CLT Recommends Vol. 1: The ThingJune 16, 2011
Way, way, way back in the day (May 26, 2010 to be exact), I kicked off a self-congratulatory snarkfest entitled “The Fancy Plans Guide to AFI’s Top 100 Films.” Having typed that mouthful would have seemed to have been enough, but I was challenged (on my home turf!) by FJ/RXJ to tell you about some of the movies I actually like. (This may also become a catch-all for music, games, pop culture detritus, entities, books, magazines, short-form videos, img macros, that thing I saw on Facebook, etc. Anything that I can recommend with maximum wordiness will be typed the hell up and shot into the ‘tubes. You’ve been warned…)
It’s an interesting idea. As another occasional writer (but now more occasionally a photographer), RXJ is well aware of the fact that it’s much easier to tear something down than it is to build something up. Negative reviews flow like tainted water. Good reviews tend to build mountains out of molehills made entirely of used-up superlatives. So… goddammit. Here we go.
As we head into this spectacular failure entitled “The Capitalist Lion Tamer Guide to Things Wot I Like Vol. 1” (or whatever), keep in mind whose fault this is. And then go to his blog, ooh and ah over his spectacular pictures and then comment on them… I suppose. But be sure and give him “the look” while you’re there, just in case this goes down as badly as I’m already promising it will.
(Note: If you were expecting me to kick this off with some high class entertainment like a Bertolucci flick, well, quite obviously, I am not. If you’re thinking I’ll be getting to that sort of thing later, prepare to be disappointed! I’m [apparently] not That Guy.
Not that I’m claiming some sort of Pabst Blue Ribbon-esque street cred by pounding out overly-long tributes to pulp cinema, but rather that I find I like the things I like for no real reason, which will be explained via a longish list of reasons and very frequent digressions. Volume 1 will be no exception [mostly due to it being Volume 1, a.k.a. “The Standard Bearer”.])
(Note II: This thing about The Thing is exceedingly long. [4,400+ words.] Wear something comfortable.]
John Carpenter’s 1982 film is very loosely based on 1951’s The Thing from Another World, starring James Arness (most famously, Man with Hat on the long-running Gunsmoke) as some sort of sentient space carrot. The original has its fans, most of whom are presumably dead or running out their remaining years in managed care. Some may even claim the original is superior, but if that were truly true, I wouldn’t be writing this then, would I? There’s only one correct opinion as far as I’m concerned, and as long as I’m doing all the typing, that would be mine.
Quick summary: a crew of scientists uncover a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of the people (among other things) it’s taken over. Shot way the hell up north in British Columbia (see below for how far the hell up north) and on 40-degree sound-stages in Los Angeles. Looks, feels and sounds fucking cold. Appropriately disgusting with groundbreaking special effects. Appropriately violent and turbocharged with atmosphere. The atmosphere is kill. Oppressive paranoia hangs all over the place. Kurt Russell sports some impressive facial hair. Dogs are involved. Way too involved.
It’s a lot like 1979’s Alien, being that it also crafts an incredibly dark story using a small, tightly knit cast, none of whom look like movie star cliches, but rather like people that wandered into the auditions while trying to find directions to the nearest truck stop or liquor store (and still nailed it!).
(This means I’ll probably have to run through Alien as well. Good stuff, with some surprising ultraviolence and killer special effects. Plus, H.R. Giger got to bring his weird-ass, phallus-obsessed art to the mainstream, resulting in a spectacularly evil-looking alien with a psychosexually charged penis-dentata-meets-acid-blood structure.
I’m sure I’m reading way too much into it, but there’s a definite weirded-out-by-pregnancy subtext present, what with the facehugger’s ability to lay eggs… in your fucking mouth. Eggs that mature and hatch. And then burst right the fuck out of your chest with a maximum amount of pain and blood and a minimum of forewarning or painful contractions. It’s familiar ground, one trodden on by David Cronenberg (The Fly) and David Lynch (Eraserhead). Something about the undeniable alien-ness of a being growing inside someone’s body, completely hidden. Probably the most common form of “body horror.” The exit of said being in The Thing is rather messy as well.)
Back to The Thing
KEY #1: AUTHENTICITY
Not many people could do what Carpenter did with this one, including refrigerate the hell out of his cast for an authentically cold feel.
