(Originally posted at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat by Sean T. Collins.)
Two movies today.
I suppose that what separates the movies I’m watching and reviewing right now from the movies I’ll be watching and reviewing once the official 13 Days of Halloween begin on Sunday is that these ones tend to lack that monumental horror-image that frightens me so. But there’s more than one way to skin a
teenager cat, and there’s more than one way to visually demonstrate that something is going very, very wrong. The image may not be monumental in the ways I use the term, but it can be spectacular, and spectacularly horrifying too.
Such is the case with John Carpenter’s The Thing, the 1982 reimagining of the 1951 sci-fi alien-invader flick of the same name (both are adaptations of the John Campbell short story “Who Goes There?”). Director Carpenter had previously pumped new, ahem, blood into horror with his phenomenally successful and influential ur-slasher flick Halloween. But that movie, for my money, has had much of its power stripped away by its imitators. Whereas slasher-movie copycats and general pop-culture rifferty tend to reveal the superiority of forerunners like Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, in Halloween’s case they reveal the original’s weaknesses, which are many. That film did precious little for me when I finally saw it. But Carpenter runs into no such difficulty with this, his second most-oft-imitated film, which is also his most frightening and visionary.
The plot is pure situational simplicity. The gruff, all-male crew of a remote American research station in Antarctica peek outside their windows to see a pair of frantic Norwegians in a helicopter, shooting at a fleeing sled dog. Within minutes, the two Norwegians are dead, the dog has been taken in, and the Americans are left wondering what the hell happened in the Norwegian research base the trio fled from, a full hour away by helicopter. Kurt Russell plays R.J. McCready, the bearded, heavy-drinking helicopter pilot who discovers that the Norwegian scientists had freed something from the ancient ice–and that that shape-shifting, alien something now walks among his crew.
Like several great horror films (Deliverance, The Exorcist, Texas Chain Saw), this film benefits greatly from its long, slow, tense opening segment. The frigidity and isolation of the snowed-in base is established in detail, as is the gruesome insanity of whatever-it-is-that-happened to the Norwegian, and as are the combustible personalities of the American crew.
Carpenter assembled one of the most watchable casts of manly men since Kazan’s 12 Angry Men–it’s a veritable smorgasbord of terrific character actors, including Richard Dysart as the cool-headed base doctor, Wilford Brimely as the volatile brains of the operation, Donald Moffat as the gun-toting military man, and Richard Masur as the sensitive type who looks after the rescued dog. Between them and the other types here assembled–the pot-smoking conspiracy theorist, the rollerskating funkateer, the bespectacled Richard Dreyfus lookalike, the wigged-out radioman, the suspicious rival for McCready’s ersatz leadership post–there’s enough pent-up, violent machismo bouncing around that anyone thrown in amongst the group would be prone to paranoia, even if mysterious Things weren’t a factor.
But they are–oh boy, are they ever. Make-up effects artist Rob Bottin has rightfully entered the pantheon for his work here, some of the most exuberantly imaginative and grotesque horror effects in the history of film. Taking cues from sources like Salvador Dali (“The Great Masturbator”), Francis Bacon (“Study for Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion”), David Cronenberg (pick a film, any film), and of course the creature-features of yore, Bottin creates images so bizarre, so utterly unique in their own logic of absorption, disintegration, and transformation, that they simply must be seen to be believed. The very first time we see them in action–it’s one of those cases where the filmmakers make sure you see something coming, but not that–the effect is so overwhelming in its out-of-nowhere explosion of viscerality that we the audience end up being as shocked as the characters. From that moment the film has us, and makes the characters’ every ounce of fear, mistrust, and terror our own.
But these spectacular rendings and transformations wouldn’t work if Carpenter didn’t bother to ground them in some sense of the real. So laced throughout the film are small, relatable moments of pain and discomfort–surgical stitching, extreme cold, cut fingers, heart troubles, putting down sick dogs, and so forth. Because of this, the gargantuan, explosive moments–pain and discomfort writ large–are more powerful, since they’ve been seen in scale.
A similar bait-and-switch is visible in a more recent, often overlooked genre effort–2001′s Jeepers Creepers. Directed by Victor Salva (a man who, unfortunately, has firsthand experience with monsterdom–he’s a convicted sex offender; this does affect a lot of people’s decision as to whether or not to see the film), this was another one of those sight-unseen recommendations I’ve been fortunate enough to receive, this time from Clive Barker himself. “Just a little movie made for nothing that does something genuinely scary and weird,” he says, and he’s right.
The movie stars Gina Phillips and Justin Long as a bickering brother and sister whose long roadtrip home from college through countryside backroads–well, I imagine you can guess that things don’t go well from there, and you know what? That’s all I’m saying, because I think this film is best seen with the same amount of foreknowledge I myself had when I first saw it: none.
Starting with believable dialogue and likeably annoying performances from the two leads, Jeepers veers headlong into a succession of heart-pounding sequences, each different in tone and execution from the last until, after one sudden, bizarre moment (a moment that loses some viewers while sucking others, like me, right in), you’re in a very different, very strange, and very frightening place. In between there are references to Duel, Texas Chain Saw, Nightbreed, and many others–none of which, however, feel at all derivative, peppered as they are with moments that are startling and original (the design of a truck, a slow-motion free-fall, an unexpected turn for the weird, the repeated and total violation of presumed saftey zones). Lead actor Long is required to do little else but look wide-eyed and slack-jawed, but Phillips, who looks like a younger, lovelier version of Laura San Giacomo, gives a performance of surprising nuance, seguing from sisterly irritation to fish-out-of-water fear to unexpectedly fierce protective love. It culminates with an ending that I didn’t see coming at all–no mean feat for a horror film.
Yeah, there are a lot of approaches to horror. These two movies find their own. And they happen to be horrifying as hell.