Viking Night: John Carpenter's The Thing
By Bruce Hall
November 9, 2010
Most consumers have no problem loving a huge budget blockbuster. Movies that are meant to appeal to the widest possible audience usually do just that. But some films have a narrower vision, or simply contain more complex meaning than meets the eye. They aren't always art, and they aren't always even very successful. But for a devoted and eccentric few, they're the best entertainment money can buy. Once, beginning with Erik the Viking, a group of dedicated irregulars gathered weekly in a dingy dorm room to watch these films and discuss how what pleases the few might also appeal to the many. Time has separated the others in those discussions so that I alone remain to ponder the wider significance of cult cinema. But while the room is cleaner and I no longer have to skip class to do it, I still think of my far off friends whenever I hold Viking Night.
I’m not a huge fan of horror films but if I’m going to watch one, there are generally a few things I consider mandatory. First, I need the concept to fit the genre. What I mean is, whether you’re a campy slasher flick like Friday the 13th, or a high concept psychological thriller like The Excorcist, all I ask is that you play the part. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Second, I have to have actors who are believable in their roles. They don’t have to be great actors, although that’s always a plus. But whether you’re playing a ditzy cheerleader or a sullen, conflicted priest I’d feel better if the part wasn’t too big for your level of talent. Maybe it’s because I believe you often get efficient results by surrounding one or two credible leads with C-list supporting players, allowing the wheat to be enjoyed and the chaff to get beheaded with a machete. Or maybe it’s because if I have to watch someone die, if you can’t make me care the least you could do is let me laugh. A good director knows this but he also knows that if you can get the first two things right, then the movie’s atmosphere must enhance the story - horror films take place in horrible places, real or imagined. And once you’ve seen to all that, you’d better have a hell of an ending. No matter what kind of horror film it is or who is in it, if you don’t nail these things, you’ve got yourself something that’s probably horrifying for a different reason.
John Carpenter excelled at this early in his career and he put his instincts to good use in what might be his best loved film, The Thing. Utilizing a strong ensemble cast of both veterans and newcomers, Carpenter executed my Prime Directives of Terror to perfection and crafted a timeless classic. It is a dreary, dark, compelling, scary and on two occasions amusing tale of dread and damnation, executed with military precision. And it all starts with a traffic accident - the opening credits tell us that an alien ship crashed in the Antarctic wilderness many years ago. And the memorable, low tech revelation of the film’s title – reminiscent of a slow burning fuse – suggests to us that nothing good is going to come of it. It’s an efficient way to give just enough background to give the audience a hint of what’s coming without letting the story trip over itself. This is good because the story starts at full sprint when a sled dog brings chaos across the frozen wasteland to the doorstep of an American research outpost. A pair of frantic Norwegians (not Swedish!) has chased the pooch halfway across the continent by chopper, blasting rifle rounds and hurling hand grenades at the poor creature all the way. As they follow the animal up to the American camp their haste results in the destruction of a number of things except the dog, leaving the bewildered Americans to wonder what they’ve just witnessed and why. Things quickly go from bewildering to downright deadly when it becomes apparent that the beast is not quite what it seems, and the Norwegians just may have had the right idea all along.