Nothing feels as cold as The Thing does. The key is the breath. That’s real condensation there. Seeing your breath is real. They do it now with digital effects and you can tell. It looks no more real than the synchronized, equally-sized breaths of Madden football players in a snow game. (Little known fact: down lineman breathe in sync.) You can see the fakeness and feel the warmth of a 72-degree actor pretending to be cold and completely failing as an almost-but-not-quite puff of white “breath” appears somewhere near their face. More actors need to be pushed to discomfort. As Neil Simon (or possibly Spencer Tracy) once said: “The physical labor actors have to do wouldn’t tax an embryo.”
They don’t fake it in The Thing. That’s Key #1. (Which should probably have been labeled “KEY #1” up above this for clarity. No matter. We’ll fix it in post. [Another film term. It means “this continuity error will be mocked mercilessly and enshrined forever at IMDB.”])(Oh, but look: I fixed it anyway. Good for me and my foresighted hindsight.)
KEY #2: PARANOIA
Another reason this film works so well is the steady ramping up of fear, distrust and paranoia. Everyone’s possibly infected. This element is deployed mercilessly. Everyone is always yelling at everyone else and threatening each other with severe violencings. Guns are waved around a lot. So is a flame thrower. Some knives get waved about threateningly. This description would seem to make The Thing just another guys-pointing-guns-at-each-other-and-getting-shouty flick*, but it never devolves into anything that played out.
In fact, it heads completely down a separate path with the “blood test” scene, in which half the principals are tied up and the other half are pointing guns and flamethrowers at each other, even though nobody really knows who’s “infected” and who’s “clean.” If you haven’t watched the flick yet, the scene is reminiscent of getting an STD screening, only the doctors are ready to kill you if you ring up a positive and the rest of the patients are either tied up or waving around a (probably unlicensed) handgun and will also kill you if you show the slightest sign of toilet seat herpes. Plus, it’s really cold outside and your chances of living out the rest of your life as a happy and productive horseback rider are swiftly heading past “slim” towards “none” faster than the atmosphere inside the paranoid clinic or the harsh British Columbian wintry mix (not including wind chill) outside. So: tense.
*Also known as “Fuck You! No, Fuck You!” flicks.
Key #3: KURT RUSSELL
I’m not one of Russell’s acolytes* but he does completely own this role. He is exactly the sort of guy who would ask for a transfer to the Antarctic simply because above-zero temperatures no longer interest him. The extensive bearding helps, at times taking over a scene entirely. He’s a low-level badass because the situation only calls for low levels of badassery. In manufacturing terms, he’d be more concerned with throughput than process. Point A to B. What’s the most direct route? Even (or especially) if the direct route has resistance.
In fact, it’s probably better if there is resistance. (No, I think you will use that centrifuge!) Just a no-bullshit, get-things-done attitude that grates on the other team members, but they realize the value he adds and so they don’t say much about it, especially if he’s been drinking. I would imagine this sort of kicking-ass-taking-names probably plays hell with the scientific method. (Screw your control groups and peer review bullshit! We don’t have the time!)
*EXTENDED FAUX-FOOTNOTE DIGRESSION
I have dealt with Russell’s acolytes, most of whom champion Big Trouble in Little China as the zenith of filmmaking. I’ve watched parts of it, but I’m not seeing it. This isn’t meant to disparage Russell’s faithful, a few of whom are good friends and whose taste is generally spot on otherwise. Maybe I’m missing something. Feel free to champion BTiLC in the comment threads. I’m always open to another viewpoint. (“Open” and “willing to ignore.” It’s as dichotomous as it is deeply hypocritical. I would apologize for this, but surely you’ve dealt with bloggers before. )
And not “appreciating” BtiLC is by no means a knock against Russell. I enjoyed his work in Tombstone even though he was far from the best thing in it. There were a few scenes of his that would have been better off being replaced with tasteful insert shots of Sam Elliott’s glorious “I-have-no-mouth-and-I-must-drawl” mustache. (Namely: any time he and his wife “interact.” And I don’t mean “having sex” like I normally do when I say “interact.” I mean anytime they converse or make eye contact or say “laudanum.”)
[This would also include any scene featuring Bill Paxton front-and-center. Paxton spends nearly the entire running time looking like he’s five minutes away from getting his ass kicked. It’s the pained expression of a schoolkid willing the clock backwards, knowing that as soon as the bell rings, he’s going to get slaughtered by the bully on the playground.]
