Tuesday, March 4, 2014

REVIEW: Devil's Advocates - The Thing

Anyone who has read this blog or knows of its history knows that I am a huge fan of John Carpenter’s The Thing. It is my favorite horror movie of all time; I have written essays about it for class and, in this blog’s most recent history, I’ve dedicated entire weeks to it. It seemed only natural for me to hop on Amazon and search for the Dark Horse comics that served as prequels to the ’82 film. In addition to finding them, I stumbled across a book simply titled: Devil’s Advocates: The Thing. The author is Jez Conolly (I mispronounced his name as cannoli). Having interacted with him on Twitter, I decided to order the book and give it a spin. What lay before me was an eye-opener. I thought I read all the critical analyses there were on the film. As a student of filmmaking, I thought I understood all the camera schematics and character placement. I thought I understood its themes, both as a Cold War cautionary tale and as commentary for the AIDS epidemic. I thought I knew all this. Jez Conolly’s book, suffice it to say, has wholly revised my opinion, and the way I will look at my beloved film for the better. There is nothing to critique. I have no protests. I have nothing to supplement it with, and I have no disagreements. Instead, I will explain how it was to read this book, chapter by chapter. I will do my best not to spoil the book.

Chapter 1: “Now I’ll Show You What I Already Know”
This chapter primarily serves as a brief layout for what’s to come, a sort of tantalizer, so to speak. However, it does concern itself with the author’s first-time experience with The Thing, not in theaters in beautiful 35mm or in its video rental run, but on a BBC news broadcast about the so called ‘video nasties.’ For any horror aficionado, the ‘video nasties’ are quite infamous. It marks a crucial point in the history of horror cinema as well as censorship. Perhaps the most enthralling aspect of this segment, aside from Conolly’s own experiences, are the lesser-known stories associated with the film: tales of killers and rapists who claim that they were influenced by it, and a brief scuffle with the Obscene Publications Act.

Chapter 2: “I Know How This One Ends”
I will let Conolly describe this section: “Just in case you’ve decided to buy and read this book, and happen to have spent at least the last 100,000 years encased in a block of ice, it might prove useful at this early juncture to offer a brief outline of the film’s plot before we proceed.” I couldn’t have said it better. Conolly’s synopsis of the film feels like a familiar road trip to us horror fans, however, he offers a few unfamiliar pit stops along the way; trivial but nevertheless interesting side points such as the font in which the first piece of on-screen texts appears in. Conolly even provides us with a map of understanding when he references certain incarnations of the Thing monster (i.e. ‘Kennel-Thing’ or ‘Split-Face Thing). As a Thing fan, some of the side-points were refreshing. Even if you’ve seen the film fifty times, it’s still fun to read the plot.

Chapter 3: “First Goddamn Week Of Winter”
Now, we get into the bulk of things (har har har!). This chapter indulges on many aspects, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of material presented here. I found myself pausing midway to take a breather. I advise everybody to absorb this chapter slowly for it is the start of a whole new perspective of the film.
            For the most part, the chapter is appropriately titled; the general theme is winter and thus snow. Conolly treats us to a quick little detour about photokeratitis, which is essentially snow blindness, and while you may scratch your heads wondering what this has to do with The Thing, I promise you that it correlates to the film’s production and central character. While it may not add anything as far as a critical analysis is concerned, it does lend itself as an interesting character/setting detail to the film’s cold, white backdrop. Besides, it is a fascinating condition.
            We are then led to snow. Snow plays a pivotal role in The Thing especially as a juxtaposing device to contrast the confines of Outpost 31, however, Conolly makes the bold move in comparing this element to highly revered cinematic classics such as Gold Rush, Citizen Kane, and Doctor Zhivago. Conolly explains that there is a “near-monochromatic bleakness” that isn’t all that different from “The Thing From Another World, which was shot in black and white.” Once more, I never drew the parallels in terms of color. I admire Conolly for comparing The Thing to much more ‘sophisticated’ films because I believe Carpenter’s interpretation is much more important to the history of American cinema (perhaps even world cinema) than most film historians would give it credit for.
            Possibly the most interesting topic that Conolly discusses has to do with Who Goes There, the novella by John Campbell in which both the Hawks/Nyby and Carpenter films were based off. The novella was published in 1938 in Astounding Science Fiction magazine. It may come as a surprise to you… but I have not read the novella. I understand that it’s available online for free, but being a rare book collector, I feel as though I must read the actual first-edition. I digress, however. Conolly begins this discussion with the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration” that began in the late nineteenth century continuing into the early twentieth century, up until to novella’s publication. As history buff, I found this whole segment enthralling. Conolly proceeds to discuss Lovecraft, and his most infamous book At the Mountains of Madness. You may be thinking that none of this has anything to do with Carpenter, Hawks/Nyby or Campbell, but you’d be wrong. In fact, as Conolly precisely details, it may be more directly influential on Campbell than we be think. I will not go into details
            The next segment deals with what may be a very overlooked, if not known, motif in the Carpenter film as well as the 2011 prequel of the same name. Conolly mentions magnets, and thus a magnet’s influence on metal. Campbell’s novella subtly references this in description and in location (ex: the base is not referred to as Outpost 31 but rather Big Magnet, situated at the very center of the South Pole), but also as a means to establish a central character that is an individual when compared to the rest. Furthermore, strictly speaking of Carpenter’s film, Conolly presents various examples that acknowledge Campbell’s theme of magnetism and its affects of his characters. I will not go into great detail but I will mention two examples:

