Friday, July 7, 2017

Monster Magic - THE THING

Well, June is over, and with it comes the last selection in my series inspired by Junesploitation.  And yes, I have once again neglected to mention that I was doing a theme month until it’s all over.  I did the same thing February when I highlighted African American lead actors, and again in March where I highlighted female directors.  There are probably others.  I should write myself a note in the future.  

For those who don’t know, Junesploitation was a thing created by the folks at the misleadingly titled F This Movie website.  It was designed to celebrate the many forms and definitions of exploitation cinema.  Those participating in Junesploitation chose which movies they watch, but a calendar is provided as a viewing guideline.  Each day of the month is dedicated to a particular subject, like Aliens, ‘80s Action, or Sybil Danning movies.  All you need to do is watch at least one that in some way qualifies.  

I found out about this challenge, I believe, on June 1st.  Being a sucker for exploitation, I jumped straight in.  Since I was doing it anyway, I also decided to write about one of these selections a week.  I tried to pick the Sunday category, since I usually watch what I’m going to write about on Sunday anyway (seriously, I’m that slow).  I started with Animals (ALLIGATOR), went to Killer Kids (DEVIL TIMES FIVE), then Teenagers (DEADKIDS).  June ran out before the next Sunday (and because I missed the first Sunday due to my aforementioned lack of planning), so I’m going with the June 30th category: Monsters.  Mostly I stayed with lesser known movies, but I wanted to finish big.  Presenting what I consider to be the most imaginative monster design ever: John Carpenter’s THE THING.

The Capsule: 
An alien craft loses control while exploring Earth and crashes into the icy wastes of Antarctica.  The poor pilot survives, but spends the next 100,000 years frozen solid until a helpful group of Norwegians dig it up and thaw it out.  Minor cultural misunderstandings arise from the alien’s greeting customs.  The situation becomes tense, and the alien decides it’s best to leave the Norwegian’s camp.  Even though the alien adopted the form of a cute Earth dog to make the humans more comfortable, the Norwegians can’t let things go and follow after it in a helicopter, shooting and chucking grenades.  Thankfully, it finds refuge at an American science station.  The Americans welcome the alien much more warmly, even allowing it to make friends with the other dogs in the camp.  However, just as the alien is opening up to its new canine comrades, xenophobia rears its ugly head and the Americans rush in and bring an end to all of the alien’s inter-species dialogue.  With a flamethrower.  From that point on, the American, led by the hotheaded MacReady (Kurt Russell), abandon all attempts at diplomacy and focus on mercilessly hunting down the alien, hereafter referred to, rather insensitively, as the Thing.  While the Thing is eventually able to develop a rappport with several of the more open-minded humans, MacReady, Childs (Keith David), and others become increasingly paranoid about becoming infected with the Thing’s radical new viewpoints on communal living.  Blair (Wilford Brimley) even goes so far as to sabotage the camp’s radio and transportation to ensure the Thing cannot spread his ideas (though it and Blair later reconcile).  Will the Thing finally break through the American’s distrust—and physical bodies—or  will MacReady’s self-destructive intolerance to alternate lifestyles spell the end for alien, human, and alien/human(/dog/etc.) alike?
I’ve probably seen THE THING dozens of times.  I was completely blown away the first time I saw it, and I cannot understand why people didn’t go crazy over this when it was released.  Of course, I can’t understand why people do anything, so that’s no surprise.  Even so, how could someone watch Charles Hallahan’s detached, upside down head spout crab legs and scuttle away and not be in awe at the creativity.  Even if they were revolted by it, no one had seen that before.

The creature design for the Thing is absolutely boundless.  Before the Thing, monsters were most often restricted to a man in a suit, like the Gillman, a giant or mythological creature, like any of Harryhousen’s creations, or an exaggerated but recognizable animatronic, like Bruce the shark.  Even when the monster didn’t match anything in nature, they still conformed to our basic ideas of what life looks like.  Arms are in reasonable places, it has a face, watch out for the teeth.  

The Thing was the first creature to abandon all those rules.  On one hand, it could take the appearance of any living creature it encountered.  It can perfectly mimic any animal or human.  This leads to the fantastic and completely justified air of paranoia throughout the film.   Shapeshifters are nothing new, from werewolves to classic Cold War sci-fi allegory pod people.  Those monsters were limited to shifting from one form directly into another in a linear progression.  As amazing as those transformations could be, we could see where they were going.  Even the three life stages of ALIEN, as mind-blowing as they are, followed a logical extension.

