Chilling Out… Out of My Mind!

I’ve never been one to watch horror movies, but I’ve been reading a lot about them lately. It’s kind a perverse thing to do — I know I’ll never watch the damn things, but every time I walk into a “Books-a-Million” the most interesting book on the shelf always seems to have a zombie on the cover and so I pick it up, leaf through. Recently I’ve read two fantastic books on the subject: Jason Zinoman’s “Shock Value,” about the great horror revolution of the 1970s, and legendary director John Landis’s coffee table compendium “Monsters in the Movies.”

So I know a heck of a lot about horror movies, way more than someone who doesn’t enjoy them and thinks Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (the one where the bad guys are really cat monsters and not crooks in masks!) is scary should. I appreciate them as these great works, find them fascinating as cultural touchstones, and read about them frequently and excitedly. And sadly, I’ve never seen them and up until now have never wanted to.

So as I approached my mission to dive head-first into the world of horror this October, I had a lot to go on, and I had to make a quick tactical decision: open with something kind of scary to get myself acclimated, like sticking your toe in a cold pool — maybe an episode of “The X-Files” — or just say screw it and jump right in with the scariest, most terrifying, mind-shattering thing I could think of, with only the slightest risk of permanent trauma or heart failure attached.

Ultimately my computer made my decision for me last night. I knew what my biggest demon was. The movie that I had been told since I was little would leave me haunted with nightmares for years, “The Exorcist,” had been staring out at me from the Netflix library for weeks asking me why I was too chicken to press play. I started this column with that motivation in mind, and was simply agonizing over whether popping open “The Exorcist” on my first night was really an advisable decision. I pressed play multiple times, and in the ultimate evocation of exactly the type of suspense that freaks me out, the movie loaded and loaded and loaded as I agonized over whether I would really go through with this… and of course it never started. So “The Exorcist” will have to wait until another night, but I swear, I shall conquer it.

(Sidenote: Netflix’s horror library sucks, like on a deeply profound level. For all the stupid nonsense Netflix has pulled in the last two months, I had not yet been as utterly angry at it as I was last night, when I saw that, outside of “The Exorcist” and “Paranormal Activity,” the horror movies on Netflix are utter rubbish. What’s truly scary: that they’re trying to pass that off as something people should be happy to pay for, without the option of renting from the DVD collection. Yikes!)

And so I went to YouTube and somehow ended up finding what I thought was a respectable middle ground: “John Carpenter’s The Thing.”

Here is legendary New York Times critic Vincent Canby in his 1982 review of “The Thing:”

John Carpenter’s ”The Thing” is a foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is fun as neither one thing or the other… Like all such movies that don’t trust themselves to keep an audience interested by legitimate dramatic means, ”The Thing” shows us too much of ”the thing” too soon, so that it has no place to go. It plods in circles from one mock-horror effect to the next. It’s entertaining only if one’s needs are met by such sights as those of a head walking around on spiderlike legs; autopsies on dogs and humans in which the innards explode to take on other, not easily identifiable forms; hand severings, immolations, wormlike tentacles that emerge from the mouth of a severed head, or two or more burned bodies fused together to look like spareribs covered with barbecue sauce. ”The Thing”… is too phony looking to be disgusting. It qualifies only as instant junk.

I would like to point out that this review was more than emblematic of the reaction to this film when it premiered in 1982. It flopped horribly at the box office. Audiences hated it: two weeks after they had fallen in love with alien life in “E.T.”, the alien was the bad guy again and he was making grumpy people explode into festering monsters. The film did not even connect with horror fans who usually like festering monsters. Critics recieved the film with open revulsion and rampant derision. Even John Carpenter obsessives felt their favorite director had failed them. The movie basically set Carpenter’s brilliant early career (“Halloween,” “Escape From New York”) back a decade and lost him plum directing jobs just as he was entering the studio system. Cinefantastique magazine asked, in a double issue, whether it was the “most hated movie of all time.”

All of this is extremely strange and makes me wonder whether “E.T.” collectively brainwashed the American public because, in fact, “The Thing” is a freaking brilliant movie. It is a master class on how to, through tense paranoia and stifling claustrophobia, build and maintain pressure without releasing one iota of it.

Everyone pretty much agrees on this now. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a film that has undergone a more drastic 180 from initial reception to contemperary concensus; in 2011, “The Thing” is considered a science fiction classic, a horror classic, and one of Carpenter’s best films. Nothing is more emblematic of this turnaround than the upcoming big-hype “Thing” prequel: it is astounding that a story that, in 1982, not only would never have gotten a sequel green-lit, but also got its director fired from all his subsequent directing jobs, is making it’s way back to screens in 2011, and people are not wondering, as they did with “Tron,” why on earth another film in this universe is even necessary this late; the main question is “Why mess with Carpenter’s perfection?”