I also enjoyed Russell in Death Proof, where he was easily the best thing about it (other than the soundtrack and the decapitation-via-tire car wreck). Any time he was onscreen meant less time given over to girls talking like Quentin Tarantino imagines girls would talk if they were trying to sound like guys. (Especially guys who are former video store clerks.) Also a bonus: no gratuitous shots of Russell’s naked feet.
He was also pretty excellent in Used Cars, another movie I could have sworn Harry Dean Stanton** appeared in.
** Usually the best part of anything, especially when used sparingly, as in Twin Peaks:Fire Walk with Me, in which he refers to a dead woman’s trailer as being “more popular than uncle’s day at a whorehouse.” He delivers this line to a perfectly coiffed Chris Isaak (yes, that one) in the rattiest bathrobe ever attributed to Hollywood costume department.
[Inserted above because of incredible amounts of awesomeness. Found via Darrell St.]
KEY #4 THE CAST
A key to Russell’s performance is that he just flatout looks tired. Most of the cast does. (Well, Wilford Brimley always looks a bit tired.) And why shouldn’t they? Working in sub-arctic conditions wears a person down. It clicks. They click. The cast conveys the cabin fever and exhaustion of several months of cold and dark turning irreversibly into a “bad deal.” They all get along alright but they’re also quickly getting sick of each other. This weariness, combined with the lack of space, blows everything up into something bigger than it actually is. Hence, the paranoia. Hence also, the quick escalation when everything starts going wrong.
This goes back to key #1 (sort of): The cast projects the tension of people who have been doing the same thankless job in a barren, frozen shithole for way too long. Learning is fun, yes, but not in 50 below wind chills, surrounded by a variety of unkempt men, some of whom have decided to go full Grizzly Adams all over their face, because why not? It’s not like they’re expecting visitors.
And speaking of thankless jobs, nothing’s more thankless than having to play the human element in a movie full of snow, fire, special effects and former Disney golden boy, Kurt Russell. But they perform like a true ensemble, all the while looking like they wish they were somewhere else, not because they hated the situation they were in, but because their characters wanted to be somewhere else and hated the situation they were in. There’s a difference and it’s often easily dismissed as actors just “playing themselves.” This isn’t that. At all.
And how do you get an ensemble cast to project this? By dragging them out to a barren, frozen shithole (my apologies to upper British Columbia) and shooting a film there, guaranteeing they’ll all see more of each other than anybody else.
KEY #4.5: THE CAST+ISOLATION + CONFINEMENT
The reason why The Thing and Alien work work so well and so many other horror films don’t is these components. Put anyone into this combination and you don’t even need a monster. Add a monster and you’ve got pure, violent, paranoid cinematic gold.
Even better, don’t use just anyone. Use someone uniquely unsuited for combat and confrontation. The Thing uses scientists. Alien uses a salvage crew. And for your cast, don’t use whatever’s currently blonding up a storm or attempting self-deprecation in the latest blockbuster (and failing badly, without a single tooth unwhitened or a single hair out of place). Use people who, for lack of a better word, look “lived in.” They look like they’ve actually done something else other than complain about craft services and run up long distance charges by abusing their in-trailer fax machine. (We’re still in the 80s, remember?)
The wall-crawling tension of isolation and confinement is honed to a razor-sharp edge in The Thing. First of all, the scientists have been doing presumably scientific-y stuff until this tainted dog shows up and starts shredding the other dogs into unidentifiable (and somewhat tentacled) pieces. This would seem to play to their intellect. After all, they know research and have tons of education behind them. If they could contain it. But they can’t. They don’t even know where/who it is most of the time.
Now, they’re against the wall, which is an ugly place to put somebody not well-versed in gunplay or kung-fu or whatever else might be useful in fighting off something that’s trying to kill you. The cast sells us on this as well. They fire their weapons with a look that combines life-or-death instincts with complete unfamiliarity. The look says “This needs to be done to in order to kill/maim the whatever that’s trying to kill/maim us, but I’m pretty sure that I’m not doing it right.” There’s no machismo behind the gun use. They miss. A lot. I suppose some of those errant bullets could be explained away as “warning shots.” Of course, that assumes that the thing they’re trying to kill gives even the smallest shit about protecting their egos.
Armed with scant information and guns that, in their hands, might as well be Palestinian slingshots aimed at Israeli tanks, they begin to feel the claustrophobia. They lash out. They sabotage each other. Insta-quarantines are set up and quickly breached. Accusations fly.
