It is always interesting to me just how many characters in a horror movie act as though they know they’re in a horror movie. Whether it’s the dopey teens lining up to be next years urban legends, or the scowling scholars looking up various portents everyone seems to more or less know what is coming.
Of course the horror films that tend to really hit hard are the ones that buck this trend. Films like The Strangers, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the original Halloween, films about ordinary folks who too a wrong step and wound up in hell. It’s all about taking away a degree of remove. Think this won’t happen to you? Think again.
Watching the original The Thing for the first time since childhood that’s what really struck me. These people have no idea what’s coming. They are, like all the characters in Howard Hawk’s films professionals. They’re out there to do a job, even the scientist who ends up on the wrong end of The Thing’s wrath is just trying to do his damn job. When said job goes from “transporting personal” to saving the human race from extinction at the hands of a hostile life form, the boys roll with it with a certain blue collar matter of factness. It’s just another damn thing they’ve got to deal with. The cast of dependable B Movie faces may not have the charisma of the Dean Martins and Cary Grants that Hawks normally dealt with, but they’re cut from the same cloth.
Of course how much of The Thing Hawks actually directed is something we’ll never really know for sure. Though the lowball figures tend to be “some of” while the high end estimate is “most of”.
In either case it bears so many of his fingerprints it’s tough to see how much of a difference it would make. It’s all here the overlapping dialogue, tarted tongued dames (Even in the Artic Circle you can’t escape them in a Hawkes film), aforementioned obsession with competence and professionalism, the sense of male camaraderie, unshowy long medium shots, the bonding over small items like cigarettes. If sheriff John Chance was caught battling aliens its tough to see how the outcome would be much different.
Hawks (or whoever) creates a surprising amount of tension for someone who never tried his hand at the horror genre before or since. Though the artic base is a good deal brighter, efficient, cozier and much more obviously a set than Carpenter’s grimly functional installment, it retains its sense of isolation. The imagery holds up surprisingly well for what is essentially a low rent monster movie from the fifties as well. Though when seen in full the large domed James Arness can’t help but look a little silly, when seen from far off and obscured, as when the men watch him rampage through the dog pen, or in silhoutte as he often appears, or best of all when he’s lit on fire by the soldiers and runs through the pitch black artic night like a living torch he remains suitably creepy.
Yep The Thing sure is a great film. Strange that it inspired just the John Carpenter remake and nothing else.
And. Nothing. Else.