The Thing May 16, 2016
Paranoia is perhaps the most crucial characteristic in horror — it’s the element best able to prolong pangs of uncontrollable fear during periods of so-called 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 humdrum 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. So many filmmakers get caught up in the giddiness of a tension-relieving scare that they forget to provide satisfactory 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 mostly 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 effectively, like Hitchcock always used to say, play the audience like a piano.
John Carpenter, one of horror’s great maestros, is among the few who knows a thing or two about the art of suspense. He’s a 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 belts? When it comes to pummeling a consumer with a good scare, Carpenter is oftentimes the best man for the job.
The Thing (1982) is Carpenter at the peak of his powers, a cocktail of neat (and mouth-gapingly gory) special effects 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 specializing in persuasively portraying various states of uneasiness, it gets under our skin, turns our blood cold — the whole nine yards. We could hardly ask for more. The arcane conclusion is only the icing on the cake.
The Thing is set in a barren, snow-covered patch of Norway. Nearest signs of civilization are miles away. 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. It becomes apparent that something isn’t quite right with the group’s newly adopted canine. It prefers lurking to playing; he has a sinister aura — hardly a man's-best-friend type. Still, nothing proves overtly wrong — that is 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 shapeshift into it. Such an exclamation would announce itself as preposterous in the hands of another filmmaker. But Carpenter, blessed with the ability to cultivate tension we take seriously, makes the progression more frightening than jarring, silly.
The rest of the film revolves around distrust within the party. Most entertaining are the temporary unveilings of the title beast’s latest victim. It’s like And Then There Were None minus subtlety. 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, though), we're more sympathetic to this bunch than we are typical slasher-movie cadres. Not necessarily 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 us in the ways Carpenter’s magnum opus Halloween might've; 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 again. B