A Monster Without a Form

“The Thing” is a movie which, in form, mimics it’s mostly formless heavy: the movie is fluid, coming in waves that seem like different vingettes on a theme, all the time alternating at the drop of a dime between wild tension boiling deeply beneath the surface and cataclysmic sound and fury lashing out suddenly like so many acidic tentacles. Those acidic tentacles — the film’s horrifying effects, it’s gruesome deaths, and it’s bleak mood which absolutley will not let up — initially turned people away, but today they serve as wonderful, controlled releases of the unbearable tension which pervades the isolated Antarctic station where MacReady (Kurt Russell) and the “thing” (Evil Rubber) do battle with their respective weapons — flamethrowers and deciet.

The film opens hundreds of thousands of years in the past. A spaceship crashes to Earth. The ship is discovered in 1982 by a group of Norweigen scientists, who mysteriously destroy their complex and kill each other off after bringing an organic life form they find back to their camp. The last remaining Norweigan makes it all the way to the American camp, but the American team — made up of twelve members who spend their time being bored, playing ping pong, getting angry at chess computer games, and, we can only presume, doing some science things occasionally — misunderstands his aggression and takes him out with a head shot, ending the tragedy of the Norweigans who think their discovery of alien life will improve their lives immeasurably but instead all end up mutilated and badly charred (the story of these Norweigans will act as the premise for the upcoming prequel.)

The only remaining member of the Norweigan team is a beautiful sled dog; after watching the Norweigans ruthlessly attempting to kill this dog, the American team takes it in and begins investigating what might have brought the Scandanavians all the way across the vast, empty expanse which seperates their camps only so that they could murder a dog. They slowly discover that something mysterious was afoot, but they are not sure what until the dog transforms into a Venus-fly-trap like dog mutant from hell and attempts to eat the American sled dogs, at which point they’re all pretty sure what the problem was. MacReady, a drunken helicopter pilot who really does not like losing at chess, orders the team to flamethrower that beast, but one of the monsters gets away.

The autopsy of the dog monster reveals that the alien is made up of really angry cells which attack the cells of its host, replicating them. In time, the “thing” can create a perfect replication of what it attacks, a perfect replication that will hold until the moment it attacks something else, at which point the “thing” becomes a demented nightmare version of whoever it replicated and feeds.

At this moment, the team realizes that any of them could have already been infected by the “thing,” and that any of the eleven men surrounding them could already be something he does not appear to be. And unbelievably dramatic paranoia ensues.

One by one, members of the team are picked off. Some are done in by the monster, who gruesomely comes out to play every once in a while to eat someone’s arms and generally make creepy. Most though are done in by the paranoia of their own teammates who no longer know who they can trust. With no way to prove who is still a human and who has become an alien parasite, every man becomes a beast capable of taking out someone they once called friend. The movie builds on this conflict to create an unrelenting portrait of humanity gone sour in the face of mistrust and isolation.

Enough Stalling. How’d You Hold Up, Wimp?

Pretty well! The film is undoubtedly a freak out, but I accorded myself pretty well. I only paused the film once before a scene I knew would freak me out (just before the guys come in to check out the dog monster that’s eating the other dogs), I only covered my ears once (I don’t remember why, but I remember doing it and thinking I was an idiot) and I never once fast fowarded through a scary scene so that I would know all the scary things that were going to happen before I watched it at real speed. (This is a trick I pull pretty frequently, sad to say…)

For some reason the film was pretty tense the whole way through — not knowing who the bad guy that could turn into a tentacled monster is will do that to you — but I didn’t find it extraordinarily scary. There are very few jump moments in the film. Most of the horror is slow-burn, as we take in the immense degradation of morals the scientists, pilots and other assorted handymen undergo while facing a menace that makes them lose trust in eachother. So every gun or scalpel becomes a weapon a man could use against the man next to him and not necessarily against the monster. There’s no romantic subplot to fall back on, no deep friendship that outlasts the paranoia caused by the monster. Anyone could kill anyone else at any moment. In that way, the whole film is giant chess board. Any move could lead to a subsequent retribution. The film leans pretty heavily on this for much of the horror and darkness to be found in the world Carpenter creates here.

