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June 24, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #25 - John Carpenter's The Thing

If you talk to anyone who loves horror movies these days, you're bound to hear John Carpenter's The Thing brought up. I think it might just be the most well-respected and admired horror film released in my lifetime...and I was barely a year old when it was released. However, it was originally panned by critics and viewers, who threw around phrases like "foolish, depressing, overproduced" and "the quintessential moron movie of the 1980s" and "a wretched excess". One critic even went so far as to say that John Carpenter's film was "sacrificing everything at the altar of gore". Today, I view all these quotes as examples of why film criticism is often a worthless exercise in snobbery.

I must admit that The Thing is a film I never really understood in my younger years. As a student of cinema, I read reviews like those and dismissed the film as something I should wait on. When I finally did see it, with my Fasha, I was more confused than anything else.
The film offered a simple enough premise...twelve men trapped without rescue while an unseen force terrorizes them. But what really left me baffled were the characters in Carpenter's film. Aside from Kurt Russell and his beard, and that guy from the Quaker Oats ads, I had a ton of trouble keeping tabs on who the heck they were inside The Thing's world.

As the poster behind Kurt and beard states above...they aren't labeled. We learn that one of them is the doctor, and that one is the pilot, and that one is in charge of the radio. We learn names, but never through introductions. After all, these are twelve guys in a confined environment, and why would they have to introduce themselves? They already know who they are. It's as if the movie just happened upon their camp, and they went on with their daily lives. As a viewer, I was kind of baffled...and sometimes I still am. I looked at the photo below just now and quickly realized that - even though I've seen the movie at least a dozen times in the last twelve years - I'm not exactly sure who the guy over Mr. Quaker's left shoulder is. (If I had to guess right now, I might say Fuchs.)
Not only are the characters nonchalantly referenced throughout Carpenter's film, but the viewer is never given any background information on any of these characters. This really baffled me. Why should I care what happens to Bennings if the only thing I know about him is that he plays cards? I know Russell's R.J. Macready (who, unlike most of the cast, is at least given initials as a first name) is cool because of his beard, but shouldn't I know a little more about him? Is he married? Does he like cats? Has he ever beaten that "cheating bitch" of a chess computer? (Note from the "cheating bitch" chess computer: I'm afraid I can't let him do that, The Mike.)
But with a few more viewings (because each attempt to figure out who was who left me feeling more wonderful about the film), something struck me like a hammer to the temple. Others had been trying to tell it to me, but I was as dense to this fact as Keith David is when being told to wear sunglasses.

The thing about The Thing is that we need these men to be on an equal playing field. For the film to live up to the question of "Who Goes There?" once posed by author Joseph Campbell, we can't have any hints tipping us off as to who is on either side of The Thing's infection. If the film had added extra personality to these characters, we might have had an easier time spotting changes in characters' behaviors or emotions. We might have become upset when a character who we liked became a victim. We might have made human connections - but that's not what the movie is about. By not providing this data to the viewer, the film leaves us wondering more about the force that's after these men than the men themselves. This allows Carpenter's film to sacrifice nothing - and to become one of the most unpredictable, open-ended horror films of all-time.
We like to think we know what's going on when the credits finally do roll, assisted by Ennio Morricone's subliminal score, but there's little in the film that gives us reason to believe one party over the other. Many have offered commentary about the characters' actions, the characters' locations, and even the characters' races; but the fact is that none of us can really know "Who Goes There". John Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster never give us enough information to really know anything about the characters and the Thing that is after them. While that might be frustrating to someone looking for a human drama, like those critics (and I) were, it allows The Thing to become a paranoia filled bit of unease that will keep any viewer thinking.

If that's a "moron movie", I'm afraid I'm a proud moron.

(By the way, if you're looking for more Thing-ness, check out The Paradise of Horror, where it's The Thing Week!)

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7 comments:

Joe Monster said...

Huh, I never thought of it that way before. You brung up a very interesting and, IMO, valid point! Usually this type of thing works against a movie (not having anyone to identify with), but here it makes absolute sense. I'll have to rewatch this with your thesis in mind. Thanks for the new perspective!

macabrecinema said...

It has been a while since I have seen The Thing. Even though, they already know they know each other. It's still like they are strangers too. It's because of the unseen creature. You don't who's body in went into next.

Andre said...

Good call! I completely agree, I felt like I needed a map and diagram of who was who, and was continually baffled at all these The Things fans who knew each characters name. It certainly makes sense though as you discuss it. Having no real background on the character's makes them easier also to be taken over by The Thing. It makes it scarier because we didn't really know them beforehand, and how are we supposed to know they were different. Great thought provoking piece here.

Emily C said...

Wow, great write-up!!

Like the others said before me, I had never thought of the characters in the film in this way, but it makes absolute sense! I've always wondered why, even after repeated viewings, I still have trouble differentiating who is who, and who has been taken over by "The Thing" and when. It absolutely makes sense that our lack of knowledge about the characters, and lack of background on them, contributes to the film in a very important way- making "The Thing" the focus, and confusing the viewer, in a way that the characters in the film must be confused themselves!

Box Office Boredom said...

I had never given The Thing much thought until today. Mostly because my experience with the thing involved you watching it a few more times than any normal human being should while I was around. I really couldn't remember a single member of the cast except Russell and the beard- but as you pointed out, a lot people don't.

Maybe that is why The Thing has never really stuck with me the way it has with you. I feel no vested interest in the characters. As you said...is he married, does he like cats? I don't know anything about these people and that makes it hard to really enjoy.

AE said...

"If the film had added extra personality to these characters, we might have had an easier time spotting changes in characters' behaviors or emotions." Interesting. Maybe that's why this movie didn't do much for me. I also think I just am not wired to understand the appeal of Kurt Russell; he's fine, I just think other people are seeing something that I am not. (I have the same problem with Steve McQueen.)

Jennifer said...

Great entry, Mike.

Unlike you I saw this movie when I was about 12 or so, (before my mind was corrupted by things like plot, character, and story) and I was never bothered by the lack of character development or how little we learn of the alien. I also had no trouble remembering the names of the characters and who they were. I always thought the initial infecting was easy to guess simply because of the shadow. There was only one guy there who had that much hair and no beard. It was elementary.

I love your explanation for the lack of character development. It makes perfect sense to me and also gives me leverage against those who would bash this truly awesome movie.