Every year I keep thinking I’ll do some Halloween related stuff on this blog for October, and every year this doesn’t really happen. But in spite of a tight schedule I feel a bit more determined to carry this out. Or at least I’ll just talk about two movies in one post and call it even.
This season has a lot of sentimental value for me; I was born the day before Halloween, and, as a result, celebrations of my existence have always been mentally associated with autumn spooky stuff, and people wearing funny costumes (and as a kid it meant I got cake and Halloween candy within 48 hours of each other).
Anyway, the movies in question are both directed by one John Carpenter: Halloween and The Thing.
I had never, until now, seen the original Halloween – the movie which codified the slasher subgenre, even if it didn’t quite invent it. I did at one point see Halloween Resurrection (you know, the one where Busta Rhymes fights Michael Myers) but otherwise haven’t touched the franchise. This is largely due to my own disdain for slasher flicks and their tendency to use sex and violence as substitutes for good filmmaking. But Halloween is respected enough in the horror pantheon that I suppose it was only a matter of time before I watched it.
My experience watching it was akin to watching a more tawdry Hitchcock. Which is to say: John Carpenter was absolutely at this phase in his career a master at building suspense, and the cinematography, mise-en-scene and acting are all excellent. But it’s still a movie about dumb, horny teenagers dying while boobs are shoved in your face.
Anyway, the story: on Halloween, 1963, a six year old Michael Myers killed his sister in a famous POV shot. Years later, the adult Myers (Nick Castle) escapes from a mental institution and spends Halloween stalking high school babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), slaughtering most anyone unfortunate to cross paths with him. In pursuit is Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), a shrink who, in the old grand tradition of cinematic intellectuals is given over to theatrical speeches about evil and stuff.
As I’ve suggested, my appreciation for Halloween felt very technical. I couldn’t help but admire its craftsmanship while also finding it a bit too adolescent to emotionally engage with. The one exception is Myers himself, who is genuinely unsettling. He never speaks and is (of course) wearing a mask, but there’s something about Castle’s performance which is downright creepy. Like, if there were an award for “Best Performance of a Man Without a Soul,” this would win it. Myers deserves his place as one of cinema’s great movie monsters.
So yeah, I can understand why it holds the reputation it does, but if someone were asking for a good in-road to horror I’d probably still suggest something like The Shining.
Incidentally, one of the characters in Halloween is watching The Thing from Another World, the remake of which we now turn to.
The Thing has the benefit of being one of the first horror movies I ever saw. I’ve always loved it and held it as a high water mark in the genre.
Which makes its initial reception all the more baffling. Critics and audiences in 1982 seemed to loathe The Thing, condemning it as a pointless exercise in over-the-top gore. Even the director of the original 1951 movie thought it was crap.
And this is just really weird to consider. The Thing is, to be sure, a gruesome movie, but it’s a movie that understands that gross-out stuff is no substitute for building suspense and unease through careful pacing, atmosphere, acting, writing, etc. All of the no-nonsense, Hitchcockian techniques present in Halloween are in full force here, but with a much cooler monster at its heart.
The premise of The Thing, based on a story by sci-fi overlord John C. Campbell, is pretty well known: some Americans in the Antarctic cross paths with a rather nasty alien that can perfectly mimic any creature it eats. Before long it becomes clear that at least one of them is The Thing, and from that point forward its all paranoia and struggles for control as things rapidly go to hell. It’s really just an update on the classic Agatha Christie And Then There Were None scenario where you’ve got a bunch of people stuck in a secluded location and one of them is a murderer.
It’s such a great set-up because it prevents anything from ever feeling safe. Myers is a disturbing, but clearly identifiable threat. Here any member of the cast could, at any moment, turn into something horrifying.
The characters themselves are defined largely in terms of their roles – the doctor, the pilot, the stoner, etc -all headed up by MacReady (Kurt Russell), who functions as a nominal protagonist.
Notably, they’re all men, which has the effect of removing the familiar horror movie mingling of sex and death. Even Alien, which is this film’s close cousin, is to a large degree about our anxiety over the darker side of human sexuality. Here the horror seems to stem from the opposite direction, with the Thing’s horror stemming in part from how it represents a form of life and propagation utterly unfathomable to humans.
But it also stems in large part from the film’s practical effects, which are justly legendary. The Thing, in all its permutations just looks….wrong. And it looks convincingly, organically wrong. It wins the award for, “Best Portrayal of a Thing That Has No Form But Kinda Resembles Stuff It’s Absorbed.”
And its all the more effective for not being over-used. The actual alien moments are like these occasional explosions of madness catching you off guard, while the rest of the affair is all tense mind games.
If I do have one criticism of The Thing, it’s that it hits its highest pitch about 20 minutes before the credits roll (if you’ve seen the movie, you know the scene). The remaining conclusion is fine, but feels more like falling action, with the tension slackening a bit. But the preceding 90 minutes are such a bravura act that it feels almost like a nit-pick.
There we go; I’m feeling a little bit more in the spirit of the season now.