Basement Songs: John Carpenter’s “The Thing”

Written by Basement Songs: 52 Saturday Nights, Film

Scott Malchus celebrates Halloween with John Carpenter’s “The Thing” in this week’s Basement Songs

Ask me why I love a good horror movie and I could give you some b.s. answer about how watching characters in a scary movie deal with unbelievable life and death situations is a cathartic release from the pressures and stress of the real world. The truth is, I have always loved being scared. I have loved having the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, my stomach churn as dread builds, and my testicles curl up inside me from being scared out of my wits. The inability to look away from what’s happening on screen when I know something horribly wrong (and hopefully horribly grotesque) is going to happen thrills me to no end. I’m not talking about torture porn like the Saw films or Human Centipede; I’m talking about a filmmaker doing his job, making you care about the people on screen, and then breaking your heart (or cheering) when someone narrowly escapes doom, or, yes, when them meet their demise. In my mind, a great horror movie can be the most exhilarating roller coaster ride you can experience in two hours.

My love of the genre dates back to my childhood, beginning with the Saturday afternoons I spent watching Superhost on Cleveland’s Channel 43 in Cleveland. Superhost was a man named Marty Sullivan, dressed up as a clown version of Superman. He hosted Mad Theater, which generally showed two horror movies in a row. The first time I saw the Universal classics Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man was on Mad Theater, as well as the Japanese Godzilla movies, including my favorite, Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monsters. Later, I became acquainted with many of the Hammer Horror films starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Their version of The Mummy left a lasting impact on me on how the mind makes something so much more gruesome when you can’t see it.

From those Saturday afternoons I graduated to Big Chuck and Lil Jon (Hoolihan was before my time) on Friday nights at 11:30 PM. If I was able to make it through one of the chilling films that they showed, walking the gauntlet of darkness from our family room to my bedroom was a spine tingling challenge. I could go from room to room, turning on a light and then rushing back to turn off the one in the room I’d just left, but getting upstairs was more difficult. The upstairs hall light shined into each bedroom of my family, so switching it on would have stirred even a heavy sleeper, like my father. Thus, I had to sprint up the stairs to the bathroom, fumble for the light switch and close myself in the john, catching my breath. Once my nerves were calmed, it was five quick steps around the corner and under the covers. That’s what I would get for watching movies about killer robots, man eating ants or philandering husbands who chopped up their wives and stored their body parts in the basement freezer.

With the advent of the VCR, my best friend, Matt, and I began consuming horror movies. Whatever Fangoria preached as the latest, greatest horror masterpiece, we would seek it out at First Run Video, the mom and pop video store we frequented so often that the store owner knew our names before our parents. 95% of the time, Fangoria’s opinion was crap. Matt nd I saw so many shitty movies just because Tom Savani did the effects (I’m still bitter about Maniac) or George Romero had some involvement with the production. However, there were films that struck a nerve and stayed with me. The Evil Dead, for example, is one movie that still scares me, makes me laugh and inspires me as a filmmaker. And then there is John Carpenter’s The Thing, a movie that is so chilling (in more ways than one), that I believe that it’s one of the best movies of the 1980’s.

Kurt Russell, still working his way from cult hero to leading man, lead a stellar cast that included such great character actors like Keith David (Childs), Wilford Brimley (Blair), Donald Moffat (Garry), Richard Masur (Clark) and David Clennon (Palmer).  Russell plays MacReady, a helicopter pilot for an American Antarctica Research Team. On the “first goddamn day of winter,” as Mac so eloquently puts it, a Norwegian helicopter flies over their camp with a rifleman wildly shooting at a seemingly innocent Alaskan Malamute. The Norwegian gunman wounds one of the Americans before the station commander, Garry, kills the crazed man.

