Monday, October 10, 2011

To Do Anything About It

“I know how this one ends,” says David Clennon’s Palmer as he switches out one game show tape for another, a bit of business which looking at it now seems a little like a comment on multiple THING movies, maybe all the more as we approach the opening date of the prequel to the John Carpenter version of THE THING which is named, well, THE THING. I haven’t seen this new film yet (what I’ve heard from those who have, I won’t mention here) but I don’t have very high hopes for it. Maybe you don’t either. I’m not sure how others out there feel. It does occur to me that the Carpenter film is now almost as old as 1951’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (directed by Christian Nyby with producer Howard Hawks obviously keeping a close eye on things) was when it was released. It makes me stop and wonder if those who might conceivably complain about the new version now find themselves in a similar position to the people bitching about all the gore in Carpenter’s film when it first came out. Will there be a similar dividing line between people finding the new version to be a genuine offense to what Carpenter (or Hawks) and his collaborators achieved versus those who don’t see what the big deal is, those who think all that CGI was just what the story needed? Not long ago Jeremy Smith, Mr. Beaks of Ain’t it Cool News posted on his Twitter page the review written by New York Times critic Vincent Canby on opening day in 1982 of Carpenter’s THE THING. It’s a piece of writing which uses phrases like "a foolish, depressing, overproduced horror movie", "sometimes it looks as if it aspired to be the quintessential moron movie of the 80s" and saying that it "qualifies only as instant junk." Reading this causes me to remember that Canby was the critic my dad always read back then. If he were here right now I’d want to have a talk with him about this. I can understand the generational divide and the reasons why critics of the Leonard Maltin generation would prefer the 1951 film but, really, what Canby wrote comes off as truly embarrassing almost 30 years later. This is THE THING we’re talking about, John Carpenter’s motherfucking THE THING which as far as I’m concerned, and many others out there seem to agree, is an absolute masterpiece. This much needs to be said. Maybe I need to put down a few of my own thoughts on it before another movie forever alters what the perception might be, for better or for worse.

I was too young at the time so I didn’t see it that summer when it opened (same day as BLADE RUNNER and, more famously, two weeks after E.T.) All these years later I’m not even certain what I thought of the film during my first viewings on cable but thinking back on it now my recollection is that for some time my own response to it was somewhat muted, as if the story played as blank for me as the expressions on all those faces when MacReady makes his “I know I’m human…” speech. Maybe I just need to grow into what the film really was and I remember a particular theatrical screening at some point in the early 90s when the whole thing clicked for me and I thought, “Hang on, this is brilliant. What the hell was I missing until now? What the hell was the world missing then?” As passionate as I sometimes am when it comes to Carpenter’s films, THE THING stands apart from the rest of them as if everything clicked together this one time through his essential filmmaking DNA in a way it never did again and while on occasion he has sometimes seemed to be consciously attempting a ‘John Carpenter’ sort of approach (which I love, don’t get me wrong) here those elements feel totally natural, fresh and never at all self-conscious. I’ve found myself keeping it on a lot lately. I’m sitting here watching it as I write this. I think I need to have it on.

To briefly mention the plot, even though I can’t imagine somebody reading this hasn’t seen it fifty times already, the John Carpenter-directed version of THE THING is set at an isolated U.S. science station in Anarctica, where the calm is instantly broken by the appearance of a Norweigan helicopter shooting at a dog for reasons unknown. Upon investigating the camp where the Norweigans came from the group, with helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) eventually becoming a reluctant leader, discover evidence indicating that team found something in the ice, something which woke up, something which now may very well have already infiltrated one or more people in their own camp and look exactly like one of them. And it doesn’t take MacReady long to realize that what happens to them may be a minor concern if the threat that the thing is ever finds its way through all that snow to civilization. Going along with Palmer’s tape switch, it occurs to me now that THE THING ‘82 plays very much as the maverick cover version of the more traditional version of this story, the one which had at that time been playing on the late show for years. A remake that most likely grew out of an attempt to capitalize on the massive success of ALIEN and use the growing success of director Carpenter, the two films so different in most ways (the few noticeable examples of homage are brief and unobtrusive) that we are now getting a film which is apparently a prequel strikes me as an act of cultural regression. There’s nothing new here, no reason for it to exist and in some ways the 1982 films has itself been infiltrated by its own Thing. So does John Carpenter’s THE THING still matter? Will it still matter? And what does it mean to me?

