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  The Thing
Christian Nyby, USA, 1951
Rating: 4.3

Posted: November 14, 2003

Okay, so I've been out of pocket for a little bit. Turns out some clown who figured out where I was decided to rat on a rat, and the Feds had to whisk me away to a new location before the folks I turned state's evidence on could make me into Christmas tree stuffing. It happens, you know? When I get settled in my new Smalltown USA home, I plug in the old laptop to get down to business, and what do I see? Some circus freak with an oral fixation badmouthing me. This is the downside of liberty: Any dreg with an Internet connection can spout off his opinions. In a perfect society, guys like Vincenzo would have no access to communication devices of any kind, beyond a pair of paper cups attached by twine. But I'll play along. Look, I understand Vincenzo's need to find a film to help him get his woman in the mood. 'Cuz dude, if she's with you, it's gonna take A LOT to scare her, ya feel me? She's already looked horror in the eye, and in the process been blinded by a prismatic kaleidoscope reflected off that continental shelf you call a skull. Anyway, I might shave my legs and squeeze into a tutu, but that don't make me a ballerina, you follow me?

So with this Vincenzo character lurking around posing as a movie critic, I need to bust some kind of move to separate the men from the boys. I gotta go old school, all the way back to 1951. To a time before Industrial Light and Magic, before the invention of the "blue screen" and other special effects gizmos, when filmmakers could only rely on a black-and-white camera and a good story to hold an audience's attention. I'm talking about The Thing, baby; the epitome of the "monster movie," a movie so good that the great B-movie maven John Carpenter felt compelled to remake it back in the '80s. A movie that, unlike the Jeepers Creepers offerings, manages to scare the pants off of any right-thinking moviegoer without any lecherous pedophilic baggage. Ready? Let's break it down.

The setting is a remote Arctic outpost, inhabited by a handful of soldiers and researchers who discover a UFO embedded in the ice. To make a long story short, the researchers blow the craft to pieces in an attempt to extricate it. All is lost, except for what appears to be a humanoid form frozen in a block of ice. This "thing" is taken back to the facility where, you guessed it, it gets thawed out. (By the way, the "Thing" is played wonderfully by none other than James Arness himself. Who knew he had such range?) Anyway, the inhabitants of this remote arctic base soon find themselves in a desperate struggle for survival, a pitched battle of wits with this creature from another world.

The film is what it is: a true monster movie. But it also strikes at a very common theme of monster movies back then: the eternal struggle between the rational mind and the primal instinct. You've got the scientists who want to learn from the alien/monster, and the soldiers who want to blow it away. The soldiers always win. Know why? What the hell kind of film can you make about scientists learning crap from aliens? Yeah, it'd be great in real life, with the ray guns and anti-gravity belts and what not, but what's scary about that?

I guess if I were a real movie critic like Laurence Station, I'd be tempted to recast The Thing as a parable about the Cold War, which was just percolating in the early '50s, with Americans finding communist bogeymen hiding under every bed and starring in every other movie. But then, if I were Laurence Station, I'd still be psychologically scarred from being repeatedly stuffed into my locker in high school, so let's just not touch on that at all. The Thing ain't about character development, or plots, or subplots, and it certainly ain't about no larger, deeper, over-arching themes. It's about a monster. And jeez, can't we just leave it at that?

That, after all, is the sheer beauty, the simplicity, of this film. Yes, yes, many years later, John Carpenter made a pretty decent remake, but it lacked a certain rawness to it. Carpenter, great American that he is, is concerned with scaring you, one of the noblest of occupations. But The Thing isn't about scaring you silly. Remember, this is a monster movie, not a horror movie. Two different animals completely. And The Thing takes a totally different set of expectations to fully enjoy. The beauty of this film is that it depends on every element for its success. It's not about the soldiers alone. It's not about the "thing" alone. The devil is in the details: the idea of being isolated in a remote location, the cold and snow, the struggle for survival -- all of these are integral to the story. No one element is the nexus of the film.

Not that this is a movie without some terrific elements. Without a doubt, the scene of the film comes when the soldiers are huddled together on one side of a door and slowly open it, only to come face to face with the alien. They spray him with a short burst of gunfire and slam the door closed (the same reaction Vincenzo's parents would have if he ever attempted to return home). It turns out that the "thing" is actually, like, a vegetable (insert your own Kevin Moreau joke here). I know what you're thinking: Come on, Clemenza! How can a vegetable build a spaceship? It turns out though, that this is a way clever space vegetable. Think about it. And if you're still skeptical, I ain't got but two words for you: Swamp Thing. Case closed.

I'm not telling you how all this ends, but chances are, if you know the genre, you probably already have a good idea what happens. They just don't make monster movies like this anymore, or at least, not good ones, anyway. Take it from me, track this one down. You'll like it. Not in the sense of Vincenzo "liking" the Al Pacino movie Cruising, or Station "liking" MC Hammer's "Can't Touch This," but being too ashamed to admit it for fear of tarnishing his precious indie cred. No, I'm talking the kind of "like" that critics reserve for only the top-shelf, crème de la crème of cinematic achievement. You know, stuff like Citizen Kane and Marked For Death. Yeah, I think a movie about intelligent, vicious vegetable matter from outer space ranks right up there; and I ain't talking about The Life And Times of Vincenzo!

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 Clemenza's Ratings Key:

 5.0: A drop of bliss

 4.0-4.9: Touchdown!
 3.0-3.9: Close, but...
 2.0-2.9: Box of Rocks
 1.1-1.9: Time bandit
 0.0-1.0: Soul scarring
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