“The couch in the rec room twice serves as place of restraint, first when Copper, Garry and Clark are the prime suspects and later when MacReady conducts his hot needle blood test, and in each case several of the men are tied together in close physical contact with MacReady at a distance.”
 They are magnets coming together with MacReady possessing no magnetic field.

“The Palmer-Thing’s blood jumps up and out of the Petri dish in its attempt to escape the hot needle, and then proceeds to run off along the floor of the rec room in a direction of its own choosing, almost as though attracted to a magnetic source.”

Chapter 4: “What Is That… Is That A Man In There… Or Something?”
The beginning of this chapter concerns itself with plant-based horror films of the 50’s and 60’s. Indeed, The Thing From Another World can be honored in the great pantheon of plant-horror like Day of the Triffids, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, given that our antagonist is pissed off vegetable. However, Carpenter’s Thing might also be honored here as well. Conolly’s assessment of the creature design, and how there is a presence of plant-based motifs, is rather intriguing.
            But the majority of this chapter dips into Cold War era politics. As Conolly explains, “The 1951 and 1982 Thing films, however, provide especially intriguing bookends to the Cold War.” Those of us who studied film should be familiar with this segment as it deals with Hawks/Nyby’s idea of a unified America, coming together to combat a foreign enemy (Communism in realty). Some would argue that it was a propaganda film to encourage patriotism, as was the case with Hawks’ Rio Bravo. Conversely, and not unknown, Carpenter’s film proceeds Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, and was released in the wake of Reaganomics. It is understood that Carpenter’s Thing was a deconstruction of what Hawks/Nyby sought to portray in the 50’s. 
            This is where the book, once again, becomes overwhelming. Conolly takes the aforementioned political assessment of both films and expands on them by citing wardrobe choices, dialogue quotes, Western motifs (my favorite involving Gerry and his gun), prop usage and scene compositions. Some of these citations may be more known than others, however, some come off as revelations. To explain, I will present two examples that correlate with Vietnam. 1) The imagery of flamethrowers, which were employed by U.S. troops. In the film, they are either malfunctioning or they are partially successful at preventing the Thing from assimilation. There is a deeper meaning here: the U.S. stopped using them in 1978 because of their questionable effectiveness in combat, and the PR surrounding the horrific death they caused. 2) Body horror. I will let Conolly explain this, “The flame-flayed Split-Face Thing found at the Norwegian base, with its fused contortion of appendages and twisted, frozen expression of horrific pain, is shot from angles that make it look remarkably similar to those causalities of the war.” While you may know most of the political ideology of both films, I guarantee there is much more at play than just obvious plot points.
            The chapter elaborates on MacReady’s chauvinistic character, which leads into a critique of the film’s biology, so to speak. Specifically, it uses Barbara Creed’s book The Monstrous Feminine (one that I should read) to compare The Thing with feminine imagery, similar to Ridley Scott’s Alien. While this may appear to be trivial, or perhaps further baffling, there is a looming presence of female imagery that plagues Carpenter’s all-male film.