That’s confinement. There’s also the isolation. This is the Antarctic. You can’t just fly in and out and, once the equipment’s* sabotaged, there’s no contact. When things go bad (and they already have), siege mentality sets in. You may as well be trapped in the belly of the Nostromo. (Alien again.) ( Sorry.)
I’m hoping that the ubiquity of cellphones means the end of terrified people grabbing the phone only to realize that it’s dead. It’s one thing if Victim A picks up the phone and can clearly see the line to the handset has been cut. It’s quite another when they pick up the phone and (without visual verification) assume either:
a.) every phone in the house is dead, or
b.) the house has no other phones.
Either assumption is terrible.
(And lazy. Not that the victim is lazy, but the victim is the victim of lazy writing. And the real victim here is the victim, whose story is getting shortchanged by a lack of imagination. But the real victim is the audience, who collectively are the victim of lazy scriptwriting, lazy acting and, presumably, lazy editing and lazy assumptions by long-winded bloggers who couldn’t end a sentence if they were paid to, and they WON’T BE, precisely for this sort of indulgent writing.)
The audience is just supposed to accept the fact that Serial Killer/Unknown Evil Force is not only an efficient killing machine, but also knows exactly where to go to cut off phone service and electricity to a single house. How much spare time do serial killers have? It’s a little easier to believe if the killer has a longstanding beef with Victim A, but if it’s just a case of “wrong place (victim’s house) at the wrong time (night, predominantly),” I find it hard to believe (personally)(which would be why I said “I”)(which will be struck from the post retroactively) that Stabby McKillsall is also an experienced phone tech/electrician/taxidermist [?]. (You know, unless that’s the TWIST!)
Of course, they’ve just switched dead landlines for “NO SIGNAL,” because that’s the laziest way out. There are towers almost literally everywhere, yet every soon-to-be-eviscerated cellphone user rushes to the gaps in the coverage as quickly as their doomed legs will carry them.
“I’ve got an idea! Let’s go way the hell out to the middle of nowhere, someplace we can’t even get a half-bar of service and get flayed to death by misshapen mountain men! I’ll double our fun by putting electrician’s tape over the fuel gauge so we can run out of motherfucking gas on the way! I’ve also taken the precaution of pre-slashing the tires!”
In case you’re wondering why you’re dead, speculative quote person above, it’s because the universe ran the numbers and saw your continued existence was a net negative.
BACK TO THE THING
KEY #5 – THE SOUNDTRACK
If you’re going to set your terror flick in the middle of a bleak, icy wasteland, you’d better make sure you’re not dispelling the atmosphere with cranky-ass nu-rock or telegraphing every emotional moment with a John Williams-esque score.
John Carpenter is an electro-genius. (See also: The Halloween theme, the Assault on Precinct 13 soundtrack). Ennio Morricone knows atmosphere. (See also: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. [THIS WOULD BE ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT ENNIO MORRICONE BUT BY ALL MEANS, IF THAT’S NOT ENOUGH, PLEASE HELP YOURSELF TO THIS WIKIPEDIA LINK.])
(Please enjoy this fine tribute to the genius of John Carpenter by the unlikeliest-looking pair of rock stars ever:)
(Oh, and also this, which is completely related to the topic at hand and made entirely out of G.I. Joes. [Also kickassic™:)
I’ve played The Thing video game, which made it to the Playstation 2 back in the year of our lord 2002 a.d. It’s of the survival horror variety and featured some nice touches like a truly awesome flamethrower and a sense of urgency brought on by the extreme cold. Your time available for exploration outside is very limited, simulating the effects of exposure. Well, not so much simulating them as just decreasing your health the longer you’re outside. This gave moving from place to place a bit more of an edge and trimmed down a lot of the extraneous “I wonder where this goes?” bullshit, as you moved you and your dwindling health from Point A to Point B. (“Oh, it leads to a locked door that must have been painted on the wall as I can’t even pretend to grab the handle and attempt to manipulate it.”)
