Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Halloween Month: "The Thing"

*As always, I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie, so...SPOILERS.

After rewatching Slither, which is partly an homage to The Thing, I decided to watch that film next. I’ve always been a little afraid to write about The Thing because it’s so good I feel like I wouldn’t do it any kind of justice. I still feel that way, but I don’t care anymore. I’m not trying to write anything definitive about any of the movies I revisit for this site. I’m just writing what occurs to me as I rewatch them. Still, I find it easier to write about movies like Dracula 2000 than The Thing. I don’t hold Dracula 2000 in very high regard. The Thing, however, I consider one of my favorite movies of all time (perhaps the favorite, but more on that later). John Carpenter is one of my favorite directors, so it’s high time I write about one of his masterpieces.

By the way, I know: "Halloween Month" and I'm not writing about Halloween. I get it, but I don't own that Carpenter movie. I like it, but I prefer his sci-fi work over his straight up horror films.

The Thing is a moody masterpiece

The amazing, gross, shocking, still impressive to this day, practical special effects of The Thing usually take center stage when the movie is brought up. I completely agree with that, but there’s not much I can add to that subject. Instead, I wanted to focus on what keeps bringing me back to this movie: the mood.

Mood, or atmosphere, in film is very important to me. I want the world of the film to feel real. I don’t think I’m alone in that since people tend to prefer practical sets and effects in movies these days. If you some CG creation, it takes you out of it. Since movies are meant for escapism, we don’t want to be reminded that they’re movies while we’re watching. I cannot think of a movie that keeps you in its world better than The Thing. The special effects play a big part in that. The defibrillator sequence comes to mind. I’ve seen that scene (and the movie in general) at least a dozen times, and I still get drawn in every time I see it. When the Norris-thing’s head separates itself and sprouts legs and crawls off, I watch in awe. I don’t think, “How did they do that?” I just think, “What the fuck is that thing?” I feel like I’m in that room with the characters.

Effects alone don’t accomplish that feeling, though. The setting is a big part of it for me. For whatever reason, I’m a sucker for sci-fi films that take place in secluded settings. Antarctica, a space ship, an island, whatever. As long as it’s a place apart from the rest of society I’m in. It’s not because I hate society or anything (I’m not a big fan, but I take part in it), it’s that secluded settings allow for a no rules scenario. Anything can happen. There’s no calling 911 or anything like that.

The separation from the rest of the world is key for this film. Getting help from the outside world is never seriously considered. Sure, they keep trying to get someone on the radio, but it’s never presented as a real possibility. And when the power gets cut off, the situation becomes even more dire. But instead of worrying about surviving, the characters pretty quickly decide they need to stop the Thing, even though they know they will die no matter what. That bleak scenario always appeals to me: in the face of certain death, the characters put their own survival to the side to accomplish their goal.

Simply being separate from humanity isn’t enough on its own to create a truly memorable setting, though. The bleakness of Antarctica is a character in itself in The Thing. Much like movies that take place in deep space, like Alien, the setting says something about the characters. What were their lives like that led them to choose this area for a job? The Thing is fairly light in traditional character development. We know very little about these men, and we only get slight hints at their relationships to one another. But I still don’t consider them underwritten characters, partly because of the setting. To take a job at a research station in Antarctica says something about all of them, especially the non-scientific characters. Who takes a job as a pilot, a mechanic, a radio operator, a doctor, a cook(!) in Antarctica? I don’t need a backstory in that scenario; their very presence there says plenty about them.

The final piece to establishing mood in The Thing is the score. The Thing is unique in that the score was not done by Carpenter himself, though if you didn’t see the credits you might think he was the composer. Ennio Morricone did the score, but it is very Carpenter-like. More importantly, it’s eerily perfect for the film without drawing attention to itself. Morricone’s score (which he re-used a bit and used unused portions of for Tarantino’s version of The Thing: The Hateful Eight) is the icing (no pun intended) on the cake of this film. It completes the overall feel of the film that brings me back to it multiple times a year.

It’s time to rethink my favorite movie of all time.