Chapter 5: “What The Hell Are You Looking At Me Like That For?”
While the title is somewhat amusing, the chapter acknowledges the true language of film, and cites key aspects of The Thing to further the notion that there is an art to filmmaking. Conolly’s interpretation of The Thing’s visual theme is probably the most enlightening, if not indulging, chapter of his book. I have always said that The Thing has some of the best cinematography and production design I had ever seen, and this chapter is a testament to that statement. I will briefly touch upon my personal favorite points of interest, but I will do my best not to spoil anything.
            Firstly, in the beginning of the chapter, Conolly briefs us on the history of the ‘Killer POV’ shot, which, unknown to most, is quite apparent in both Kubrick’s film and Carpenter’s. We are then treated to a comparison between The Thing and The Shining, and while they both seclude their characters in a hostile, wintery environment, they both employ the use of the “probing corridor prowl.”  The Shining infamously uses this tactic when following Danny on his Big Wheel, while The Thing meanders around the confines of Outpost 31, suggesting, in both films, that something not quite human is stalking our characters. While this may not be thematically analytical, it serves as an acknowledgment of Carpenter’s understanding of filmmaking and how he is able to draw the audience into the film’s unnerving corridors. I never thought of visually comparing The Thing with The Shining, however, in retrospect, it seems so obvious.     
            Secondly, character placement in relation to the camera. There is a strategic placement of characters that may subtly reference the theme of magnets from Campbell’s novella. I never thought I would say this but one could consider The Thing to be an extraterrestrial Poker match. In fact, the core concept of Poker is prevalent in this film. Furthermore, Conolly relates a concept made famous by Hitchcock to the residency of MacReady within the frame of the camera. I sincerely wish I can elaborate on this but alas I cannot. I will permit myself to say is this: there is a definite comprehension of greater filmic ideas than one would assume would be in a horror movie of this caliber. Carpenter had a firm grasp on what he was accomplishing.   

Chapter 6: “Weird And Pissed Off Whatever It Is”
This is one of my favorite quotes, by the way. This chapter is interesting because it begins with body-horror, which can almost be considered a sub-genre of horror. Conolly gives us a brief rundown of some familiar titles, but then (curve ball) explains the history of bodily horror, which can be rooted in the mythology of our ancestors. Examples could be found in Greek, Mesopotamian and Babylonian mythology. I will quote Conolly here: “For all this high-minded comparative conjecture, it seems highly unlikely that the Special Make-up Effects Unit and production illustrators that worked on The Thing were terribly familiar with ancient Mesopotamian poetry, and went looking for stone tablet depictions when researching the creature designs.” While this is true, I did, however, find it to be ‘food for thought.’   
            The bulk of this chapter deals with the make-up and special effects of The Thing, and the scathing criticism it garnered upon the film’s release. We start with some context; Conolly introduces EC Comics and their former CEO William M. Gaines who took over the company and began publishing classic horror anthology titles such as The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt. It is an interesting slice of history that pertains to American censorship, and how Gaines actively petitioned his defense for the comic’s graphic nature. Jump ahead a few years, Conolly elaborates on The Thing’s production difficulties. Now, to us Thing enthusiasts, we’re privy to the issues Carpenter and his team had to face but I suppose it does need some mentioning; the film was burdened by ambitious practical effects, it went over its budget, Rob Bottin was hospitalized due to his work, and it ruffled the feathers of various unions. Again, I have not spoiled anything as Conolly elaborates on all these details, providing interesting side-stories that are informative, especially to us film enthusiasts. The chapter concludes with the lashes the film received by critics who were repulsed by the gory special effects wizardry of Rob Bottin’s team. One being Roger Ebert’s famous line: “It’s a great barf-bag of a movie.”
            This chapter isn’t analysis or critique, but I urge all filmmakers to delve into The Thing’s production history as it makes not just for an interesting read, but provides insight into the realm of filmmaking. In the world of CGI, we will never see ambitious effects like those seen in Carpenter’s film. As Conolly sincerely puts it, “Some marvel at how well they stand up and contend that their manifest surreality and palpable, physical on-set presence compared to today’s CGI phantoms lend the film an unnerving other-worldly quality. […] Just as they brought life to the assemblage of inanimate materials to achieve the ground-breaking effects so they help breathe life into the film’s reputation and reception.”  I could not have said it better.