It also had a somewhat functional fear/trust system for managing your team members. It was a great idea, adding the promise of subtlety and nuance and possibly multiple endings. You had to keep your team’s shit together (mentally) while still maintaining a healthy paranoia (given that any of your crew could “turn” at any moment.) All well and good, except that the “fear/trust” system seemed to be almost binary, with a lot of the pre-scripted situations doing nothing more than flipping a switch. Example:
New teammate joins up, trust is “Low.” (Because he doesn’t know you from heavily bearded Adam. Understandable. Although, what the hell is this previously unknown person doing in the Antarctic? I can’t believe scientific crews in an icehole like that would be so big that you’d run into “new” people. But whatever. This isn’t the point. [Although it could be!] (It isn’t.))
Give a gun to new teammate.
Watch teammate use your former gun with all the skill of an epileptic with cataracts. Take gun back. (Ammo is limited. Especially now that your “helpful” teammate has stuck a lot of that ammo into various walls and furniture.)
Now, not only is “helpful” teammate a terrible shot, but he’s suddenly unwilling to follow any commands you given him. It’s a sudden shift into “petulant teenager” mode. And why? Because I won’t let you have a gun? Well, fuck you, buddy. If I needed this place to be more dangerous, I’d just take off my clothes (not actually an option) and run around outside until the weather/alien thing killed me.
The FEAR is also a problem. You may have a rather useful teammate who can actually kill something now and then without feeling compelled to empty a majority of the clip into the crate-covered background, but the moment they come across the first icy corpse/blood spattered wall, they instantly fall to pieces. While you’re trying to figure out which one of the equally non-descript buildings contains THE CUTSCENE (needed to advance the story), teammate X is laying on the floor in a fetal position, sucking his thumb and clicking his heels together, most likely surrounded by terrifying crates.
So, what do you do? Give him another gun? Nothing stops the FEAR. And if said quivering wreck is integral to the story (i.e., surprise! he turns into an alien shortly down the line in the crucial CUTSCENE you can’t seem to find), well… you’re just kind of fucked. Because there is absolutely nothing you can do to move his whimpering ass to the room that contains the SCRIPT.
Good news! You can have a crew of three people following you around at any given time, each one taking everything so goddamned personally that it becomes a perverse emotional micromanagement game. With limited ammo.
BACK TO THE THING
KEY #6 – SPECIAL EFFECTS
These are actually special. A 22-year-old wiz kid named Rob Bottin kicked out some of the weirdest and most grotesque effects seen up to that point in movie history. I’d go right ahead and label them “mindblowing,” seeing as I can’t mentally place myself back into my 1982 self to gauge my reaction. (I would have been eight years old, so probably “OMIGOD!” followed by a few sleepless nights.)
What else was out there to gauge against at that point in time? Jaws (1979) had its mostly-lifelike mechano-shark, which spent most of the film’s running time presenting itself as a rather large motorized fin. Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) had intricate models and an adorable version of outer space, a vacuum in which things exploded and made lots of noise. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) gave us a billionaire’s version of the game Simon™. The only thing in the neighborhood was John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, which had some amazing special effects but was limited to a person transforming into a wolf. (Oh, and another person who was transforming into a hideous Dorian Gray portrait, only more mobile and way more chatty.)
In The Thing, you’ve got a dog morphing into a crab-leg waving, bullwhip-thick tentacle-spouting, hissing affront to God which later morphs into a sharp (and wet) bouquet of tongues and teeth and even later, scurries off under the table as nothing more than king crab-like legs sporting a human head. Every iteration of the thing is progressively more horrifying/stomach churning.
Add to this the fact that Bottin lost an entire creature setup to a combination of flammable monster-building material and John Carpenter’s desire to light as many scenes as possible with open flames. At this point, you’ve got to give a huge raise to your FX master, especially when Stan Winston’s world-famous effects studio is listed in the film’s specs as “PLAN B.”
Oh, and you may have seen his work in such obscure films as Robocop, Legend, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Total Recall, Se7en*, Fight Club* and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.*
*Possible candidates for another long-winded edition of “CLT Talks About Pretty Much Everything But the Topic at Hand.”
Verdict: The Thing is one of the most tightly crafted (and tightly wound) horror films ever made. If you need further recommendations, just ask the director. John Carpenter himself says The Thing is his favorite film he’s made. Unfortunately for him, it barely made back the money poured into it and was bashed by several critics for its goriness and bleak-as-fuck ending. Whatever. Those are “features,” not “bugs.” If you haven’t seen it, do it now before the remake comes along and ruins it for everybody.*
*Supposedly it’s a prequel, which can only mean one thing: they’ll actually get around to remaking this film whether anyone wants them to or not. [Heavy sigh.]