As a movie guy, a common question I get is, “What’s your favorite movie of all time?” As any movie buff will tell you, it’s very hard to narrow it down to a single film. Hell, I don’t think I could make a top 100 list without feeling like I’m forgetting something I love. Rather than say something annoying like that, I decided years ago that I would go with Apocalypse Now. I do love that film, and I watch it at least once a year. But I’ve never felt entirely comfortable giving it the number one spot. As I started to watch The Thing again, it just hit me: I love everything about this movie. I never get tired of revisiting the world of The Thing. With Apocalypse Now, I need to be in a certain mood to watch it. I think I could watch The Thing no matter what mood I’m in. So I think I’m going to start telling people that The Thing is my favorite movie of all time. But it’s more than just the mood of the film that led me to this.

As I stated above, I’m not trying to write a definitive article about this movie, but I feel like I need to at least nerd out about why I love it so much if I’m going to call it my favorite movie of all time. I’ll start with Carpenter. John Carpenter is one of my favorite directors of all time. His films are unpretentious, and they are just genuinely entertaining. With a Carpenter film, you know you’re going to get a unique world, and something dark and interesting is probably going to happen. He’s had his misfires, but when a Carpenter film is really working (The Thing, Halloween, The Fog, They Live, Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13), it’s simply awesome.

The Thing is also helped by its great cast. Kurt Russell is particularly great here, mainly because he’s not a typical hero. Sure, he takes charge in this film, but he’s not like Snake Plissken; he’s not a professional badass or anything, which actually makes him more interesting. And Keith David is always great. Wilford Brimley nearly steals the film, especially when you consider his freak out scene. There’s not a weak link in the cast.

The story is endlessly interesting because of the classic gimmick of trust. Who is the Thing? Or, who isn’t the Thing? Stories about paranoia in which the characters can’t trust each other are great for rewatching. The Thing can be studied intensely, or you can just casually enjoy it. I prefer to casually enjoy it, but if I wanted to I could really dissect it and try to figure out who was the Thing at what point and why did the Thing do this or that. I’d rather just enjoy the overall film, but it’s nice to have the option to give a deep dive into the story, too.

It all comes down to the look and sound of the film, though. This movie looks so fucking good, even by today’s standards. Actually, it looks better than most of today’s movies, and that amazes me. I get absorbed into this movie every time, and it’s because of the look and sound of it. It’s rare that I watch a movie at home and truly pay attention to it. But The Thing demands your attention because it’s so good. How can you look away from this movie, even at its most gruesome moments? Yeah, this is my favorite movie of all time.

Pretty sure The Thing is the inspiration for Dana Gould’s “Grady’s Oats” sketches for The Ben Stiller Show

Okay, there’s a lot in the topic header. Let’s start with the “Grady’s Oats” sketches. I’m a big fan of Ben Stiller’s short-lived sketch show from the early ‘90s. One of the funnier recurring sketches in one episode involved comedian Dana Gould (in heavy makeup and prosthetics) portraying Wilford Brimley as the unhinged spokesman for Grady’s Oats in a sendup of Brimley’s actual sponsorship of Quaker Oats. Over the course of three ads, Gould’s Brimley reveals dark family secrets, yells at oats, and eventually brandishes a gun and shoots at neighborhood children, likely hitting at least one.

It’s that final meltdown that reminded me of The Thing. The gun Gould uses is similar to the gun Brimley uses in The Thing when he loses his shit. I love that Brimley freak out scene, and it might be the scene that puts this film over the top to become my favorite of all time. But is that scene truly the inspiration for the sketches? I don’t see how it couldn’t be.

I tweeted at Dana Gould and asked him, but he didn’t respond, either because my question was so damn random or because he was too busy tweeting his outrage with our present political situation or both. I’ll need to check out the show again on DVD and see if there is a behind the scenes thing about it, but I don’t recall anyone mentioning The Thing in regards to the sketch when I watched it before. But look at the evidence.

Do I regret buying this?

Take a guess. Fuck no. That said, I do wish I had held out for the collector’s edition that came out a while back. I’ll probably go ahead and get it, which means I will have bought this movie four times. My only regret is that I’m a sucker for special editions.

Random Thoughts

Russell has never been cooler

They are way too quick putting out the dog thing fire. I would've given it at least another minute. So the fire spreads. So what? Did you see what was happening in that kennel? Let ‘em burn.

Man, I love Wilford Brimley’s freak out scene. “I'll keel YOU!”

Brimley just hanging out, eating Dinty Moore beef stew...next to a noose he made.

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