The Thing is not linear.  We never see its original form because it doesn’t have one.  It is a vast genetic amalgam of every other creature it has absorbed.  No need to choose when you can be everything at the same time.  It changes its body to whatever the situation demands.  Need to grab something, just throw out a few tentacles from your back.  Want to kill a guy quickly, turn your entire ribcage into a set of jaws.  Looking to freak out some dogs, split open your face like a banana.  It’s the ultimate extension of form as function.  

There is a great scene that didn't entirely register with me until this watch.  Blair is starting an autopsy on the twisted blob body of the recently fried Dog-Thing. He is trying to wrap his head around what kind of life form it is.  His first cut reveals the half-formed skull of something hiding under the skin.  If the body had remained functional for a few more seconds, it would have burst out and attacked anything close enough.  It is literally a thought made flesh.  Now that is alien.

Speaking of which, I’ve always been curious exactly what the Thing was composed of.  We get to see the faces of the absorbed station crew pop out like a rash across its body, and dog skulls are popular, but it was already carrying around some critters before it ever got to Earth.  The claws that tear out of its dog form aren’t from anything terrestrial.  The monstrous heads and tentacles are decidedly alien as well.  If there was an intergalactic version of 23andMe, the Thing's results would be fascinating.

Not only was the concept of the Thing perfectly realized, the effects that brought it to life were equally revolutionary.  CGI has gotten to the point now where this sort of radical shape shifting can be done smoothly and realistically (so to speak).  As good as they are now and will be in the future, the Thing was REAL.  The creature was made up of latex and cables and bladders, but it was a physical performance just like all the other actors on set (better than some, David Clennon as the stoner Bruce Dern wannabe Palmer was a bit one note).  It’s hard not to see any of its many forms as a real creature, even when you are specifically looking at it as an effect.  Even Thing-blood all by itself was a totally believable creature.  So, sorry David Clennon, you got upstaged by a dish of red syrup.  

I’m unfairly knocking Clennon only because it’s so hard to find fault with this cast.  Russel and David are known, legendary badasses. This viewing cemented my opinion that Brimley’s Blair is the unsung hero of the movie.  He is the first one to grasp the magnitude of what would happen to the world if this creature was allowed to escape.  His actions doomed everyone in the camp, including himself, but potentially saved the entire human race.  And his reward was to be locked up alone in the cold, guaranteeing his fate to join the Thing.

Along the same lines, it’s interesting how the crew divide into two groups, the ones who think there is a chance for them to make it out alive (like Nauls, Windows, pre-Thing Norris) and those who know that isn’t the point (MacReady, Childs, the doctors).  Donald Moffat’s Gary seems to be riding the middle, hoping for a miracle, but not willing to save himself over killing the Thing.

There are a few new details I noticed this time.

Richard Dysart looks pretty much the same as when he was on L.A. Law, except that he’s wearing a nose ring.  That’s a bold fashion statement for an old white dude in 1982.

The scene where MacReady checks on Blair through the door of the storage shed is heartbreaking.  The resolve that enabled him to destroy their only hope of escape is gone, and now he can't even bring himself to take the easy way out.  The hollow desperation on Brimley’s face when he's asking MacReady to take him back inside, and his line, “There’s nothing wrong with me, and if there was, I’m all better now” makes me think he hadn’t been infected yet, but he can see it coming.  We’ll never know for sure.

Finally, was every low to mid budget production from the mid ‘70s to mid ‘80s sponsored by J&B Scotch?  That green bottle was everywhere they pointed a camera in those days.  Did the company just call up any working producer?  “Say, I hear you’re going to be filming a movie.  Have you considered J&B for your bottom shelf, working class whiskey prop of choice?  I see.  Well, would a couple of cases of J&B change your mind?”  

The last shot of the film?  MacReady sharing a swig of J&B with Childs. 

Wait a minute, maybe that’s the clue to whether or not they are still human.  Even a 100,000-year-old shapeshifting alien would have more taste than to drink J&B.

C Chaka

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