Jim’s Seventh Favorite Film

29 Oct

When it’s all said and done, John Carpenter likely won’t go down in history being spoken of in the same breath as Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles, John Ford or any other director whose name is synonymous with path paving, pioneering or inspiring future generations. Despite directing a few titles that have resonated with audiences enough to be re-visited and reshaped by others (Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog), Carpenter has also directed his fair share of clunkers (pretty much his entire output since the 90s minus In the Mouth of Madness) or titles that aren’t easy to classify by the mainstream (Big Trouble in Little China, They Live).

Because of this, it’s easier for people to overlook Carpenter’s legacy or discredit his successes as anomalies than it is to admit that the man who wrote, “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum” is a skilled filmmaker. But if one wanted to prove that Carpenter’s success and worth were warranted, he or she would have to look no further than The Thing as Exhibit A, B and C.

So far, the favorites I’ve included on this list have been dubbed as such due to some correlation between how the films have resonated as symbols of something larger than just entertainment in either what they meant to me or what they meant to artistic expression. But when it comes to The Thing, Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing from Another World, I can’t cite any nostalgia for its added personal gravity nor do I believe that it strives to be anything more than a superficial genre experience. Rather, I just love The Thing for what it is – a fantastic example of moviemaking magic.

Why do I cite The Thing and not some multi-million dollar CGI-heavy Hollywood output as an example of moviemaking magic? Two simple words: practical effects. The Thing is, is essence, a big screen send up to the joy of cinema, a big budget iteration of the pure spirit of a group of friends placing people and props in front of a camera and using rolls of celluloid as justification to pretend for just a moment that what’s being filmed is real. When it comes to suspension of disbelief, suspension becomes easier when there’s actually something tangible to which one can react. We as audiences are brought in at the very last stage of a film’s inception so that our response is to a product of finely tuned and ironed out layers upon layers of craftsmanship. When Element A don’t exist in the same time and place as Element M there’s only so much believability that’ll come about when they’re pasted together and pretend to interact thanks to Element C. If Elements A and M exist together during the process of filming, then reactions and interactions genuinely are catalyzed and less compensation and make up work have to be done later for the audience to get on board.

Thanks to Carpenter and some spectacular collaborators in actor Kurt Russell, cinematographer Dean Cundey and effects creator Rob Bottin, The Thing stands as a perfect example of all elements coming together in a tangible way for tangible results. In order for any monster movie to be successful, there needs to be a palpable fear of The Other and this fear can be sabotaged by a visible zipper or second-rate CGI. However, when The Thing invades the polar camp of R.J. MacReady and co., Bottin’s phenomenal and horrifying creations ensured that this fear was literally physically confronting the actors and their genuine reactions to the monsters add to a film that’s already saturated with terror, paranoia and grave sincerity. When the newly detached head of one of the men sprouts legs and began crawling away across the floor, MacReady’s declaration of “you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me” serves as both shock and awe at the depths of The Thing’s survival instincts and sheer amazement at the audacity of Bottin’s imagination. Over 30 years later, the fruition of that imagination still holds up.

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