Genre Grandeur: The Thing
Rob over at Movierob has a terrific series called Genre Grandeur, where guest bloggers are invited to write reviews of their favorite films in a particular genre. Last month’s genre, selected by Natasha of Life of This City Girl, was sci-fi. My choice was John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi horror classic, The Thing. You can read the rest of the Genre Grandeur reviews here.
Science fiction is so often about the future, or faraway places. If a sci-fi story raises scary questions, we can take comfort that the situations presented are too far away to really worry about. One reason John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece The Thing is so effective as a work of sci-fi and horror is it enters territory rarely approached by either genre. It makes us think of terrors long trapped right here on our humble, present-day planet, just waiting to be unleashed.
The Thing opens with a blast of sci-fi kitsch and quickly plunges headlong into unsettling mystery. The first shot is of a flying saucer crashing into earth, a shot that looks low-tech even by 1982 standards. Then come the opening titles, which appear to burn the celluloid, a bit of irony for a film so engulfed in ice and snow.
In Halloween, John Carpenter began by jolting audiences out of their seats with a disturbing first-person murder sequence unlike anything most moviegoers had seen before. With The Thing he took the opposite approach; the film opens on a dog sprinting through the snow, a helicopter in pursuit. A man inside the chopper is trying to shoot the dog with a rifle, but he’s no sniper. The dog runs into an American research camp. The chopper lands and the man with the rifle pursues, shooting blindly. One of the Americans shoots him. A loose grenade explodes, destroying the chopper and killing the pilot. The Americans are left with carnage, fire, and the dog, and a hell of a lot of questions.
The Thing doesn’t feel compelled to answer every question. Its method of describing why something is happening is to provide just enough detail to make the how that much more sinister. A when the dog starts to melt the other dogs and take on a profoundly disgusting doppelganger form, well, we don’t need to know much more than “it’s from space” and “it’s a shapeshifter” to be scared.
The result is a beautifully micro-focused entry into a genre that is usually so comparatively macro in scope. Even the film The Thing most owes a stylistic debt to- Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece Alien– uses the vastness of space to create its sense of isolation. Alien’s working class heroes are functionally astronauts, in a society where space travel is blue-collar work. The characters in The Thing never signed up for the reaches of outer space. They are right here on Earth. The horrors unleashed upon them don’t emerge from space, but from the frozen ground.
So is The Thing really a sci-fi movie, or just a horror movie that uses science fiction as its launching pad? One of the reasons it has stood the test of time; better, I think, than Carpenter’s most famous film, Halloween; is that the two genres blend so beautifully. The Thing features quality scary moments (elevated by the spectacular practical effects work of Rob Bottin) that linger in our minds as much for the questions they raise as the grotesqueries they portray.
The film’s tension is not from the usual “is the killer around the corner” horror set pieces. It relies on two simple constants: that “the thing” could be any of the characters at any time, and that, knowing this, the characters begin to unravel. It’s my favorite sort of science fiction, hypothesizing how people might react to an out-of-this-world situation. On a grand scale, writers can speculate how civilizations might form on a newly colonized planet, or how Earth might change if we made contact with an alien civilization. But Carptenter keeps his focus tight. His monster survives and kills. The characters are trapped and have no escape. He sets things in motions and lets them play out.
The Thing is a grisly masterpiece of high tension where death lurks around literally every corner; whether it’s shapeshifting aliens, coworkers deranged from paranoia, or the bitter cold elements that ensure this concoction stays in place. It’s a crash course in genre mixing. Sci-fi is so rarely this visceral and brutal, and horror is so rarely this thoughtful and deeply paranoid.