Monday, October 21, 2013

The Thing (1982): A look at Morricone and Carpenter's Masterpiece

There really isn't enough room on the internet to describe how I feel about this film. It is one of the best films of the 80s, one of the best horror films of the 80s but I might also add, possibly one of the best horror films of all time.

The horror genre means a lot of different things, I think that horror to most people is about intense scares and ranked up tensions, the thrill of being terrified not knowing when the big bad thing is going to jump out next, and that is the expected norm since the genre began but horror films do a lot more than  that;  they explore important and timely themes,  philosophies and topics and they use the conventions of horror to explore themand  The Thing is a prime example of this. The Thing does this incredibly well.

Lets start  by getting down to basics. As we all know horror films are essentially about subtext; cultural, historical and geographical. The Japanese are still reeling from the effects of Hiroshima. The Godzilla films were  born from their anxieties about atomic/nuclear weaponry and even to this day these feelings are echoed in films like The Grudge and The Ring. Japanese horror explores themes about redemption of wrongdoings in the past and about spirits coming back to settle long forgotten scores. Even the way  that J-Horror ghosts/spirits  are portrayed as strange mutations  with clicky movements and strange walks (Samara's spider crawl from the Ring definitely comes to mind) suggest a kind of lingering afterthought on the effect of nuclear radiation.

So  what are American horror films about.? Every American horror film more or less is about one thing and one thing  only ; The Enemy Within. Since McCarthyism and the cold war and even a little bit before that, American horror films and literature have all been about one simple thought "Don't Trust Anyone. Not even your neighbour. Not even your best friend" In that regard The Thing is really  the quintessential American horror film.

Set and filmed in 1982 the cold war was still very much on. "Kill a Commie for Christ" was very much the the bumper stick du jour . In this cultural context the film wears its subtext on its sleeve.. The sense of paranoia and distrust perfectly mirrors America's feelings at the time. The fact that its set in the coldest place in the world almost stings like a bad cinematic pun. (Cold. Cold War. Get It?) but the original Howard Hawks film is also set in the Antarctic so maybe that is stretching the metaphor too much.

You also can't make critique of The THing  without mentioning AIDS. Blood is such a thematic element to the film, especially in the infamous blood test scene. 1982  was the year AIDS got given it's name;  rechristened after having  the horribly ignorant and accusatory title of GRIDS (Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome) for quite some time . The  press started making clear mention that the disease was not only just affecting  gays and drug users but haemophiliacs and heterosexuals were now contracting it and while these cases were being uncovered the publics knowledge of it was still very limited. It was an unknown element and again America was on high alert because annnyyybooddy  could now carry the disease. Remember TRUST NO ONE. Not even your friend. These cultural anxieties are also mirrored throughout the film but even more chilling in this context is this; the scene where Blair watches simulated cells over take each other, assimilate and reproduce on his lab computer screen is eerily prescient.

Did John Carpenter's film predict the discovery of the mechanism of the AIDS virus?

I know that's a huge claim to make but one thing you can't dispute is that when it comes to the horror subtext triple threat of Culture, History and Geograpy  The Thing is a masterful distillation of these three ingredients.

Morricone's score to the film is masterful as well. At first I really didn't know what to think of it  It has very few  bombastic segments, only one crazy string section, nothing of what you would expect of a film with such big action and gore sequences but the majority of the soundtrack is amazingly stripped back. A few refrains and a few lilting motifs and a single synth basss beat which works as a single beating heart throughout. When it does eventually go weird or crazy it is all together over before it even gets started. Particularly in the tracks Contamination and Bestialty on Side 1. The score, in it's majority, is  all about atmosphere which compliments the film and is a great testament to the films ability to not talk down to it's audience. Sometimes a film score can be a bit like an annoying friend poking you and asking "Are you scared yet? Are you scared yet? Are you scared yet? " and The Thing is able to weave it's tale of paranoia without relying on the music to hold the audiences hand. For one lets look at the most iconic  scene from the film and take note that the one thing markedly absent from the madness on screen There's no music at all.


This is something that the prequel in  2011 definitely didn't get right. Somehow modern genre cinema seems to think the musical score enhances every emotional beat of a film when in fact it doesn't. Strings will always make the heart swell in the more romantic or dramatic turns in a film but can ultimately distract from a horror film when  its time to crank things up a notch. What might work for Love Actually does not always work for Night of the Living Dead.

Another awesome element of the Soundtrack is the use of the pipe organ. It comes in on the track Solitude  from Side 1 and then returns at the end of Humanity Pt II on Side 2.  The  organ sound in these segments of  the score reminds us of horror films of old working almost like a sonic love letter to Howard Hawks original The Thing From Another World (1951) and also silent horror films like Nosferatu or Phantom of the Opera where the  pipe organ was the norm.

I'm gonna probably turn a few heads by saying this. I enjoyed the prequel. If only because I'm such a fan of John Carpenter's film that returning to the familiar setting was a real treat and I relished seeing how the events at the Norwegian research base were going to be explored in detail. I think they used a few new tricks to play up the paranoia, specifically by having the characters divided not only by nationality  but by language. The scenes where the Norwegians use their native tongue  to undermine the American's efforts  to restore order are really well done. Being able to talk about your enemy in the same room as them without them knowing what you're saying makes for some great moments of paranoid drama  for which the original is so widely revered. That was well done, but for every well structured moment, there were a dozen things which they got wrong. In John Carpenter's film one truly endearing aspect (and by degrees the most intelligent) is the creatures only one true motivation is survival. It only appears in it's "true" form when it is under threat and in that way the creature is not evil or motivated by anything other than staying alive. In the prequel it is none of these things. It seems hell bent on destroying humanity and it appears malevolent in it's intent. It's obviously intelligent (it has a spaceship for fucks sake) but it never chooses to assimilate the other humans in any subtle way. In JC's film the Thing spends the first 20 minutes hiding in the form of the dog only coming out when in the presence of the real dogs in the kennel  and  it's otherness is exposed. In the prequel it tries to put one character off it's scent by implicating another might have been infected to then suddenly erupt into a mass of blood and tentacles without any real provocation. This seems in such direct contradiction to the original that it makes it seem like a different creature entirely. 

That indeed is the biggest grievance i have with the prequel. Too much music and  not enough subtlety. I mean the original certainly packs a wallop in the action and  gore department but, like a good lover knows how to hold back and tease us with a bit of  restraint. In this way the Soundtrack and the film work perfectly to compliment each other and makes for a truly great film. A horror masterpiece.

Thanks guys for indulging me

Luke Pencil Neck

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