Literary things

 

© The Turman-Foster Company / Universal Pictures

 

I reckon John Carpenter’s 1982 movie The Thing is one of the best horror films ever.  Its story of a shape-shifting alien organism that infiltrates a base in Antarctica, absorbing and assuming the forms of more and more of the base’s human (and canine) personnel, is a masterpiece of claustrophobia, paranoia and all-round scariness.

 

And its special effects, courtesy of make-up / effects genius Rob Bottin, massively raised the bar for what was achievable in horror movies at the time.  During those moments when it reveals itself, Bottin’s alien thingy is a hellish, glistening, squirming, tentacled nightmare made of bits and pieces of all the Earth creatures it’s consumed already.  It resembles a canvas painted / splattered simultaneously by Hieronymus Bosch and Jackson Pollock.

 

What makes Bottin’s work all the more remarkable – and believable – is that it consists of real, solid, practical effects.  For The Thing was made in the days was before digital technology took over and filmmakers went crazy using cartoonish and insubstantial-looking computer-generated imagery.  (That’s the reason why I’ve never bothered watching Matthijs van Heijningen Jr’s 2011 prequel to Carpenter’s movie, also called The Thing.  Although practical special effects had been used during the prequel’s shooting, craven studio executives had CGI superimposed over those practical effects in post-production.)

 

This summer I’d wanted to write something about The Thing on this blog to commemorate the fact that a quarter-century had now passed since it was released in the middle of 1982.  Then the other day I realised that 1982 was not a quarter-century ago.  It was actually 35 years ago and I’m a decade older than I thought I was.  Oh dear…

 

But rather than write about the movie itself, as countless film critics, commentators and enthusiasts have over the years, I thought I’d look instead at its literary roots.  Because The Thing is an adaptation (scripted by Bill Lancaster, son of Burt) of a novella called Who Goes There?, written by science-fiction writer and editor John W. Campbell and published in 1938.

 

Who Goes There? had already been filmed in 1951 as The Thing from Another World, directed by Christian Nyby and produced by the legendary Howard Hawks.  The 1951 version keeps the story’s basic premise of the crew of a polar camp (though here at the North rather than the South Pole) coming up against a malevolent alien.  But instead of depicting it as a shape-shifting beastie, which would have been difficult to do convincingly in 1951, the Hawks / Nyby film merely depicts it as a lumbering, pasty-skinned, dome-headed, spiky-fingered muscle-man played by none other than James Arness, later to star in the 1950s-1970s Western TV show Gunsmoke.   Howard Hawks’s trademark no-nonsense directorial style and brisk, punchy dialogue are much in evidence in The Thing from Another World and it’s often been speculated that he shot most of the film himself rather than Nyby.

 

© Winchester Pictures Corporation / RKO

 

John Carpenter was a well-known admirer of Howard Hawks and his 1976 movie Assault on Precinct 13 in particular shows a big Hawksian influence.  So when Carpenter’s version of The Thing was announced, I suspect many critics assumed it’d be a straightforward remake of the 1951 movie.  And I suspect that’s why it got such a hostile reception when it was released in 1982 – for although the movie has since been reappraised and is now regarded as a sci-fi / horror classic, it initially earned Carpenter some of the worst reviews of his career.  (I seem to remember the Observer slamming it under the headline JUST ONE DAMNED THING AFTER ANOTHER.)  Those 1982 critics got something very different from what they were expecting and didn’t react well.

 

What they got, in fact, was a film capturing the shape-shifting concept of the alien in the real source material, the 1938 story by John W. Campbell – a story most of those critics were probably unfamiliar with.

 

I recently came across and read Who Goes There? online.  What did I think of it?

 

Well, what I immediately thought after reading it was “Phew!”  Experienced in 2017, with its dollops of torturous pose and pages upon pages of dialogue-framed exposition, Campbell’s story is hard going indeed.

 

© Rocket Ride Books

 

It’s fun to see so many character-names that crop up in Carpenter’s film – McReady, Blair, Copper, Garry, Norris, Clark, Benning – but the descriptions of those characters are madly overwrought.  The hero, McReady, is likened by Campbell to “a figure from some forgotten myth, a looming, bronze statue that held life, and walked.  Six-feet-four inches he stood…  And he was bronze – his great red-bronze beard, the heavy hair that matched it.  The gnarled, corded hands gripping, relaxing on the table planks were bronze.  Even the deep-sunken eyes beneath the heavy brows were bronze.”  This Wagnerian, and bronze, version of McReady is far removed from the morose, tetchy git played by Kurt Russell in the film.

 

The scientist Blair, meanwhile, is described with this peculiar sentence: “His little birdlike motions of suppressed eagerness danced his shadow across the fringe of dingy grey underwear hanging from the low ceiling, the equatorial quiff of stiff, greying hair around his naked skull a comical halo about the shadow’s head.”  At least he sounds more like his cinematic incarnation (who’s played by the character actor Wilfred Brimley).

