Movies for the Resistance: John Carpenter’s The Thing

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Kurt Russell, Keith David, Donald Moffat, Wilford Brimley, TK Carter, David Clennon and Richard Dysart
Directed by: John Carpenter
Running time: 109 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 1982


“One of us is a monster!”

That line doesn’t appear in The Thing. It comes from the source material, a 1936 short story called “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. The tale is pure Lovecraftian horror, though not nearly as bleak as John Carpenter’s film version (in my opinion, the flat-out greatest horror movie ever made). It was first published in August of 1938, a few weeks before the Munich Accords forced Czechoslovakia into the hands on the Nazis and gave Neville Chamberlain the ghastly quote that defined his legacy.

The story matched the mood of the times amazingly well. Bleak, paranoid, with an existential threat that promised to quite literally devour every living thing on the planet. It was perfect: dark and elegantly nihilistic, with just enough of a question mark to keep you up at night. Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby adapted it in 1951 as the classic Thing from Another World, but missed the real poetry of the source. It became a traditional (if terrific) invader-from-outer-space story instead of the exercise in gut-wrenching distrust that made the short story sing.

“One of us is a monster.”

Carpenter, one of cinema’s great iconoclasts, saw what Hawks didn’t. He went back to the source for his 1982 version, and shifted the monster back from James Arness’s walking carrot to Campbell’s version: a being that could literally resemble anything and could take on the aspects of a million horrifying monsters all at once. Effects wizard Rob Bottin brought the creature to life in spectacular fashion, and the results hold up to this day as utterly convincing works of art. (Seriously, what modern CGI creation can hold a candle to it?)

But had Carpenter limited himself to the money shots, The Thing would have been nothing more than the geek show its detractors at the time condemned it as. The film’s true horror comes in much subtler ways, as an outpost of frightened, isolated men – men who need to depend on each other as never before – slowly tear each other apart.

“One of us is a monster.”

The monster’s true power lies in its ability to perfectly imitate us: a version of someone you know so identical to the real thing that he might not even be aware of his status as a monster. What happens when you have to depend on that person? What happens when you pair off with that person to perform some vital task? What happens when that person looks you right in the eye and tells you you’re making a terrible mistake just before the tentacles explode from its chest?

Carpenter knew that the real juice lay in those terrifying contemplations. He uses Bottin’s effects to release the tension – built up with a deliberation that Hitchcock would envy – which lets them hit all that much harder. But he didn’t need special effects to find the horror in the scenario. Just a few furtive, paranoid glances from his cast to remind us that the real threat hides in plain sight.

“One of us is a monster.”

Audiences didn’t want to hear that in 1982. It was morning in America, and with the triumph of E.T. filling us all with warm fuzzies, Carpenter’s bleak exercise in despair just didn’t match the zeitgeist. He wanted to follow Campbell’s example: a story from a different era, when fear was ascendant and men went mad. That helped it hold up past the initial barrage of withering criticism and become the classic that it is. It spoke to those dark moments, to the people we thought we could trust, and to the horrors that lie behind their seemingly innocent, innocuous faces. Human beings can’t outrun that, no matter how hard we try. Sooner or later, the wheel turns and we find ourselves right back where we started.

The divisions we’re currently grappling with in this country speak profoundly to that vision. Donald Trump didn’t create them, but he was happy to exploit them, and if anything resembling intelligence or insight comes scurrying out of that reptilian brain of his, it’s the understanding that once you’re in, you’re in for good. If you can accept his opening salvo when he first his announced his candidacy – that Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers – you’ll cheerfully double down on any atrocity, no matter how vile.

“I could stand in the middle of 5th Ave and shoot somebody,” he famously quipped during the campaign, “and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” The crowd laughed. And they kept laughing during the pussy grabbing and the threats of violence and the feuds and infantile name calling. They crowed about Hillary’s defeat, they snickered at the world’s dawning horror, and they noted Republican after Republican who protested this man’s ascent, only to bend their knee for the sake of Supreme Court appointments and tax cuts.

And the worse things got, they more they shrugged it off as business as usual. Easily disproven lies about inaugural crowd sizes and tapped wires from Obama… dutifully passed off as news from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. “Fake news” used to obscure real injustices and grotesque appetites. Racism. Sexism. Willful cruelty. And all the while, his followers lapped it up, and brushed the rest of off as paranoid.

Even when neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville.

And universities started inviting Richard Spencer to speak.

And the minority widows of minority soldiers killed in battle were publicly vilified for disputing the president’s version of events.

His followers never changed. They just dug in. They attacked Trump’s defeated rival. They blew smoke. They denied what was in front of their faces, and when those close to them begged to differ, they attacked.

In many cases, they were friends. In some, they were family.

And suddenly, we knew what it was to look at someone we thought we knew and wonder what went on behind their eyes. Suddenly, we tried to imagine how far they’d go – how bad things would get – before they finally saw what the rest of us accepted as plain fact.

One of us is a monster.

It hasn’t happened yet for too many of them. 1 in 3 still approves of the job this man is doing… even as Robert Mueller goes on the offensive and the first indictments thunder through the political landscape. Trump himself may be doomed. The sharks are circling and assuming there’s any basic concern for the country left in Congress, justice will take its course. But we can’t dismiss the 60 million people who voted for this man as quickly. Or the hate and bigotry that bubbled all too eagerly from their lips, and which they will deny to their graves rather than confront.

That’s the real monster. Carpenter just dressed it up a little. We can fight it out in the open, but it does the most damage when it lies hidden from sight. Campbell knew it in 1938. The Thing knew it in 1982. And now we’re getting another reminder of just how hard that monstrosity can be to kill. But like the men in Outpost #31, we have to try.

It’s just too goddamn important to do anything else.

Happy Halloween everyone.

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