Chapter 7: “It’s Not Dead Yet”
Perhaps the greatest testament to The Thing’s legacy is the aftermath. As Conolly vividly describes it, The Thing is much like the Thing itself, laying dormant beneath the surface of film history, only to be unearthed (via home video) so that it could prevail in a post 80’s market. The fans have kept this film alive, and this chapter pays tribute to those fan-made and fan-inspired works of The Thing. These include the “Ice” episode from The X-Files, and the South Park episode in which Cartman uses a blood test to see who has Lice that is directly ripped from infamous blood-testing scene in Carpenter’s film. I genuinely surprised to find that there exists a stage-production of the film, a claymation short, and a Sinatra-style musical skit. Perhaps the most interesting story is of Quentin Tarantino and how he cites The Thing as his primary influence when writing Reservoir Dogs.  For more information, I suggest that you read the book.
            This chapter contains Conolly’s defense against condemning The Thing as a cult film, of which I fully support. Following shortly after is a brief rundown of various formats in which The Thing was release under, one of which is the televised where they censored out all the graphic transformations scenes and profanity. Conolly includes some of the best lines that were re-edited, two of which are “You buy any of this bullstuff?” and “Yeah, blast you too!”
            Perhaps the best aspect of this chapter is Conolly’s mention of Outpost 31, a fan-site that harbors the largest online community of Thing enthusiasts in which the site’s founders launched an expedition to locate the film’s shooting location. They found it, and they brought back with them a salvaged blade from when they blew up the Norwegian helicopter. Conolly merely scrapes the surface of this site, and so I urge any enthusiast to check it out for his or herself. They have everything concerning The Thing, from floor plans of the Outpost, to essays, to Thing related media coverage. 
            Capping off this chapter, Conolly states his feelings toward the 2011 prequel entitled The Thing. While it is true that the prequel seems to deconstruct Carpenter’s unique horror formula by, as Conolly explains, “routine plotting, lacked recognizable diversity among its characters and fallen back on the scenario of sexual tension and the near-inevitable Final Girl resolution,” it is true that the film took great measures to set up Carpenter’s film but also to recreate what was only briefly seen when MacReady traversed through the remains of the Norwegian camp. My thoughts on the prequel are this: while it was fun it was a needless prequel that I already forgot about.

Chapter 8: “Why Don’t We Just… Wait Here For A Little While… See What Happens…”
Just as this is the last chapter of the book, and the quote is from the end of the movie, Conolly explains the significance of The Thing’s famous downbeat, cold, cynical ending, which was very bold for its time. Carpenter’s film came out in the 80’s where the market was saturated with cash-cow sequels and optimistic family films such as E.T., which infamously led to The Thing’s poor box office intake. However, as Conolly expresses, The Thing isn’t all that unique in its abysmal ending. The 70’s had One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the 90’s gave way towards Unforgiven and Se7en, and even in the post-Clinton/millennial era we have The Mist, which, like The Thing, is a product of its political era. Conolly brilliantly explains, “ordinary people thrown into turmoil by unexpected events, running away from or stumbling into oblivious to face an indiscriminate fate that spares them little or no pity. The occluding and enveloping death-white fog and smoke captured in these films drew heavily on the ashen clouds of destruction that all Americans saw on their television screens in 2001. There ‘s a resonance to these clouds of disarray to be found in The Thing’s obliterating blanket of white snow, isolating conditions that pay no respect to human social order and rob people of their identity.” Perhaps even more revealing is Conolly’s side not involving breath and Child’s earring. While I won’t spoil it for you, I have to admit, I am rather awe-stricken that I never noticed or considered either of these instances.  

So ended my experience with Conolly’s book, and so ends this review. If you have not noticed it now, then I will tell you; I love this book. I have been searching for a good full-length critique of the film, just as Conolly once did, and I am very fortunate that I stumbled across this on Amazon. Be aware that what I have written only caresses the tip of the iceberg. I have intentionally left out some of the best topics, like how the characters are bookended by how they’re introduced and how they ultimately meet their fates. While it’s very overwhelming at first, and some of the concepts may seem farfetched, it’s nevertheless written with a degree of passion and respect that I have never seen before. It will certainly warrant multiples readings to fully grasp each concept and idea. I will admit that I will never be able to watch The Thing the same way again. When I finished the book, I closed it slowly, placed it on my nightstand and quietly sat alone to ponder what I had just read. As it was then, just as it is now, I think Jez Conolly owes me a shot of J&B.


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