 

How the characters discover and bring into their camp their soon-to-be-unwelcome visitor is related in three pages of conversational backstory, which includes such unlikely pieces of dialogue as: “Right there, where that buried thing was, there is an ice-drowned mountain ridge, a granite wall of unshakable strength that has dammed back the ice creeping from the south.”   Later, as the Thing starts to imitate the base’s inhabitants, there are many talky pages where people speculate on its biology, its capabilities and how it can be detected; and also where they start to crack up with paranoia.  “You sit as still as a bunch of graven images,” exclaims one man while his colleagues regard him suspiciously.  “You don’t say a word, but oh Lord, what expressive eyes you’ve got.  They roll around like a bunch of glass marbles spilling down a table.  They wink and blink and stare and whisper things.”

 

There are moments when Campbell’s prose does convey the bleakness of the situation, recording how the Antarctic wind created an “uneasy, malicious gurgling in the pipe of the galley stove” and how “the snow picked up by the mumbling wind fled in level, blinding lines across the face of the buried camp”.  But overall, as far as its writing is concerned, Who Goes There? is a work to be endured rather than enjoyed.   It isn’t a patch on that other famous 1930s tale of Antarctica-set horror, H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936).

 

I was surprised, then, and a little relieved that there’s less of Who Goes There? in John Carpenter’s The Thing than I’d expected.  That said, the story does provide the film with its most celebrated scene, the ‘blood-test’ one wherein McReady hits on a method of identifying who’s-been-got and who’s not.  Though while John W. Campbell has McReady laboriously testing the blood of some 35 base-members, in the movie John Carpenter wisely waits until there’s only half-a-dozen men left standing.  As a result, his enactment of the scene is much more intense, focused and suspenseful.

 

© Classics Illustrated

 

And to be fair to Campbell, his story clarifies the Thing’s modus operandi more than the film, which at times is hazy about just what McReady and the rest are up against.  For example, watching The Thing, I was initially puzzled by the idea that the intruder could take the form of more than one victim at a time.  In the story, it’s made clear that when it absorbs an organism it adds the organism’s body mass to its own; and when the organism is replaced, it hives off again with the original’s massMeanwhile, the original Thing goes back to its original bulk too, free to absorb and replicate something else.

 

Then there’s the sub-plot with Blair.  In both the novella and film, Blair loses his mind as the horror unfolds and is locked up for his own (and everyone else’s) safety.  It later becomes apparent that he’s part of the Thing too, has its alien intelligence, and has spent his time in captivity assembling a mysterious machine.  The novella describes how he’s imprisoned in an equipment storeroom, where he uses pieces of the equipment to fashion a small anti-gravity device that’ll transport him from Antarctica to a populated continent where he can start replicating.  The film is murkier about what he’s up to.  There’s a glimpse of some sort of capsule, like a mini-flying saucer, but that’s all.  I was left with the impression that Blair had somehow managed to construct a spacecraft out of empty soup cans and pieces of string.

 

Finally, I should point out that Who Goes There? isn’t the only literary work connected with the scary world of The Thing.  In 2010, Clarkesworld Magazine published a short story called The Things, written by Peter Watts, which retells the events of Carpenter’s movie through the eyes – if that’s the word – of the Thing itself.

 

Here, the Thing isn’t such a bad old thing.  It genuinely believes it’s doing the humans a favour by taking them over, which it describes as an act of ‘communion’.  It views their biology as ‘ill-adapted’, ‘inefficient’ and ‘disabled’ and wants to ‘fix’ them.  At times, it’s repulsed by their physical circumstances, calling their brains ‘tumours’ and their bodies ‘bony caverns’.  No wonder it’s upset when the humans respond to its kindness by using flamethrowers on it.

 

A thought-provoking and bleakly-amusing take on John Carpenter’s movie from the very last character in it you’d expect, Peter Watts’ The Things can be read on this webpage.  Meanwhile, John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? is available for reading here.  The 2010 story is 7,000 words long while the 1938 one clocks in at a hefty 30,000 words; and comparing them, I have to say I agree with the old adage that the best Things come in small packages.

 

© The Turman-Foster Company / Universal Pictures

 

Hatefully yours, Quentin

 

(c) FilmColony / The Weinstein Company

 

You may be one of those people who regard filmmaker Quentin Tarantino as a let-down.  You thought his early movies like 1992’s Reservoir Dogs and 1994’s Pulp Fiction showed tremendous potential and nodded approvingly at 1997’s Jackie Brown, which was calmer, less flashy and more reflective in tone and suggested an increasing maturity on Tarantino’s part.  But then you rolled your eyes at his 21st-century output: the Kill Bill movies in 2003 and 2004, Death Proof in 2007, Inglourious Basterds in 2009 and Django Unchained in 2012.

