Rated | Alphabetical
Christian Nyby, USA, 1951
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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