By Sean Rogers
After the decline of the studio system, Hollywood would often struggle to find fresh ways of generating sure-fire hits. 1969, for instance, saw the release and surprise success of Easy Rider, whereupon the studios, the story goes, decided the “youth picture” was where the money was. Universal, however, discovered otherwise in 1971 when both The Hired Hand and The Last Movie, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider follow-up projects, flopped spectacularly (as did Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, among the first films released by Universal’s youth-oriented division). In the early 1980s, John Carpenter’s films provide a similar object lesson in industry obtuseness, this time with regard to the profitable corner of the market carved out by exploitation films in the 1970s. These genre picture’s inherent transgressive qualities may simply have proved too unseemly for the larger, blander platform of multiplexes and PR campaigns the studios would present to them.
1981’s Escape from New York marked the last time a John Carpenter film would be independently financed for some years. Carpenter’s films, to that point, had often proved immensely lucrative for his backers, with well-known success story Halloween (1978) returning well over a hundred times its meager budget. Escape proved no exception, grossing several times its cost, despite being the filmmaker’s most expensive production to date. Shot in St. Louis, featuring a President with more of a British than a Texan accent, a tough guy hero only recently graduated from Disney matinees, and state of the art matte painting and set design, the film is a marvelous, convincing fake, depicting a dystopian future in which Manhattan has been turned into a maximum-security prison. A group of extremists have succeeded in stranding the President (Donald Pleasence) in the city on the eve of a direly important nuclear arms summit, and the only man deemed badass enough to find and rescue him is a former Special Forces man turned one-eyed convict, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell).
Like the recent Children of Men (2006), the film frontloads its more interesting and provocative SF elements, abandoning them along with any hint of political savvy partway through, but makes up for it by how relentless of an actioner it becomes. Nice ideas do keep popping up, like Harry Dean Stanton’s oil well in the basement of the New York Public Library, or Isaac Hayes’ ridiculously turned-out ride, but for the most part the picture remains notable for its bald-faced transgressions. At one point we find Pleasence’s President in drag, being tortured, crying, and abasing himself before Hayes’ Duke of New York. At another, a candlelit chorus of bedaubed convicts celebrate their fine city in song (“This is Hell, this is fate, but now this is your world and it’s great!”). Carpenter’s movie, then, is giddily, gleefully transgressive, but unlike today’s tongue-in-cheek genre films that look back to this heyday, it is only ever somberly so. And the film is never more somber than when it ends, on a shockingly, almost appallingly, nihilistic note.
If it was Carpenter’s success the studios sought to carry over from Escape, what they got instead was an enhanced dose of this nihilism. Hollywood has since discovered that the most effective way to co-op exploitation films is, of course, to ironize and so de-fang them (or, more simply, just to remake them). Universal, however, ten years after the “youth picture” failures, once again found themselves trying to capitalize on a market without first understanding how to assimilate it. The studio, after a mild success with exploitation auteur Tobe Hooper’s Funhouse (1981), turned their attentions to two other recent indie hitmakers, helping to grant relatively big budgets to both David Cronenberg’s bewildering Scanners (1981) follow- up, Videodrome (1983), and Carpenter’s disastrously received The Thing (1982). One can only assume Universal supposed bigger budgets meant bigger returns, failing to realize that much of the profit, appeal, and resourcefulness of independent productions arose from their very cheapness. At any rate, both films failed to perform as expected and were pulled after only a few weeks of release, yet both remain among their director’s very best work.
We might better understand the financial failure of The Thing, a film that concerns a hostile alien lifeform infiltrating the outpost of an Antarctic expedition team, with reference to the ever-present possibility of its genre’s populist failure. That is to say, all alien-focused science fiction and monster-focused horror is to some degree misanthropic or, more properly, anti-human. Such films, after all, exist precisely because of a fascination with what is decidedly not ourselves, and their pivotal moments are those in which unworldly spectacle unseats the human protagonists. In this respect, Carpenter’s cinema is more anti-human than most, think not only of Plissken’s final act, but also of how much menacing personality the filmmaker can impart to a William Shatner mask in Halloween, or a vintage Plymouth in Christine (1983), or, here, a quiet runaway husky.
Critic Dave Kehr is among those who regret this remake’s departure from the camaraderie present in the original Howard Hawks film, but Carpenter’s Thing is not about the interactions between the men of the camp. Rather, much like Stanley Kubrick’s then-recent The Shining (1980), from which Carpenter smartly cribs some creepy atmospherics having to do with isolation, hallways, and pervasive whiteness, the film is about how the interactions between the men have already ceased to matter before the film even begins. Like Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, everyone in the camp seems already too far gone, the first time we see Kurt Russell as Mac, he’s destroying his computer, and the Thing’s arrival merely catalyzes a further change from peevishness to paranoia. This paranoia “where will the Thing appear next? when? as whom?” serves as a kind of flimsy, frangible web spun between the true anchors of the film, namely, the creature’s few apparitions. These “transformation” scenes, which ate up over a tenth of the budget, act not only as the film’s visual, visceral center, but as its thematic one as well. Here Carpenter shows us that the human is monstrous, that the human is untrustworthy, that the human is grotesquely malleable, that what we think of as humanity is as fluid and arbitrary as the loyalties we choose to hold, and as such, that humanity is doomed. Again, not your typical multiplex fare.
The finest, most uncommon kind of horror film is one in which there is no character, no plot, only horror, only atmosphere and uncanny spectacle. The Thing, with its unleavened air of mistrust and its unexpected, gruesome set-pieces, very nearly achieves that ideal. Provided the money and opportunity to do so, Carpenter, like Fonda and Hopper and Hellman ten years before him, made too close to the movie he wanted to make, with the studios realizing too late that a sensibility that once struck chords with audiences, as with Easy Rider or Halloween, might later, if given free reign, strike nerves instead.