The Thing May 16, 2016
Paranoia is perhaps the most crucial aspect of the horror genre; it’s the characteristic best able to prolong pangs of uncontrollable fear during periods of calm. Taking the most clichéd of genre films into consideration, recurring are stretches of nothingness that lead up to a mini-climax. Look at the way the Friday the 13th movies are mostly shit until someone gets killed, how the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise often is deficient in excitement until Freddy Krueger lets his presence be known.
Most of the time, the anxiety that leads up to these aforementioned crescendoings are falsified to the point of numbing impatience. So many filmmakers get caught up in the idea of a tension-relieving scare that they forget to provide the tension in the first place. Some are able to do the impossible and let the audience build up fright on their own — just look at The Blair Witch Project and Suspiria, whose prosperities lie solely in ambiguity, in the withholding of vital information — but it’s an understatement to say that the majority of directors don’t have the gravitas to, like Hitchcock always used to say, play the audience like a piano.
John Carpenter, one of horror’s greatest maestros, is among the few who knows a thing or two about the art of suspense; he’s a blood-soaked Beethoven of audience piano playing. To say he's had a perfect career is giving — like most specialists in terror, unevenness comes with the territory — but how many other horror filmmakers have works like Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing, under their belt? Besides iconoclasts of the Wes Craven sort, answers don’t come so easy. When it comes to pummeling consumers with a good scare, Carpenter is oftentimes the best man for the job.
The Thing (1982) is an embodiment of his deft mastery, a cocktail of neat (and mouth-agapingly gory) special effects, cutting agitation, and squeamish claustrophobia set to a deliciously eerie Ennio Morricone score. We can instantaneously see why it has grown in its reputation as one of the finest horror films of the period: with an ingeniously simple premise at its disposal (loosely lifted from 1951’s The Thing From Another World) and a cast who seems to specialize in portraying various states of uneasiness, it gets under our skin and turns our blood cold. We could hardly ask for more, and I prefer unshakable terror to predictable terror. The arcane conclusion is only the icing on the cake.
To add to its nightmarish inescapability, The Thing is set in a barren, snow covered Norway. The nearest signs of civilization are miles away, and blizzards come and go. Our first introduction to the film’s potential jolts comes in the form of a bizarre helicopter chase — we witness an Alaskan Malamute being followed and shot at by a group of Norwegian scientists, who clearly know more than we do. An accident follows and the dog is taken in by a nearby American research camp led by R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell). They brush off the strange nature of the entire ordeal, getting on with their work as if nothing happened. Bad idea.
Hours pass and it becomes apparent that something isn’t quite right with the group’s newly adopted canine. It's prefers lurking to playing; a sinister air penetrates his aura. But nothing proves to be overtly wrong until the scientists make the mistake of locking the animal up with the camp’s other mutts. Then and there do they discover that this dog isn’t a dog at all — it is, rather, a grotesque alien able to take the essence of any other being and effectively shape shift into it. Such an exclamation would announce itself as preposterous in the hands of another filmmaker, but Carpenter, blessed with the ability of composing tension of the highest caliber, makes the abhorrent progression more frightening than jarring.
The rest of the film revolves around distrust within the party, and most entertaining are the temporary unveilings of its titular beast’s latest victim. It’s like And Then There Were None minus subtlety, and stories of survival in the presence of a malevolent force are always something to behold. And though they sometimes act irrationally (I’m not sure who wouldn’t, however), these characters are more enlivened than mere cutouts. Not necessarily serving as caricatures there only to give the special effects more meaning, it’s easy to imagine ourselves in their shoes. Horrific, but valuable.
The Thing doesn't permanently damage the psyche in the ways Carpenter’s magnum opus Halloween might've, and it’s more freaky than it is unabashedly scary. But it’s capable, slickly-made horror — you won’t look at a Malamute the same way ever again. B