Somewhere between “Alien” and “The Shining.” About a dozen men in an Antarctic research station are besieged by a very disgusting shapeshifting alien that can kill and then clone them—or are they? Again and again, at every turn, the monster in this movie doesn’t make sense. The man left alone with the monster is never duplicated despite how easy and convenient that would be. Only two men have access to evidence that is destroyed, yet neither of them, it turns out, is the monster. If the infection takes a while, then how can Kurt Russell be right when he says “I know I’m human”—maybe the infection hasn’t spread to his brain yet?
If all it takes is a few particles of the monster to infect the others, why doesn’t it sneeze on everybody and get it over with? Late in the movie, very improbably, the survivors find a hidden tunnel and workshop that must have been built from scratch in about a day, with something even more improbable being built in it. The men’s plan at the climax makes absolutely no sense. At one point a character simply wanders off and vanishes. The more you think about “The Thing,” the less and less it makes sense.
Unless what really happens is that some or all of the men are going cuckoo from cabin fever, in which case the nonsensical nightmare logic is perfect, and the imagery is great. Men in tight places yell at each other and gradually get worked up, escalating, setting more and more stuff on fire. They run around lost in the dark and the snow, turning against each other, piling themselves down with dynamite. And, eventually, they turn to killing one another, convinced of their own humanity and the other’s monstrosity.
The biggest impediment to this interpretation is that the monster is seen early, often, and, almost always, by everyone. In most horror movies secrets are kept, or a single character sees the monster and spends the first half of the movie trying to convince others of its existence.
But “The Thing” is the opposite, possibly alone among horror films – it is all about a collective experience (the movie might also be alone in its complete absence of women). Every character who has a revelation shares it quickly with the rest. There are several crucial scenes in which a character is alone or alone with the monster and we simply do not see it. Instead we see the group and its reaction, as if “The Thing” is saying “you’re not crazy if other people believe the same thing as you do.” But it’s important to note that the aliens are always burned into absolute nothingness. Not a single trace of them is left, as if they were never there to begin with.
Cult director John Carpenter seems interested in conformity and mindless mob thought. Early in his “Halloween,” mad slasher Michael Myers has been declared sane by others. The question of his sanity is left to be evaluated by how well he conforms to others, and it’s a catastrophic miscalculation. In Carpenter’s “They Live,” the secret alien plot is to bombard humanity with subliminal messages to “Obey!” Every part of The Thing, it turns out, has a mind of its own, unlike the men in the research station, who seem to have one collective brain among them, unable to think for themselves except to be suspicious of each other and lash out at anyone too different.
And “The Thing” is solid Saturday-afternoon scary fun. Carpenter can usually be counted on to let his characters talk the way real people might talk in these situations. When a severed head grows legs and starts running around, one character understandably intones “you gotta be fucking kidding me.” Another says “I don’t know what’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off.” The great, always-kind-of-angry character actor Keith David, when presented with the facts, belts out “do you believe any of this voodoo bullshit?”
The movie tries to give us the sharp characterizations of the best monster movies (“Alien,” “Predator,” “Night of the Living Dead”) but, except for Russell and David, only intermittently succeeds. Roger Ebert understandably complained that the characters exist basically to get killed in exciting new ways, although I think they’re a little bit deeper than that. Much of the cast is shown up by the mysterious Siberian husky that hearkens the alien’s arrival, a four-legged actor that pauses, hesitates, ignores camera and crew, and can be shot using a dolly. Pretty impressive.
The effects have, for the most part, dated well, and are quite disgusting and creepy—the frozen-melted face ripping in two is magnificent, a museum-worthy piece of sculpture—although there are a few bits that haven’t held up at all. The movie exists in multiple forms for syndicated television release so, if you’re like me, seeing it on DVD for the first time will be weird. And the Ennio Morricone score will get stuck in your head for about ten years.
Finished Sunday, August 6th, 2006
Copyright © 2006 Friday & Saturday Night
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