A dropped hand grenade blows up the helicopter and its pilot, so the Americans are left to wonder what the hell is wrong with the Norwegians. They soon discover that an alien with the ability to mimic any life form killed everyone in a Norwegian camp and it now plans to find a new host among the Americans. The new host will keep it warm until it can make its way to a more populated area and take over the world.

Thanks in part to Ennio Morricone’s ominous score, Carpenter immediately sets the mood of isolation and dread- men trapped in the middle of nowhere. Even if they could just run away, the cruel Antarctic winter would limit just how far they could get. There is no place to hide. They can only fight back. Trouble is there’s no telling who is human and who is inhabited by the thing from another planet.

Living in a cold climate state, just looking at Russell and the rest of the cast, bundled up in heavy parkas, with snow caked on their beards and packed all over their shoes, this made the film all the more frightening to me. I’ve been camping in the middle of winter and spend days pounding my feet on he hard ground just to keep the blood circulating. I’ve has my hands get so stiff from the cold and the wet that it hurt to move them (even now, I’m getting phantom pains just thinking about it).

Mac is one of my favorite reluctant heroes and Russell plays him perfectly. Mac is a hard drinking loner who prefers the company of a computer chess game to the rest of the guys on the crew. Yet, he’s also the guy everyone turns to when the shit hits the fan. Even Garry, the weasel of a commander, looks to MacReady for guidance. To Mac’s credit, he’s quick to protect his friends from the alien menace that is overtaking the bodies of his comrades. Then, when all hope is lost, Mac is prepared to freeze to death just to ensure that humanity is safe.

Carpenter’s superb use of ambiguity raises questions that are never answered. Whose bedroom does the infected dog wander into during its first night in camp? Later on, which of the crew members was in Mac’s room? What happened to Keith David’s Childs when he disappeared into the storm? For that matter, did something happen to Mac when he was lost in the darkness? The other day I was discussing these questions with a friend and he proposed that Mac may be infected. I’d never thought that was possible, but then I started to wonder. The Thing may not be as much a labyrinth as Lost, but I love that I’m still asking questions about a film I first saw when I was thirteen. Damn, I wish Matt was still alive so we could bounce theories off one another.

When was the first time I saw The Thing? I couldn’t tell you. But I know it was in the Malchus family room, with my knees locked to my chest, sitting in the chair right in front of the television. Matt, no doubt, was to my side, sitting on the couch, his hand gripping the arm rest. All of the lights would have been out and the two of us, I’m sure, each had a 16 oz bottle of RC Cola sitting nearby. We’d later re-watch it at his house, laying flat in front of his television, sucking down Cokes and stuffing our faces with nacho cheese Doritos.

When did I last watch it? It was just a couple of weeks ago. Outside, the October temperature was crisp and the smell of dying left me pining for Indian Summer in Ohio. I turned off all of the house lights and settling down on the couch. Yes, I got scared all over again.  I have seen The Thing, perhaps, twenty times, and it still surprises me. I still jump when the monster rises from the icy floor below the camp, and I still gawk like a fourteen year old kid when I watch Rob Bottin’s timeless special effects. CG be damned! To this day I still have a hard time figuring out how Bottin and his crew pulled off some of the magic they did in The Thing. I mean, come on, when the head hits the floor and its tongue shoots out to pull the head across the room? Nothing can top that!

At some point, I hope that one (or both) of my children discover the joy of being scared by a good horror movie. There’s nothing I’d love more than to show them one of my favorites just to get their reaction, just to gauge how scary they think it is. I’m sure if they were to watch some of the old black and white movies that used to give me chills they would yawn and look for their Gameboys. But something tells me that if/when I can get them to watch The Thing, they’ll get scared just as much as I did, and hopefully love it.

Then again, one of the reasons I love The Thing so much is because I discovered it with my best friend, reveling in our fears together. A sense of maturity came to us from being scared to death and being able to handle the fear. If either of my children should have such a friend and they pull The Thing off of the shelf from my office and discover it together, well, then nothing could top that, either.

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