Saturday, October 15, 2011

Director's Spotlight #1.3: John Carpenter's The Thing

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and why some of their films work and some don’t. This month, the director in question is Master of Horror John Carpenter, and the focus on his 70s and 80s horror films. Next, his masterpiece, 1982’s The Thing.

Grade: 96 (A)

The 1980s were a fruitful period for John Carpenter creatively, if not always commercially. Many of his finest films underperformed with critics and audiences, but few initial failures are as puzzling as his remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks production The Thing From Another World. Perhaps audiences weren’t willing to watch Carpenter’s bleak film back to back with Steven Spielberg’s own masterpiece E.T., a more optimistic look at extra-terrestrial life. Perhaps critics tired of gore were repulsed by the gooey creature-man hybrids. But the film gradually built up a reputation as a masterful combination of suspense and innovative effects, and it remains the greatest showcase of Carpenter’s talents.

Antarctica, Winter 1982”. Those words introduce a harsh, unforgiving landscape. It’s clear from the beginning that this isn’t going to be the happiest of places. A research team occupies an Antarctic outpost. There are twelve men: uptight station commander Garry (Donald Moffat); Clark (Richard Masur), the sled-dog handler; Drs. Copper (Richard Dysart) and Blair (Wilford Brimley); neurotic radio operator Windows (Thomas G. Waites); and irreverent cook Nauls (T.K. Carter). There researchers: hotheaded Childs (Keith David); soft-spoken Fuchs (Joel Polis); everymen Norris (Charles Hallahan) and Bennings (Peter Maloney). Finally, there are two helicopter pilots: slow-witted Palmer (David Clennon) and all around badass R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell). They are tired, dirty, and isolated from civilization. Their radio doesn’t work too well, the weather is terrible, and in MacReady’s words, “it’s the first goddamn week of winter”.

One day, they hear gunshots and explosions outside of the compound. A couple of Norwegians from a nearby outpost is trying to kill a runaway dog. One accidentally kills himself with a grenade. Garry shoots the other. Maybe the Norwegians went stir crazy. Copper and MacReady take a look at their compound. Everyone is dead, the place is torn apart, and there’s a strange creature burned and buried in the ice. An autopsy of the creature reveals it has human organs. When the surviving dog transforms into a horrible alien creature, the men do some further surveying of the Norwegian camp and find a buried flying saucer, something that crash landed thousands of years ago. Blair takes a tissue sample from finds that this alien assimilates and imitates whatever cells it comes in contact with. So the question remains: who’s still human, and who’s one of those things?

The Thing is Carpenter’s first big-budget studio film, and he doesn’t waste a cent. Rob Bottin’s much lauded creature effects have a tactile quality missing from many modern horror films. The blood-drawing and bone-crunching feels real and visceral, and it gives a tangible quality to the strange aliens on display. Carpenter’s film comes in a long line of body-horror films popularized by Ridley Scott’s Alien and the works of David Cronenberg, among others. The idea that the body could be invaded and corrupted by outside forces is one of the most fascinating themes explored by horror movies. It may have begun with Hawks’ original The Thing from Another World and Don Siegel’s 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but the great directors of the 70s and 80s took the idea one step further and made the human body a foreign, disgusting concept.

Of course, the film couldn’t be just another body horror film without itself looking like a warmed-over imitation of a Cronenberg film (cough, Hellraiser) or an Alien knock-off. Bottin’s creature effects distinguish themselves from H.R. Giger’s designs from Alien and Cronenberg’s films, while Ennio Morricone’s unusually spare and synth-driven score aids the cold, creepy atmosphere (it is also a rare case of Carpenter not composing his own score). As always, though, it’s Carpenter’s show. The film combines all of Carpenter’s talents and influences: Halloween’s mastery of perspective (Hitchcock), the “men on a misson” storyline from  Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York (Hawks’ Rio Bravo), and the “man vs. evil and/or force of nature” storyline from Halloween, The Fog, and Assault on Precinct 13 (Rio Bravo again, along with Hawks’ own The Thing from Another World). Carpenter’s strong craftsmanship personifies the Antarctic location much like it did in his previous films (and much like Hawks and Hitchcock’s talents would in their own films). The camera creeps around corners, gives the audience a sense of where everything is and what kind of place this is. It’s easy to imagine getting cabin fever in this isolated hell-hole. The creature, meanwhile, is displayed with a technique later employed by James Cameron in his action-horror masterpiece Aliens: it overpowers the camera, taking up most of the frame without ever being shown in its entirety. This gives the monster a larger than life quality that makes the characters seem out of their league. They need to use their wits if they’re going to survive.

Carpenter’s characters never feel like movie-stars: Russell’s rugged handsomeness is obscured by a wild beard, and the rest of the men are played by homely character-actors. The men are mostly intelligent, able bodied persons encountered with a horrible force of nature. All of the actors are great, from the gruff, paranoid Brimley to the hilariously WASP-y Moffat to the always welcome hard-ass David. But Carpenter never found a better muse or partner than Kurt Russell, one of the great tough guy actors of the 80s. Russell’s authoritative presence and smart-ass line readings make him seem like the only one who’s relatively “safe” (even Keith David seems overpowered). Even then, Russell and company frantically deal with the invasions, both of the monster and of the paranoia that grips the motley crew, and MacReady himself is prepared to die if it means killing the creature before it can reach civilization.

A quick comparison before the end: a diverse swath of filmmakers of the late 70s and 80s explored the idea that idyllic locations or trusted people could be perverted, subverted, or flat-out lies (David Lynch, Robert Zemeckis, Wes Craven), but no two filmmakers parallel each other in such oddly specific ways as Carpenter and (no, really) Steven Spielberg. Both are clearly influenced by Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. Both employ Hawks’ “man on a mission” (Spielberg with Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark) and “man vs. evil/nature” storyline (Jaws, Raiders, Poltergeist). Both use old fashioned movie-making to make modern monsters frightening (Carpenter with The Thing, Halloween, and The Fog; Spielberg with Jaws). Both often feature untrustworthy or incompetent authority figures (Halloween/The Fog/The Thing; Jaws/Close Encounters/Raiders/E.T./Poltergeist). Both show something amiss in idyllic locations (Halloween/The Fog; Jaws/Close Encounters/Poltergeist/E.T.). The Fog even feels like the frightening moments of Close Encounters of the Third Kind moved to the location of Jaws. The biggest difference between the two (and obviously there are several) is that 70s and 80s era Spielberg is an optimist where Carpenter is definitely a pessimist. Their signature films, The Thing and E.T. (both coincidentally released in 1982), are not as similar to each other as they are to other works in their respective filmographies (Carpenter’s own Starman sometimes borrows wholesale from E.T.). But they highlight the difference in the directors’ worldviews: E.T. shows a friendly benevolent alien and an ending that affirms the belief in mankind’s capacity for kindness. The Thing is perhaps Carpenter’s darkest film, with one of the greatest pessimistic endings of all time, and almost completely without hope.

Director's Spotlight Schedule:

October 22: John Carpenter's Christine
October 29: John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness
Extra innings: John Carpenter's The Ward

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