Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Thing Frightens With Isolation

It's the boogeymen who frighten us when we're young, the unseen, innumerable creatures that go bump and slump and slither in the night. We imagine them beneath our beds, in our closets, crouching right outside our windows. And it's these creatures, the ones that we quickly outgrow, that most of us believe are the real villains in scary movies. But as any good horror writer knows, monsters are mostly the means by which we explore the frightening parts of humanity and the world, the universal truths that make our skin crawl long after we get rid of our nightlights. So while John Carpenter's 1982 creature feature The Thing features a splattery, shape-shifting denizen from outer space, it's also addresses an equally terrifying theme, that of isolation.

Life is dull and cold in Outpost 31, an American research center smack in the middle of the Antarctic. Dull at least until a lone sled dog trots into camp one day, followed closely by a seemingly crazed pair of rifle-toting Norwegians in a helicopter. One accident with a stray thermite charge later, the Americans are left with two dead madmen, a flaming chopper and a new pet. Oh, and also an extraterrestrial ... parasite or infection or something. The men aren't exactly sure what it is or how it spreads. But they do know it can perfectly mimic any creature with which it comes in contact and messily dispose of those who try to harm it. Fear flashes into full-fledged paranoia as the men understand they're up against a nearly undetectable, indestructible enemy -- and that they themselves may already be infected.

The Thing doesn't scrimp on stomach-churning scenes, a hallmark of those late-seventies and early-eighties genre pieces. And they work pretty darn well despite the dated special effects. Indeed, one particular shock moment that transpires during a defibrillation attempt made me recoil from the screen. But the sense of loneliness and alienation is what really gets the gooseflesh going. With no solid idea of how the creature assimilates its victims, the Americans soon break out into open aggression against one another. Then any hope of outside intervention disappears when a blizzard slams into Outpost 31. That sense of alienation, of constantly having to navigate shifting loyalties and master fears that your friends are about to erupt into eldritch horrors, suffuses the entire film. And when the ending rolls, an ending both sublimely subtle and unsettling, you realize it's just as frightening to be isolated from the certainty of the truth as it is from friends and home.

(Picture: CC 2009 by
orvaratli)

7 comments:

Loren Eaton said...

Those who haven't braved the terrors of Outpost 31 can do so for free on YouTube where the entire movie has been uploaded.

Scattercat said...

Obligatory.

Donna Hole said...

Love the movie. I think this is the movie that made Kurt Russell an adult actor for me. It definitely gave me the shivvers.

I'm not really into the "new" scary movies. From Dawn To Dusk was the best I'd seen in many years. Give me the original Nightmare on Elm Street, the original Friday the 13th. Its been a long time since I had a decent Friday Night Fright. I miss them.

Excellent review Loren. Thanks scattercat for the link. Its on my favorites now.

..........dhole

Loren Eaton said...

SC,

I listened to the podcast of Peter Watts' story the day after I rewatched the film. It's ... I dunno, I feel a little mixed about it. It's obviously a fascinating idea and a very well-written short. However, Watts had to make a number of decisions about things that were intentionally left ambiguous in the movie in order to move his plot along, like how the infection works and what exactly was happening in that brilliant final scene. Still a good story, though.

Loren Eaton said...

Donna,

I'm not a big fan of most current-generation horror either. Its creators seem to thing that the bloodier it gets the better it is. That's just gross. If you want a movie that creeps you out for all the right reasons, try Abel Ferrara's The Addiction. It's super-arty and goes in heavily for philosophy, but has a stunning climax and a cameo by Christopher Walken.

Donna Hole said...

Umm, thanks for the movie tip, Loren. Sounds interesting. And I'm a fan of Christopher Walken; he's one of my favorite bad guys. He's always so charming.

.........dhole

Loren Eaton said...

Remember that it's just a cameo, though! Walken's there for maybe five or so minutes. Most of the film features Lili Taylor, who is a fine enough actress in her own right.