There’s no avoiding just how strong Kurt Russell is as MacReady, one of the very best performances of his career, but it also strikes me how consciously (and admirably) the character is never presented as a ‘hero’ in the Snake Plissken mode, instead taking command when he has no other choice in the matter. The narrative is continually trying to keep things off kilter and ellipse certain events, like the odd section where MacReady and Childs go up to the shack in a sequence that we never see, and successfully placing doubt in the viewer’s mind even if for just a few minutes as to what might be going on. Obviously, whenever Russell is onscreen we believe in every ounce of conviction he presents when he insists he’s still human and if this were a more action oriented film I could believe MacReady would be able to pilot his chopper out under treacherous conditions. But I’m glad the movie never forces him to do that and besides, he’s a protagonist with only one thing in mind when the movie begins. “I’m tired, I want to go to my shack and get drunk,” MacReady tells Fuchs who has some important information to discuss, soon before the shit really starts to hit the fan. I sometimes find myself feeling that way myself, hiding out watching my DVDs of COMMUNITY but I get the feeling MacReady just stares into darkness, still obsessed over whatever unspoken events have occurred in his past that we never know about and you can feel whatever bitterness that led him to the ends of the earth without him ever having to say why. The first thing we see him doing, in addition to pouring what clearly isn’t his first glass of J&B, is playing one last round of computer chess before making sure he never has to listen to that female voice (Adrienne Barbeau, actually) cheating him again. Just with that one action he’s not only resigned himself to drinking as much as possible, he’s cut himself off with the last version of a woman I suspect he had any contact with in the world. Actually, each of these guys seem to have their own private narratives going on—MacReady’s clearly not the only one relying on booze, particularly with that prominent bottle of Smirnoff next to Wilford Brimley’s Blair as he reads the bad news off that computer, news that is clearly causing him to make good use of it.

I’m never entirely clear on what exactly the functions of each of these guys at the US Outpost No. 31 are (beyond just knowing that none of them would be eligible for the glory a nobel prize would bring) but they’re each portrayed in such a vivid fashion and the way each of them behave I can believe that they chose to be here at the ends of the earth for a reason so they never come across as mere types—the antagonistic one, the funny one, the hysterical one. It really does feel as if Carpenter had each of these guys live among each other isolated from the world remaining in character for a week or so then showed up and started shooting the movie. Locked in with them is this mood which seems unending and holds right from that very first wide, low angle shot of the Antarctic as that helicopter comes into frame with the Ennio Morricone music rumbling underneath—we feel the cold, the isolation. And the pacing courtesy of editor Todd Ramsay isn’t just good, it feels perfectly achieved without an ounce of fat yet knowing that at times to keep the dread building it needs to hold on certain moments, finding that metronome rhythm I always associate with Carpenter, yet never pulled off as well as it is here. It all steadily builds through continually sharp dialogue in the screenplay credited to Bill Lancaster (based on “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr.) which combines the unknowability of what this creature is--“Because it’s different than is, see?” says MacReady in a way that is as much we can ever understand--with the matter of fact way these guys ultimately have to deal with it. And it’s the moments that stand out amid the rising dread—Joel Polis’ Fuchs telling MacReady they should each prepare their own foods, Richard Dysart’s Copper swathed in darkness as he approaches the camera in the Norweigan camp, building up to the fever of the final hour with those blood tests.

