The second in series of requested by Ko-FI blogs comes from Kevin McCluskey, who asked me to write something on my favourite John Carpenter film.
Which is quite a challenge. Though the final choice will be kind of obvious from the title, John Carpenter is second only to Hitchcock as my favourite director of all time. That’s despite a career that has had some sever ups and down.
From a completely objective viewpoint, I think Halloween (no, not that Halloween. Or that one. The original) would probably be his masterpiece. But there’s one that, personally, does a lot more things for me.
As a kid growing up in the 80’s, the John Carpenter film I saw a lot was of course Big Trouble in Little China (I think Starman was on a fair bit as well, but that’s one I can’t remember anything about at this point), which is a tremendously fun film, but, isn’t in quite the top tier of his work. So it was the 90’s and late night screenings of various classics that really got me into his work. Especially around the time of Escape From L.A. and Halloween H20 when there was a bit of a push for video releases and channel 4 screenings. I still particularly remember the next day at school after seeing Halloween (no, not that one. Or that one) for the first time, walking through the surprisingly American style avenue behind the school with my best mate, “DA-DA-DA-DAing” the theme at full volume.
My first exposure to The Thing though didn’t come from the film. But from the first season X-Files episode Ice. Which is a completely and utterly shameless rip-off, and equally brilliant and the moment I became a massive fan of the series.
And of course, Deep Space Nine did it as well for its third season finale. As have a lot of series. Which I think is down to a combination of the film’s status having increased so much over the years to full on influential classic, and it being quite a cheap episode of TV to make (none of them go for the big monster aspect of the film) that lets often easily bored actors go all out at shouting at one another.
The thing I always think of first though is the circumstances under which I first saw the film. A late night ITV screening, where it must have been part of a season of cult films that had an introduction and afterwards by a presenter (though I cannot remember who! If anyone can actually recall better what I’m about to describe, let me know). Which doesn’t sound like a very ITV sort of thing to do.
And of course, I enjoyed the film for its tension, horror and dark humour. But it was the post film discussion by the host that especially caught my mind, as he pointed out the issue with the breath of the survivors at the end (no specific spoilers, go look) and asked what that might mean. Which deeply excited me and going me thinking about films in-depth in a way I hadn’t before and have probably gone on to do far to much of since.
Then a couple of years later I read a lengthy interview with Carpenter in SFX to promote Escape From L.A. A film he seemed mildly embarrassed to have had to make and he was therefore much keener to discuss his older films and, when the breath issue was put to him, he was cheerfully “I’ve not heard that, was just a lighting issue on set, I like the mad ideas more though”.
The film itself represents Carpenter at his peak. His previous, smaller indy films had all been hits, and in the case of Halloween (not that one. Or that one) a massive genre defining hit. The Thing was the first time he had the resources of a major studio behind him and the freedom to do pretty much what he liked as on the assumption he was going to be the new Spielberg.
It was also pretty much the last time he had that sort of backing, the failure of the film would see the rest of his career alternate between smaller independent films and work for hire he wasn’t especially excited about. And whenever he teetered on the opportunity again, the box-office would knock him back once more. Most notably Big Trouble in Little China. Though there are many good films after this (though his career is diminishing returns once you get into the ‘90’s) The Thing is the perfect meeting of raw, un-jaded talent, a massive budget and a ridiculous amount of talent with cash to flash.
On-screen of course, that talent is best represented by Kurt Russell as the head of a strong ensemble of character actors.
Russell is best know for being on the top of the second-tier of 80’s action heroes, bellow Arnie and Sly, but above Van Damme. Wryly ironic, slightly cynical but still deeply cool action heroes.
As MacReady though he gives what I regard as a career best performance as someone who is just so tired, even before the suspicion and paranoia sweeps the isolated Antarctic research base. There’s a resigned, underplayed quality to him here as he shows his quality and confidence in his own ability as he doesn’t showboat as the other actors get to show off, instead being a solid rock of the film, determined but sick of so much of the crap around him. He only really gets the one typical 80’s one liner, right at the end of the climactic battle.
Though of course, the effects are incredibly memorable. I’m not a practical effects purist. I think people often and repeatedly misunderstand how much craftsmanship and talent go into CGI, it is not just the I.T. nerd hitting a few buttons on their computer during the lunch hour. And frankly no one has ever watched The Thing and thought “Well that’s a 100% convincing head severing itself from a body and not obvious rubber”.
The trick, and the genius of both the idea of an alien that can turn itself into anything and Rob Bottin’s talent as a designer, is the endless variety of gags you get. From the moment that nice doggo starts to morph through the reveal of the final mish mash creature, every moment with The Thing constantly changes what you see, giving you new ways to jump out your seat and go “No way”. It’s one of the smartest ideas in cinema history, The Alien basically only has about three (really good) gimmicks it does endlessly through the sequels, The Thing could have sustained an entire franchise without doing the same thing twice.
The infirmary scene is probably the peak of the actual creature, with at least four different gags that are all perfectly executed. My favourite being one that deserves a big hand, but instead took two normal ones. It’s the sort of thing that should be taught in film schools are there are no many different bits and pieces masterfully edited together so you don’t notice, with a perfect final pay-off line.
But this is first and foremost a film about the characters. Their initial (if slightly grumpy) comradery turning ever inwards to fear and distrust. To an extent, the “Inspired by” versions that downplayed the monster to an ear worm or a shape-shifter with a rubber face had the right idea, the visceral horror adds a lot, but the core idea is so strong it doesn’t need it.
Throw in the amazing location (at a John Carpenter concert I met a man who had been to the location and retrieved a helicopter blade from the still there remains of the camp he had brought with him for Carpenter to sign) you have an amazing looking film that has enough going on beneath the visuals to allow it to stand up to closer scrutiny.
It’s sharp, intelligent and moody. Everything John Carpenter does well. One can only wonder what might have been if it had been a hit and Universal and other major studios had continued to take him seriously. If you’ve not seen it (and I’ve gone light on the plot here in the unlikely event you haven’t), you’re in for amazing time.
Unless you accidentally put on The Thing (no, not that one, which is also a classic. Yes, that one).