From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Monday, November 01, 2004

Monster Mash: John Carpenter's The Thing

Considering the current political climate, and the constant talk of the dangers of "the enemy within", I think it's appropriate for a belated Halloween monster movie retrospective to look at what I think is John Carpenter's best film.

Kurt Russell is R.J. MacReady, helicopter pilot for a US scientific expedition in one of the most isolated parts of world (an Antarctic base). The base's routine is radically disrupted when a helicopter from a Norwegian base explodes near the US station while in pursuit of a stray sled dog. Russell flies one of the base doctors out to the Norwegian station to see if they can find out what happened and why the dog is so important.

At the Norwegian base, they find everyone is dead or gone. There's a mysterious videotape that documents the Norwegians excavation of some unknown item under the ice. The item turns out to be a huge ship not of this world. And the dog carries an alien life form that can assimilate the form of any creature it touches, destroying the original in the process. This puts the entire base at risk, and by extension the rest of the world if it should get back to civilization. MacReady and the rest also have a larger problem to be concerned with: they have seemingly no way of knowing who has been infected/assimilated and who is truly human. As the bodies fall and the chances of stopping the creature get smaller, paranoia sets in in a huge way.

I love this movie for the psychological terror Carpenter employs, making us feel each actor's paranoia and indignation at suggestions they might somehow be the creature in disguise. Every person in the group feels the pressure and the need to look out only for themselves, not being able to know who can be trusted and who can't.

Russell as the focal point in MacReady carried the movie. He leaves you feeling like he's the only one who has a real lock on what's going on and how to handle it. Even then, Carpenter throws a few twists into the mix that leave you wondering to the very end whether he might still be the last person you can trust. There's also a couple of out of character turns by Wilford Brimley and Richard Dysart, playing against their usual amiable father figure types.

And the creature seals the deal with some really graphic, gory special effects. Austin's Alamo Drafthouse did a special program called "The 100 Greatest Kills" featuring 100 memorable screen deaths spliced together. When the program aired last year, they had "Bring your own kill" night, allowing audience members to bring tapes or discs featuring their favorite deaths not included. 3 people brought one of the deaths featured in this film, and there are a couple of others that could have just as easily been included. Not the bloodiest film I've ever seen, but some of this is definitely not for the faint of heart.

I personally don't feel like Carpenter was targetting this movie as a political statement, though released during the later part of the Cold War in 1982, it's possible to read it as an allegory about the "Red Menace", in much the same vein as Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Carpenter's film is a remake of a 1951 Sci-fi classic (the full title of which is The Thing From Another World) that I thought was referred to often as a statement about McCarthyism, as was the source material short story "Who Goes There?" by John Campbell. I only found one reference to this Googling though, so I could be wrong. In any case, there's still something to be said for the message about the destructiveness of isolationism that is epitomized in this film. Perhaps the White House should have had a screening prior to the Iraq invasion? ;-)

Ok, will save the political cracks for post election. In the meantime, if you just like your scares straight and gory, with a healthy dose of machismo, check this one out. Very much a "guy" flick, but also a good scare flick to watch with friends. Enjoy!