During one famously horrific moment on the audio commentary he shares with Kurt Russell director Carpenter speculates, “If this was happening in front of me, I’d probably think, well…I guess that’s about it,” and I know that there are times when I find something in that moment via Rob Bottin’s effects that feel about as extreme as imaginable (“You gotta be fucking kidding me…”), the visceral quality of this nightmare coming to total fruition. And as much as Carpenter’s own style is discussed in relation to the great Howard Hawks, particularly with his recurring use of the ‘group under siege in a single location’ storyline this can’t be said to be a similarly Hawksian portrayal of camaraderie like, say, PRINCE OF DARKNESS might be—some seem to be friends but for the most part the way they keep to themselves makes it a perfect setup for men who can no longer trust each other or be sure who anyone really is. And with no women in the film it means there’s no temptation to fall back on some of Carpenter’s Hawks-chick type portrayals along the lines of Laurie Zimmer in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 or Adrienne Barbeau in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK which, great as they are, always feel like a certain type of stylization this film never attempts. There’s complete naturalism from the ensemble--Wilford Brimley, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart (and his nose ring), Richard Masur, Charles Hallahan, Joel Polis, T.K. Carter, Thomas Waites, Peter Maloney and Donald Moffat tied to that fucking couch. The characters make sense even if they’re not always explained--it feels like there’s a reason why Fuchs goes to MacReady with his information beyond Kurt Russell being the star of the movie, as if Polis’s character knows who would actually listen to him. None of them are ciphers. None of them feel like they’re just waiting to be killed.

Along with that is a narrative stripped down, resisting explaining too much beyond some information offered by Wilford Brimley. By a certain point it doesn’t matter anyway and some of the key exposition is never really heard because it’s when Brimley is screaming at them anyway. In some ways that lack of blatantly spelling things out is part of what makes the movie so eminently rewatchable as if trying to decode certain moments or piece together exactly what happened with a few of the characters whose fates (or, at the least, exact circumstances of their deaths) remain a mystery. The approach avoids certain cheap scares for a surprisingly long time in favor of what feels like ever-encroaching moments of dread, such as a single shot observing MacReady from behind before a fade out. Almost radically so, there can’t even be said to be a definitive version of The Thing to remember it as—even the final stage seen during the climax feels like it could easily merge into something else at any time. The Scope compositions courtesy of D.P. Dean Cundey add immeasurably to that feel of cold and doom (as an aside--at a PSYCHO II midnight screening a few months back at the New Beverly Cundey was actually asked about the new film and surprisingly answered that he would have been very interested in revisiting the material but was told the director was ‘intimidated’ by him. So there you go) while the Ennio Morricone score never stops fascinating me, seeming to be laid out across the film as opposed to covering specific actions along with what I suspect are some John Carpenter-Alan Howarth additions and it makes it all the more a case of it seeming like a living part of the film. It’s funny how much in my mind the music is connected to every scene yet there are surprisingly long stretches with no score at all. I guess in my mind when I think about this film the music is always there whether it is or not. And that feels appropriate for THE THING. It always feels alive, always changing, never settling down into one thing in my mind. There are few films like it.

Several years after it died at the box office with a total gross of $19.6 million THE THING was being talked about as something of an early comment on AIDS but all these decades later the threat it portrays could be read as any number of things, the encroaching shadow of Reaganism on the world or whatever but there are times when for me the straight-ahead nature of the narrative manages to transcend any simple assignations to its meaning. These guys are out there in the cold, they seem like men who really don’t give a shit about anything anymore until they have no choice but to do otherwise. Maybe in the end THE THING is about wanting to do nothing but go to your shack to get drunk and the choices you make when you’re dragged away from that. You may not want to do anything about it, but you are what you are. You’re human. And maybe THE THING ’82, possibly the one true masterpiece of John Carpenter’s career, is also about to be assimilated, becoming something different, maybe losing its own individuality in the process. But almost thirty years after it was made, John Carpenter’s THE THING seems like it’s a part of the world that rejected it at first so maybe there isn’t much to worry about. After all, I know how good it is, how human, as tangible and as present as those Rob Bottin effects which I certainly know will never be equaled. And I’ll just have to keep absorbing this film myself as the closing tub-thumps of the Morricone score (track title “Humanity (Part 2)” on the album) continue to linger in my head. And it will. For now, I guess I should just…wait here for a little while. See what happens.


thatlockwoodguy said...