I think most people consider “The Thing” a gross-out film. This is because “The Thing” is that film (rare than, unfortunately common now) that is completely unafraid to show you its monster. It is also because this the rarest of all films — one where the effects of the time successfully create a monster that is immensely more grotesque, frightening and appropriate than anything the viewer could have come up with on their own. Carpenter explained why the stars aligned for this movie: “I had an actress lecture me at lunch once: you never show the face of the devil… and I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, but if you have a great mask for the devil, you could scare the shit out of people!'”

Indeed, the mask for the devil is splendid; make-up artist Rob Bottin is rightfully lauded for creating effects for this film that pretty much blow anything today out of the water. However, since the devil is not lurking in the shadows and is instead splayed out beneath lab lights or caught in splendid close-up, my reaction was not so much “Ahhh!” as much as it was “My god, that looks good, they’re pulling it off!” The monster is gruesome but, by the end of the film, almost familiar — scenes with the monster make you cringe, but, in fact, the scariest scenes involve no make-up effects at all. The scenes that gave me pause all involved the men simply standing around, because you know what is going through their minds. “I know I’m still me, and I will flamethrower any son-of-a-bitch that gets in my way!” Every quiet moment is imbued with this pressure, threatening to explode at any second. And so, on the horror spectrum, if autopsies-on-screen don’t make you queasy (I’m pretty much immune) you actually get a much more cerebral experience than you do a fright-fest.

Don’t get me wrong: this movie has some genuinely freaky nightmarish images, but it was all surreal enough and personal enough (as in, the monster is inside you!!!) to not invoke the boogeyman in my closet. I never truly experienced fear. Maybe that’s not “The Thing”s specialty — it’s opposite poles of subdued introspection and over-the-top grotesquerie don’t make you jump as much as they unsettle you.

Alternatively, maybe I’m more ready for this than I thought I was — I am, it turns out, a mature, put-together individual and I can handle a movie monster, appreciating it like a fine wine and not letting it alter my sleep habits once the credits roll! (This is the less likely of the two options, clearly.) Either way, my quest has begun. The door to horror is open, and the monster is getting ever closer to my heart.

Overtime:

  • The film’s scariest scene: a seemingly innocuous death by heart attack turns into a carnival of blood and bodily perversion, as the victim’s chest cavity opens into a gnashing mouth and consumes the arms of the doctor kindly attempting ressecutation. (Really it’s the oppisite of the chest-burster scene in “Alien”: Rather than the alien coming out of the abdomen, the alien opens the abdomen up and takes a bite. Brilliant!)
  • The film’s best scene: MacReady has finally come up with a test that will prove who is still human and who among them is the “thing.” All the surviving men are tied down, and their blood is touched by a hot pokey stick: whoever flips out and tries to eat someone doesn’t get to make it out of the room. Everyone else gets a pat on the back and a hearty apology. Every poke of the stick is a delicious moment of “whodunnit” tension. It’s like the moment where the detective tells you who the murderer was all along, except with petrie dishes, cursing and flamethrowers, which should, I have now deduced, should be involved in all mystery stories from now on. In short, a finely conducted orchestra of restrained horror.
  • The biggest surprise: of twelve men on Carpenter’s Antarctic base, two are black. Neither man is stereotyped negatively, one is pretty much the secondary hero, and, shockingly, neither man dies first. Since I’ve never taken an interest in horror, I’ve always just assumed the “black guy dies first” maxim to be based on an absolute truth, so imagine my surprise at seeing the two black men in this movie contintue to have their character’s built upon as other men died around them. There are only four men left standing by the film’s finale, and both black men – Nauls, the chef and Chiles, the resident badass – are among them. One of them survives the entire movie (unless you suspect that he is now the “thing”) and even gets in the last great line. Awesome! In honor of this film, I am now going to keep tally. So, the first tally on our “The Black Guy Dies First Scoreboard”: Convention 0, Black Guys 2! Keep the momentum going, black guys in horror movies!
  • I love the fire and ice motif in this movie: how much farther apart can you get on the spetrum than Antarctica and flamethrowers! Also, how much more awesome can you get than Antarctica and flamethrowers?
  • I wasn’t particularly grossed out by the effects in this film, but I feel like that may just be personal taste. I do feel howerever that there is a generational motive at work when it comes to this film’s shifting place in the horror canon: In 1982, most negative reviews of the film amounted to “Ewww…” or “Ohmygawd ewww…” Today the amount gore shown feels positively Puritan for anyone whose seen a “Saw” or “Hostel” film. (I have not.) I’d like to explore this conflict further.
  • Any reccomendations for the next movie I watch?
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