Monday, October 5, 2009

Bald Mountain Night 5: The Thing

Each day in October, intrepid blogger Alex Boivin will watch a horror movie. These movies are all new to him and are part of his month-long effort to fill in his gaps in the horror canon. If he doesn't die from fright, you just might get to read about about his exploits in cinema during the Halloween season.

I have a confession to make: I have seen John Carpenter's the Thing before. Twice, in fact. The first time I must have been 11 or 12 years of age and my dad had taped a showing of the movie from the Sci Fi Channel or some other basic cable outlet for my brothers and I to watch on one of the road trips my family so often took at the time. However, I was of course a young boy and can't be expected to remember let alone appreciate such a film at that age, right? I do remember being scared out of my mind, though. Bad parenting on my dad's part, especially considering I am the oldest of three. The second time, I was in high school; an appropriate age to take in this experience in extraterrestrial terror. Unfortunately, my friends and I only watched about twenty minutes before we had to start our D&D game. In my defense, I played a really sweet elf ranger at the time.

The Thing belongs in that distinguished pantheon of horror/sci-fi classics that were misunderstood and unappreciated in their time but have found a cult audience as the years have gone by. It opened to commercial bombing and critical derision for some reason, I still can't understand why, even after a cursory internet research session. Alien had been a big hit in all circles when it was released three years previous and Thing shares a lot with and owes much to Ridley Scott's film: both concern extraterrestrial intruders infiltrating and Picking Off One By One members of an isolated mission team. Both films also dabble in what would eventually come to be codified as "body horror"- the subgenre dealing with the transformation/alienation of one's own body (look for more of this when we dabble in David Cronenberg later this month). One theory is that 1982 also saw the release of Spielberg's classic E.T., which instead of a freakish monstrosity from beyond the stars dealt with a friendly alien who wanted to be your friend and could sell a lot of toys, not to mention Reese's Pieces.

Thing tells the story of an American research crew hunkering down for a long winter in Antarctica. One day, a Norwegian helicopter arrives in hot pursuit of a lone sled dog, trying to kill the poor thing. After the Norwegians are done in, the Americans adopt the stray and discover that the Norwegians are from a nearby base that had recently discovered something disturbing and subsequently all ended up dead. Before we know it, it turns out that the dog is in fact an alien creature with the ability to transform into any life form it assimilates into itself. Now anyone on the base could be a hostile interloper with designs to do in the rest of the crew, but not if Kurt Russell has anything to say about it (and he does)!

Fun fact: I watched this movie with my dog Scout, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the dog that ends up starting all the carnage. I had trouble being in the same room with her afterwords.

Deserving of the acclaim relished upon it, the Thing succeeds due to the classic "how do I know you're not the alien?" scenario as well as its special effects which score major points in the disgusting/scary department. The Thing's transformations from the forms of human and canine cast members into grotesque monstrosities is something akin to the Charlie Parker of gore: it seems like the limbs and appendages transform but just keep going on at random, as if Carpenter just let these things naturally happen and go on as long as they could, improvisation with flesh and blood. They need to be seen to be believed. If your local climate permits, watch this movie on a stormy winter's night with a group of friends, then go off and disappear by yourself for a half an hour and come back and begin to act suspiciously: you'll really give your friends a scare...and most likely end up getting blasted by a flamethrower.

Final verdict: 75 Congos