John Carpenter’s The Thing Midnight Movie Review
By Bret Dorman
Forget remakes (this being one/having one). Forget practical effects versus CGI. Forget all that junk people like to complain about. Midnight Movies aren’t about complaining about stuff, they’re about celebrating the good. Check out CineMasters of the Podcast Episode 6 for our 1 hour conversation on those subjects.
What makes a movie scary? Monsters? Sharks? Zombies? The Devil? Ghosts? Cats in garages that make a small noise then jump out and meow real loud? Best friends appearing right behind you and grabbing you and shouting your name even though you are clearly investigating something spooky? Someone who kidnaps you and buries you in the ground up to your head and hypnotizes you and force feeds you and kills you and chops you up and turns you into food and feeds you to other people and sometimes wears a pig’s head while wielding a chain saw?
All of these are fine choices, but none of them really scare me anymore (except for The Devil. for some reason that always strikes a nerve). As a kid, it’s easy to get scared by something because your tiny junk food fueled brain is dumb and doesn’t realize the shark in Jaws is mechanical and that in real life sharks can’t get into swimming pools on their own. But you still get freaked out swimming in the deep end of your friends pool anyway because that shark was REALLY scary.
As an adult your brain can rationalize its way around these things. What it can’t rationalize is the unknown and how we confront it and stay sane while surrounded by it. That’s The Thing John Carpenter taps into to make not just a scary movie, but the ultimate in alien terror.
The Story: A bunch of dudes in Antarctica suddenly discover a shape-shifting alien is amongst them. MacReady (a badassly bearded Kurt Russell) struggles to maintain sanity as he tries to figure out who is human and who is… the thing (that’s the name of the movie!) Also, Norwegians aren’t good at throwing grenades.
A lot of people will claim this is one of the best horror movies of all time. It’s actually pretty light on jump scares, has a decent amount of suspense, and is loaded with gore and gross alien transformations. That’s the standard stuff. But all that is child’s play compared to the real terror. Why does the Norwegian dog seem to have a creepy sense of its surroundings? What exactly caused the burned Norwegian, who internally is okay, to become so disfigured externally? Who’s bloody pajamas were left in the trash and who is sabotaging everything on base from helicopters to jackets?
The answer of course is an alien. Even though we catch it in the metamorphosis stage, trying to absorb the dogs, about 30 minutes into the movie, that still doesn’t provide any real answers. Even the aliens absorption process is unknown. Why and how does it work? If it works on a cellular level why not just inject itself into its victim rather than wrap itself around it? Is the point of absorption to acquire new life forms or reproduce or both? How does it mimic language and memories of its new life forms?
These are things we don’t really know and aren’t meant to know. Because as the crew is exploring the burned up Norwegian camp and dissecting possible future Nobel prizes, the thing is slowly getting a head start on its eventual take over of the base. It’s interesting that the absorption process is so gruesome, violent, and vulnerable. I don’t think there is one case in this film where we see a full, complete, successful takeover. And yet it is clearly spreading.
Which means for as much as we see on camera, there is all that grotesqueness going on off camera. While two characters are talking about trying to get someone on the radio, in the next room the thing might be all tentacles and goop, wrapping itself around someone slowly suffocating them by actually becoming them. It begs the question, “If the thing takes someone over in another room, is it still just as violent?”
To add to the alien problem, you also have the human problem. Everyone is out to protect themselves, at the cost of other people. No one can be sure who is really human, so the best thing to do is trust no one. And since they are all men the best way to solve their problems is through violence. Its scary to think that shooting an animal or person may actually be the only way to stay alive, because whether or not they are who they seem, they could still be trying to kill you.
Carpenter, as always, excels at creating a spatial awareness and gliding his camera through the set. Sometimes he is following a character through multiple rooms or down a long hallway and sometimes the camera is just lingering in an empty room. Even as the action amps up a little, his camera never goes unsteady. It may speed up, but it remains clear and fluid. The chaos takes place on screen and the fact that the camera seems indifferent to it just makes it all the more unsettling. It treats the carnage the same way it treats drinking and playing a computer at chess.
At the end, even taking the thing out of the equation, the fear of the unknown still remains. The scariest question isn’t about the alien or who is/was human, but “what do we do now?”
Why You Must See It At Midnight: The ultimate in alien terror can only be obtained at the ultimate in Chicago movie going experience. The Thing at Music Box Theatre. You might ask how scary can this movie be as the crowd cheers for Rob Britton’s special effects and make up work, Kurt Russell’s badassery, and general flame throwing mayhem… but Midnight Movie Goers show their fear through celebration, because that’s the best way our junk food fueled brains know how.