Wednesday, May 29, 2013
The Thing (1982) A Film by John Carpenter
John Carpenter's The Thing opens in crisp whiteness and ends in a dark, smoky inferno, a fitting visual progression for a film that also shifts from relative normalcy and stability to paranoia and enveloping fear of the unknown. Its compositions are first airy and spacious, and later they are hazy and claustrophobic. Enemies are seen with perfect clarity when the film begins; by the end, it's not only difficult to spot them in the shadows, but it's nearly impossible to know whether they are an enemy or a friend. This is the linear descent of Carpenter's bleak, nasty horror film, and it's a shift that is carefully and tensely modulated over the movie's runtime. Plot is thin and characters are simply defined, the better to place emphasis on mood and tone.
Simplicity is the name of the game in The Thing. A loose rehash of the premise of the Howard Hawks-produced, Christian Nyby-directed The Thing from Another World (1982) as well as a distilled adaptation of John W. Campbell Jr.'s novella Who Goes There?, Carpenter's film seems determined to minimize any specific associations with prior versions of the same material. It concerns a group of men at a scientific research station in Antarctica on an expedition only given context by a brief insert shot of the sign at their temporary base. Connection to the outside world has been cut off, while relentless gusts of wind and -40 degree temperatures envelop the crew at all times. The film begins with a random invasion from a Norwegian helicopter, whose only passenger is a crazed scientist hell-bent on sniping one of the crew's many faithful Alaskan huskies. The lunatic is swiftly dispensed with, but as a mysterious alien phenomenon starts to plague the base, the full implications of his fleeting appearance make themselves clear. By the end of the of the film's prologue, the simple conflict that sustains the entire plot has been established: a group of scientists fighting an unknown, rapidly-spreading parasite.
The nature of this parasite is elusive. An opening shot of outer space makes it clear that it is of an extraterrestrial nature, but it has no definitive size or shape. Instead, the alien (never seen in its pure form) latches onto a variety of hosts and attempts to "imitate" their physical body. At various points in the film, Carpenter reveals the different stages of this process: sometimes the alien is a heinous amalgamation of a known creature (human or dog) and a slimy, shapeless beast, and other times the alien has completed its full transformation into the likeness of its host. The vague, shapeshifting characterization of this Other begs one to interpret it along the lines of metaphor; therefore, instead of an actual external threat, it is a manifestation of any number of insecurities – fear, paranoia, mistrust, alienation – that arise within the group when confronted with an unknown force.
Unlike the Hawks-Nyby film, where character traits accumulate through a barrage of words, facts, and actions (a general Hawks tendency), Carpenter is more interested in the gradual reduction of character specificity. Characters become mere bodies ready to be cohabited by the titular alien presence, if not simply diminished to a basic survival mode. Whatever defining, archetypal features the people in The Thing start the film with (disco and roller-skating for Nauls (T.K. Carter), compassion and gentility for Garry (Donald Moffat), and scientific expertise for Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), to name a few) evaporate as the film progresses. The closest thing to a headstrong protagonist, Kurt Russell's R.J. MacReady, has his leadership undermined by an array of disorienting cinematographic effects, most notably a creeping tracking shot late in the film that resembles a villainous POV only to reveal itself as MacReady as the shot moves menacingly through a door towards an unsuspecting character. Furthermore, the best source of scientific authority in the film, Wilford Brimley's Dr. Blair, is one of the first to lose his wits, leading to a frigid solitary confinement outside the base.
One by one, starting with the husky who escapes the Norwegian's gunshots in the beginning of the film and, up until he meets his grisly end, stalks the base like a premonitory Danny Torrance from The Shining, the characters in The Thing are brutally molested by the alien force. The scientists learn that their flamethrowers are the best means of staving off immediate threats, but they also understand that whatever method the alien uses to spread its terror throughout the group will remain frighteningly unknowable and dependably lethal (an early bit of wonky DNA-testing and computer research warns them that the creature's powers could annihilate the entire human race in no more than two days.) As the death toll rises in this small, tight-knit group, so too does hysteria, paranoia, and panic. Many of the film's early sequences occur in the open spaces of the Antarctic tundra, but later the scientists are confined to the cramped interiors of their base, where extraterrestrial liquids lay splattered across surfaces, ready to possibly birth new offenders or violate new hosts. Carpenter prefers clustered group shots to a frantic interplay of close-ups, emphasizing the close proximity of the men to one another even as any one person may not be what they seem.
The Thing's special effects hew closely to those of Alien (at the time released only three years prior), borrowing Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger's suggestions of violent oral assault and their emphasis on phallic-like extensions emerging from layers of thorny flesh. It's obvious that Carpenter felt compelled to coast on the hair-raising success of Scott's film, but despite his somewhat opportunistic thefts, his use of such a sexually charged monster to provoke male anxieties makes perfect sense in the context of a film about men struggling to put trust in one another. The alien only gets larger and more tentacle-driven as the film goes on, moving in sync with the scientists' growing uncertainty in the face of a powerful force uncontrollable through traditional science.
Ennio Morricone's doom-laden music – all synthesizer drones and spine-tingling cascades of strings – rarely lets up, laying on thick the atmosphere of fatalism and dread that guides the film to its logical, death-shrouded conclusion. It's a heavy, intoxicating score, perhaps a little too portentous at times, but it's one of the key elements that makes The Thing such a dark and oppressive experience (also, I should add, such a distinctly 80s experience – see also DP Dean Cundey's illogically beautiful neon stylings). Carpenter's film doesn't so much catch its viewer off guard with such relentless aesthetic decisions as drip slowly and inexorably towards an apocalyptic finale in which neither human logic nor divine hope will save these men from disappearing entirely from existence in an icy no man's land.