with their own, only to return to a pulsating mound of flesh slowly absorbing the caged dogs.

The researchers, naturally, accept this news with a certain concern. Upon giving the destroyed Norwegian camp a second examination, they find an excavation site that reveals a buried UFO. That doesn't give them many answers, however, and only through several more horrific incidents do they amass a rough understanding of the beast: it has the ability to assimilate and replicate any living creature, it can be damaged with fire, and any piece that survives can start the whole process over again.

As the Thing can be anything or anyone, suspicions mount among the researchers. Carpenter assembled a crackerjack team of character actors who are not only excellent in their roles but unknown enough to lend the cast a believable normalcy. Anyone could be the Thing, because, apart from Russell, no one brings any star quality to the film. Wilford Brimley's Dr. Blair goes mad when he sees a computer projection for what would happen to the world population ever got off the Antarctic, but his panic, along with that of station commander Garry (Donald Moffat), feels justified and realistic, given the fantastical circumstances. As they and other crew members spend much of their time looking anxiously at one another, Childs (Keith David) remains steely and calm, but his exterior only belies his own panic. When the others accuse pilot R.J. McCready for being just a little too quick with solutions, Childs falls in line with the consensus with noticeable speed.

Of the Carpenter-Russell collaborations, The Thing features Russell's most low-key performance. As Carpenter plays this body horror picture with a surprisingly straight face, Russell can't play the heroic buffoon that he does in Big Trouble or, to a more satiric extent, Escape From New York. Instead, he's the one who maintains a genuine calm, capable of assessing the situation and reacting to each problem. As he is assured of himself, he suspects Childs of being the Thing, given that Childs leads the accusations of suspicion against him. Their rivalry brings out some of the Plissken in Russell, and David holds his own with his deep baritone and commanding but funny presence.

As I said at the start of the review, the effects are simply fantastic. The gore arcs across the screen as webs of flesh draw in the next victim, and blood flows freely. In the confines of the station, the gore only entraps the characters further, and outside the splashes of blood clash disturbingly with the pure white snow (this would be played to much greater effect in the Coens' Fargo). Bottin's designs for the partly-assimilated beast and those unfortunate to get caught in its snare are ingenious: in one terrific scene, a copy's torso suddenly bursts open when shocked with a defibrillator, sprouts cartilage teeth, then closes on the helper's hands. When the others try to burn it, the copy's head comes off, grows spindly legs and scurries off to safety. It's some sort of schlock masterstroke.

Almost as noteworthy as the effects, though is the score. One of a precious few Carpenter films not to feature a self-composed score, The Thing instead boasts a track from legendary score composer Ennio Morricone. Carpenter contributes a few snippets for the more horrific moments, and his synthesizer blends wonderfully with Morricone's more traditional (yet no less tense) soundtrack.

The Thing cements John Carpenter's ability to make a small budget film (estimated at $10 million) feel like a proper blockbuster. Both this and Escape From New York are largely insular thanks to their budgets and Carpenter's writing, but they feel like large-scale action and horror pictures. That ability to spin straw into gold has endeared the director to me greatly as I work my way through old favorites and new experiences, and The Thing ranks as one of his finest achievements. Despite its quality, however, it marked the start of Carpenter's box office decline, barely earning back its low budget domestically. Eventually, commercial failure appeared to take its psychological toll on the director, and he's been in rough waters since the '90s, but naturally this excellent feature found a second life on home video. Thank God for nerds and shut-ins.

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