I’ve greatly enjoyed every John Carpenter movie I’ve ever seen, save maybe a couple nu metal-era misteps like Ghosts of Mars. As much as I love the director’s landmark films & his soundtrack work, though, there are still a few major titles from Carpenter that I haven’t yet made the effort to catch up with. That’s why it was a godsend that the Prytania Theatre is dedicating the October schedule for its Late Night movie series to Carpenter’s work, culminating at the end of the month, of course, with a screening of Halloween. As I mentioned in my recap of the theater’s recent screening of Cinema Paradiso, The Prytania is a century-old New Orleans institution, the oldest operating cinema in the city, a fine venue for seeing great films for the first time. It was where I first saw Jaws, their frequent selection for America’s favorite holiday: Shark Week. When Robin Williams passed away last year it was where I first saw Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King. And, most recently, it was where I finally watched John Carpenter’s masterful monster movie The Thing, screened on the first truly cold night of the year (how’d they plan that?), so that you could feel a fraction of the chill of the film’s Antarctica setting in your bones. Technically, it’s still fall outside, but when Kurt Russell gripes in the film, “First goddamn week of winter,” it was easy to empathize. All that was missing was a shape-shifting alien & a bottle of Jim Beam.
The Thing is essentially a 1950s Roger Corman monster movie taken to its most logical & most pessimistic extremes. In fact, the short story the film is based on had been previously adapted into an actual 1950s creature feature (and would later be resurrected for an episode of The X-Files & a cheap CGI trifle of a remake). A practical effects masterwork, The Thing‘s titular creature is just as ambiguous in form as it is in name. It’s a grotesque, rapidly evolving mess of undercooked biology, calling into mind the hot mess of vaguely defined monsters in the back half of 1981’s psychological horror Possession. The thing arrives on Earth via a disc-shaped, Millennium Falcon-esque UFO in the opening credits with very little detail provided for its origins. A complicated “organism that imitates other life forms,” the thing is alien in every sense of the word. It transforms in ways that are shocking & disgusting because they don’t make sense in the context of anything we’ve ever seen or understood in biology. Even in cinema, we’ve seen dogs used to create tension or terror, but never by splitting their faces open to reveal a mass of spider-like tentacles. We’re used to monsters killing for sport or nourishment, but not so much a creature that infiltrates a species through physical imitation, like a disease. Cellular activity found in corpses, blood that actively avoids extreme heat, half-cooked human imitations that look just about almost right except for long claw-like hands that resemble gigantic, deep-fried softshell crabs: the thing is far beyond human comprehension of basic biology, constantly opening compartments of itself like horrific Russian dolls to reveal more & more layers of ambiguous terror. Too often sci-fi horror models the designs of its creatures around what we already know. The Thing‘s creature might be the most alien alien to ever grace the screen.
Finding themselves face to face with this unknowable threat is an all-male crew of scientific researchers isolated in Antarctica for the winter. Even as scientists our protagonists have a difficult time making sense of the thing. Kurt Russell’s character exclaims early on, “I don’t know what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird & pissed off, whatever it is.” Once the thing infiltrates their ranks & starts imitating human lifeforms (a computer model helpfully explains, “Possibility that one or more crew members are infected: 75%”), everyone becomes suspect. The group of goofs, once prone to drunkenly playing computer chess, rollerskating to Stevie Wonder, and smoking six-paper joints in the lab, soon has to ask of each & every team member, “How do we know he’s human?” The notorious scene of extensive, pointless, paranoid violence in Carpenter’s They Live (“Put the glasses on! Put ’em on! “) is drawn out here to a full length narrative. Nearly every member of the crew is an affable goof, so it’s a very tense atmosphere in which at least one of them is not what they seem, but instead is a shape-shifting mess of mismatched body parts & gore.
I’m not sure of the exact reason The Prytania is spotlighting John Carpenter this month (not that I would complain if they did so every October), but it does feel like kind of the perfect time to do so. After scoring his own films for decades, the director just released his first studio album, Lost Themes— complete with his first music video & live concerts. Screening They Live earlier this month was a fitting tribute to the recently deceased “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, as it was easily his best work outside the wrestling ring (and I’m bummed to say I missed it). Even in a more general sense, the current cinematic climate is adoringly looking back at the Carpenter aesthetic & it’s all too easy to see echoes of his work in films as recent as The Guest, It Follows, and Cold in July. In other words, everything’s coming up Carpenter.
If I only catch one film during this mini-Carpenter Fest, I’m glad I at least got to experience The Thing for the first time on the big screen. The movie’s visuals are on par with the best the director has ever crafted. The strange, rose-colored lighting of emergency flares & the sparse, snow-covered Antarctica hellscape give the film an otherworldly look backed up, of course, by the foreign monstrosity of its titular alien beast. The film’s creature design is over-the-top in its complexity and I sincerely hope every single model made for the film is preserved in a museum somewhere & not broken into parts or discarded. Also up there with Carpenter’s best work is the film’s dark humor, not only in Kurt Russell’s drunkenly cavalier performance, but also in the absurdity of the film’s violence & grotesqueries. It played very well with a midnight, BYOB audience. The only thing that’s missing here from Carpenter’s typical masterworks is one of his self-provided, glorious synth soundtracks, but with a pinch hitter like Ennio Morricone stepping in to fill the void, it’s near impossible to complain. The Thing is a perfectly crafted creature feature, one that even satisfies art cinema tastes with a resistance to tidying up its ambiguity in a bleak, mostly open conclusion. It’s by no means a stretch to rank it among the best of Carpenter’s works & I’m grateful to The Prytania for providing the opportunity to see it large, loud, and (in the spirit of the film’s isolated crew of scientific researchers) more than a little drunk with a live audience at a late hour. It was special.