Monday, October 20, 2014

Monster Serial: THE THING, 1982


One of the many elements I like about THE THING is its happy ending.  Yeah, they’re going to die, but what were their lives, anyway?  They were up there for a reason.  See, from what I can tell, MacReady and Childs are still human, because The Thing would have manifested itself.  And they both innately trust each other or else they wouldn’t be drinking out of the same bottle.  If they were Things, they’d just make wacky sounds at each other.  So, enjoy that terrible brand of scotch, boys.  Mission accomplished. 

I know there’s an alternate ending on a Navy submarine that’s rescued MacReady, and I really wish that John Carpenter had buckled to studio pressure and released that ending. 

The reason is that a good Carpenter ending lives somewhere between ambiguity and a total certainty that the worst outcome possible is about to happen.  His approach is brilliant that way because it lets the filmgoing process keep happening.  In an age when limp sequels were not yet the rule, this would have set up the most exciting tension possible; The Thing gets loose on the boat.  Unlike the research station, that vehicle would actually have a heading. 

I digress. 

But digressing is the point.  Fewer films in the horror genre mean so many things to so many different people.  Ironic, the creature itself is formless, morphing and surviving as a situation demands.  Similarly, the film containing it is almost kaleidoscopic in the shifting mysteries it presents.  I watch it two or three times a year with different groups, and it never gets old — and I never get the same message or feeling from it twice.  Sometimes, it’s the ultimate lament about Dealing With Women.  Sometimes it’s about the necessity of trust when we’re old enough to know better.

The last THING-oriented essay that I just couldn’t finish was all about the the fact that this movie was the last bastion for sensitive, post-feminist men to talk about their fears, anger and anxieties regarding the honeys.  But that only went so far.  When the first MONSTER SERIAL came out and I saw the words “morbid love letters” regarding horror movies, I immediately realized what a wrong turn I’d made at Albuquerque regarding the essay.

If you haven’t seen the film, the members of an Antarctic research station happen upon the ruins of a station from Norway where the staff has been subjected to unspeakably surreal and dysmorphic carnage.  Upon return to their own camp, they realize that an infectious, shape-shifting alien has begun to consume and duplicate their ranks.  The film then becomes a game of chess and poker as the heroes try to suss out good from bad, not knowing whether they, themselves, are duplicates. 
So these are significant elements that I love about THE THING.

For one thing, it was part of that astounding summer of 1982 that has been written about in volume one.  The infuriating part of that summer is that all of the great films that were being released got over shadowed by the obvious, unfunny and saccharine E.T.  THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL.

 (I’m so much happier when people associate Mary Hart’s gams with the initials “E.T.” rather than that misshapen dwarf with the creepy finger.  I wonder where Mary Hart is now.  I don’t mean in her career.  I mean, right now.  I’m writing this in a lonely basement in Louisville after cleaning out family mementos from a storage unit.  It’s been a tough weekend.  Where is Mary Hart?  What of her legs?  Maybe she’s shaving them.  Or waxing them.  Or walking through a swanky restaurant, with her legs making a swish-swish sound as they brush together in nylons woven with a shiny hint of lycra.  As much as I love THE THING, I may love this image even more.  I’m just going to pour a drink and think about that.  I need it.  It’s been a difficult day.  Hang on.)

Okay, I’m back.

Talk about the finger.  THE THING is John Carpenter’s ultimate bird to that love piddling homunculus leering at Henry Thomas and his sister.  It’s a manly film.  It’s the film that Elliot would have preferred watching to E.T. during a “sick day.”  How’s that for irony?

 For seasoned fans of THE THING, there is not only a sense of triumph in how well it has aged, but in how engaging and complex it remains.  Upon the second viewing —and for the many viewings after that — it’s impossible not to play “Who’s-infected-when?”  I can think of no other film that so rigorously engages the audience in the storytelling process without alienating them and/or making them feel dumb.  This last time I watched it, I was struck by a new, key mystery: do MacReady, Copper, and Norris go into the spaceship?  The Thing clearly came out a big hole — look at the size of the ice block it was in.  So, they could probably go in.  Wouldn’t you go in?  Wouldn’t you go back to the base and yell, “Hey guys, we found these gross bodies, but even cooler is a GIANT SPACESHIP IN THE ICE!  You gotta come see!”

These are men starved for entertainment.  There is no such thing as common sense in such a gathering.  And they’re scientists.  (What are they studying?  It’s never clear.  Their lines, I guess.)  Of course they’d go in.  But do they?  No.  Why?  The more I think about it, the more that becomes the central mystery of the film.  Unless ...

Now, Norris is a Thing pretty early on.  The film sets this up because we see the creepy dog walk into a shadowy someone’s quarters, and the only two men that curvaceous in silhouette are Norris and Wilford Brimley.  But it can’t be Wilford Brimley.  He’s more of an apple in the fat department, and the shadow we see is more of a pear.  That means it’s got to be Norris.  So, what if Norris went into the spaceship and got infected?  Maybe he infects the dog?  Maybe the dog is innocent.  I was raised to assume that any dog being shot at by Ibsen-crazed Norwegians in a helicopter must be infected with alien spores, but what if my parents were wrong?  Were they naive or just lying to me?  It doesn’t matter.  The dog may have been innocent the whole time.  Your honor, my client would like to change his plea.
This column is among those featured in
 BRIDE OF MONSTER SERIAL, a collection of 
horror essays written by contributors to 
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See, this is what contemplating THE THING will do to you.  CLOVERFIELD can kiss my ass.  That’s not Lovecraftian.  This is Lovecraftian.  Lovecraft fans (and why didn’t we ever have an adult film star named “Linda Lovecraft”?) always talk about how you “go mad just by seeing these creatures.”  Hogwash.  You go mad by trying to figure out what the hell’s going on to whom and when in THE THING.

That’s the beauty of it.  These guys are in totally over their heads, but they never lose theirs.  In fact, like me while succumbing to an attack of nausea, the worse things get, the funnier they get.  The film has two great laugh lines that I won’t share.  But they’re maybe the funniest moments in all of 1982 cinema that are not in a film called VICTOR/VICTORIA.  Or TRON. 

Have I sold you on this film?  Do I care?  If you miss it, you’ll miss out on a film that is dark and bleak, but never depressing.  Humanity just keeps slugging away.  It remains unvanquished by arguably the greatest chess player of a movie monster ever not-entirely-seen.  If you haven’t yet seen it, I envy you.  If you have seen it, go watch it again.  It is an entirely different film than you thought it was.  And it will have that same quality each time you watch it.  That is an artistic response in full accord with the film that inspires it. 

PATRICK McCRAY is a comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.

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