THE FIRST EXPERIENCE
So here’s the thing…
Recently I watched John Carpenter's 1982 cult classic The Thing for the very first time and I cannot stop thinking about it. All I've ever been told about this film is how incredible practical visual effects are, it’s haunting atmosphere, and an iconic lead performance by Kurt Russell. It sure holds up 38 years later. However, what I wasn't expecting is the amazing storytelling going on, something that’s argued to be rare in modern horror. The concept is simple: a group of scientists on a research camp in Antarctica are terrorized by an invisible extraterrorestrial force that morphs into different forms. Pairing that concept with believable characters is what drives the film to greatness. I immediately understood where these guys were in their collective and individual states of seclusion. Each character has his own personality with his own motives and feelings. I think the most interesting thing about this film is the way these men show their true fears in the moment. There aren’t any women in the story, so these guys don’t have anyone to be macho for nor do they have competitive personalities. As much as it’s a horror full of guts and blood, it’s a horror about starting to aggressively question and distrust the only people you have right now, not knowing who the next target is. The way they interact with each other at the beginning makes me really care about them. I see the truth in their camaraderie. I think something that modern horror lacks and kinda lives off of is incredibly unlikable characters. They’re getting killed off anyway so what’s the point? The point is you lose that element of emotion with your audience. The 2016 film The Void can be seen as a spiritual successor to The Thing, borrowing a lot of inspiration in terms of effects-heavy monster horror. The beautiful part about The Void is it’s great use of practicals since we don’t see too much of that anymore, but the issue is that I don’t give a crap about any of the characters. They’re mostly strangers to each other and incredibly one dimensional. The Void is trying to tell us what's beneath the surface, while The Thing is trying to save what's left above it.
The scientists in The Thing all band together at first, working as a team to figure out what's going on. When things start getting rocky, they start to grow highly suspicious of each other, leaving me worried about each of them. I wanted them to survive this and hated seeing them fight when I knew they should be sticking together like they were in the beginning. You can tell on screen that these actors put everything they had into these roles and it was warming to learn that they all got along on set too, according to Carpenter on his commentary. There is also a BTS documentary on YouTube that explains how the cast hung out between takes and harmonized with each other both on and off screen.
With no supernatural curse to break or timely prophecy to fulfill, it's a film about surviving something you can’t explain. All we know is that this monster can morph and manipulate those around it with mimicking behaviors. It’s a monster movie without solely being about the monster. The threat of The Thing is the fragility of the trust between its characters and that’s what surprised me the most. It’s reminiscent of how George Romero constantly reminded us that humans are the real monsters. Perhaps being in cooped up with myself for much of the year with my own fears and anxieties gave me a certain perspective while watching this film for the first time. I do know for sure that The Thing brought me some excellent escapism and reminded me how far great storytelling could go, sparking some much needed inspiration in this time of isolation.