"but it also strikes me how consciously (and admirably) the character is never presented as a ‘hero’ in the Snake Plissken mode," that is dead on. The realism of the characters and setting is a brilliant contrast to the surrealism of the Thing itself. And the hero is that much more sympathetic for not being a bulletproof cartoon superhero archetype. PS you might enjoy South Park's little homage to The Thing (google it).

le0pard13 said...

Wonderful review of this classic John Carpenter shocker, Mr. Peel. I very much agree with about Kurt Russell and his performance. It really is as good as you say. And what a character! Not only has he himself dispatched his body and soul to the ends (or the bottom) of the Earth, but he's even separated himself from those in camp (with his shed up and away from the main building). Still, just about all the cast is unique in a way that works with the story.

I recommend your readers take a gander at The Big Dead Place, a cynical, funny website about the McMurdo Station, the largest of the three American stations in Antarctica. THE THING holds a special place for the workers there. Yeah, as you'd expect there are inaccuracies in film they spot, but they do think JC and the writer Bill Lancaster nailed the ambiance and characters who inhabit that big, very cold, dead place.

This is one great and timely review, my friend. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Awesome review. I totally agree with you about this being Carpenter's masterpiece. While I probably have watched BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA or even ESCAPE FROM NY more, I think that THE THING is JC's magnum opus.

I really can't add much more to what you said except that I'm glad you also latched onto the notion that all the various characters and how the actors plays them suggest backstory to each and every one of them that is never spelled out but only hinted at in their behavior towards each other and is one of the reasons that I keep coming back to this film. Like every time I watch the film my mind creates its own backstory to each of the characters, filling in the cracks so to speak. Such as the genius of the Lancaster's screenplay and, of course, the top notch performances of everyone involved.

Chaz Zachler said...

Bill Lancaster also wrote the screenplay for The Bad News Bears, and basically nothing else (except for the Bears' sequels, which I have never seen). Anyway, this always tickles me as both The Thing and The Bad News Bears have large ensemble casts that could easily come off as stereotypes but always work as real people. I always tell people, if you're going to write an ensemble, look no further than Lancaster's tiny resume for tips. And your review was great, as always.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks to you guys for the fantastic comments, it means so much that you liked the piece and it's always great to hear what people respond to in this film. I think what Chaz Zachler points out about Lancaster's contribution is a good reminder of how the late screenwriter is never mentioned enough when it comes to this film. Last week I attended a special screening at the Arclight which featured a Q&A after the film with various crew members as well as David Clennon who more than anything stressed how invaluable Lancaster's contribution really was.

And Chaz--that's so nice of you to say about the piece. I think you know how much that means to me for you to say that. Thank you.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Strangely, Emily Blake of the blog Bamboo Killers left a comment here at one point which strangely disappeared. Here it is just in case:

"We were just watching this last night on HBO, and I started thinking exactly that about the whole Snake Plisskin thing. It's hard to believe they're the same actor; those two characters are so vastly different."

Since Emily pointed it out, it should never be forgotten that Kurt Russell rules.

alone in the dark said...

This comes very late, but it strikes me that when the film came out, I didn't like it either. It was ugly and cold, and everyone in it was angry. It was a film I had to grow into, I suppose, because now when I watch I wonder what on earth I was thinking all those years ago when I disliked it so much.

Maybe I was too young, maybe life needed to kick me around a little bit. I have no idea, but now, this is definitely in my top ten of horror films ever made and possibly in my top twenty of films ever made period. It's that good. And we have Burt's son to thank for that cold, chilly, angry feel. I think Burt wasn't the nicest dad.