Saturday, 26 July 2014

A many-splendoured Thing

It's been very cold recently, so I thought I'd journey back to 1982 when 'Man was the warmest place to hide'...

Dum-dum... Dum-dum...

Have two chords ever sounded so sinster as they do on the soundtrack of John Carpenter's The Thing? Of course, Ennio Morricone is an undisputed genius and in this film his bleak minimalist composition heightens the isolation and sense of mounting dread perfectly.

The Thing is another eighties science-fiction which under-performed when released, built a cult following when re-released on VHS, and is now regarded as a classic of cinema (see also Blade Runner). This tale of a remote Antactic Base under seige from an otherwordly threat thawed from the polar ice was the second adaptation of John W Campbells' short story Who Goes there?, first filmed in 1952 by Howard Hawks as The Thing from Another World.

Carpenters version is far closer to the spirit of the novella, eschewing 1950s sci-fi trappings in favour of an exercise in creeping horror which not only ratchets the suspense to almost unbearable levels but also follows through by delivering truly-astonishing (and let's be honest, thoroughly revolting) sequences which remain unsurpassed today.

It's these phantasmagorical prosthetic effects by Rob Bottin which first blew my tiny teenage mind back in the eighties. The Thing's often interrupted attempts to assimilate it's prey and reform itself are the nightmarish visions of Francis Bacon and Hieronymous Bosch melted together and left to hiss and writhe in pools of gore and mucus.

That's not to suggest that these frenzied, visceral sequences have lost any of their impact: indeed the 2011 remake/prequel only showed that CGI can't touch what Bottin achieved with physical effects. But when I rewatch the Thing (and it stands up very well to repeat viewings, even if Kurt Russell's hair is bigger than Goldie's ever was) it's the quieter moments that impress, and creep me out the most:

The fly-by of the weird craft as it plummets towards our planet, hundreds of thousands of years in the past, before the film's title unforgettably burns into view. Back in 1982 my friends and I knew from that moment that we were about to see something very special.

The sly, cold intelligence of the unnervingly silent sled dog which the Norwegians fail to stop at the beginning of the film (could the whole story have been circumvented if it weren't for the language barrier?) It's stealthy padding around the base is so clearly a deliberate reconnaisance and yet human affinity for our furred companions still conflicts our feelings towards this most-deadly visitor.

 McCready's discovery of the vacated block of Ice at the decimated Norwegian base: an enormous empty sarcophagus which is somehow more terrifying then any depiction of what came out of it.

The awesome vista of the uncovered ship; the dead cold look which appears in the infected characters' eyes as they are exposed, and pretense of humanity falls quietly away; the unremarked-upon noose hanging behind the imprisoned Blair while he pleads his sanity... and of course the haunting, downbeat ending.

Against all odds there are even moments of wisely-judged and much-needed tension-draining humour in this film, my favourite being Donald Moffat's (has anyone ever seen him and James Cromwell in the same room?) initially measured and polite request to be released which rapidly escalates to a profane bellow of fear and frustration.

Apparently The Thing is regularly viewed by members of the winter crew at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station after the last flight has departed. That's one screening I'd love to have a ticket for.


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