 

All that adolescent, cheesy stuff that you thought Tarantino had shaken off with Jackie Brown was suddenly back – squared, perhaps even cubed.  Copious references and homages to trashy old B and Z-grade genre movies.  Sequences of such violence and bloodiness that you wondered if he filmed them with windscreen-wipers fitted on his camera lenses.  Barrages of unsavoury racial epithets, particularly the n-word, usually fired off by or fired off at Samuel L. Jackson.  And scenes that went on and on and on because the characters in them never shut up, Tarantino being infatuated with the sound of his own voice (or his own dialogue), with the result that his films were hours longer than they needed to be.

 

Quentin, you’ve commonly thought over the past decade, I’m not angry with you.   I’m just disappointed.

 

Well, if you’re one of those people, I have good news.  You’re going to detest his latest, The Hateful Eight – ‘The eighth film by Quentin Tarantino’ as it’s grandly described on the credits – because in it he happily commits the above sins against mature filmmaking all over again.

 

That’s bad news for you, actually.  But it’s good news for me because I like the schlock-movie references, bloodshed and relentless talking in Tarantino’s movies.  (Admittedly, I get a bit fed up hearing the n-word all the time, but I suppose I can forgive him one over-indulgence.)  So I went home from seeing The Hateful Eight well-satisfied.

 

(c) FilmColony / The Weinstein Company

 

The movie is Tarantino’s second western and it takes place sometime after the American Civil War.  We meet half of the titular eight in the film’s first two ‘chapters’.  They are bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his unladylike lady prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh); another bounty hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson); and a former Confederate militiaman called Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims to be travelling to a town where, improbably, he’s just been appointed sheriff.  Warren and Mannix appear at different times to hitch a ride in Ruth’s private stagecoach, which makes him suspect they’re in cahoots to steal his prisoner and lift the bounty-money for her.  However, the animosity that develops between Warren and Mannix because of their war records – Warren served as a Yankee officer and was responsible for a lot of Confederate deaths – suggests that a secret alliance is unlikely.  That or they’re very good actors.

 

Chapter three sees the stagecoach arrive, just before a blizzard makes further travel impossible, at a store-cum-refuge in the middle of nowhere called Minnie’s Haberdashery.  And here the rest of the eight are introduced: Bob (Demian Bichir), a cheery Mexican who says he’s running the haberdashery for Minnie while she’s off visiting her mother; Mobray (Tim Roth), an aristocratic and garrulous Englishman who professes to be a hangman; Gage (Michael Madsen), a surly and solitary cowboy who spends his time scribbling his memoirs into a notebook; and Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), a sour old man whom Mannix and Warren recognise as a Confederate general of considerable repute or notoriety, depending on which side of the war they fought on.

 

Ruth is soon seething with paranoia because he sees these four strangers as additional possible threats to his prisoner and bounty.  But plenty of other questions emerge.  What’s really happened to Minnie and her staff at the haberdashery?  What became of the son whom Smithers is now in the territory searching for – and did Warren play a role in his death?  Is the letter that Warren keeps producing from his pocket and flashing around truly proof of a friendship he once had with Abraham Lincoln?  And is anyone in the snowbound haberdashery actually telling the truth about who they are and what they’re up to?

 

Chapter three ends with violence and the film’s first fatality.  By chapter four the blood is flowing freely and during chapters five and six…  Well, this is a Tarantino movie.  You know what to expect.

 

Several critics have pointed to Agatha Christie as a major inspiration for The Hateful Eight and dubbed it Ten Little Indians-out-west.  But the main template for the film’s plot, wherein a group stuck in a confined space try to identify one or more hostile imposters hiding among them, is surely Tarantino’s own Reservoir Dogs.  This is underscored by the fact that two of the original ‘Dogs’, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen, reappear here.

 

I should say that the film’s also reminiscent of John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing, partly because of the hidden-imposters plot, partly because of the bleak snowy setting and partly because of Kurt Russell being in it.  Russell, of course, played McCready, the embattled hero of The Thing.  Indeed there’s a scene in The Hateful Eight where one character forces the others at gunpoint to line up against a wall while he tries to figure out who the enemy is; which evokes the famous scene in The Thing where Russell ties up his remaining colleagues prior to doing a blood-test that’ll determine who’s human and who’s secretly got tentacles.

 

(c) FilmColony / The Weinstein Company

 

The way the common criticisms of him are framed, Tarantino just can’t win.  On one hand, it’s fashionable to deride him as a shallow, sensationalist gobshite whose work is a monument to his trashy taste in movies.  Yet his modus operandi is in many ways quite highbrow.  As an artist he’s as literary as he is cinematic, writing film-scripts like playwrights write plays.  He defines his characters as much by what they say as by what they do and how they look.  He takes genuine pleasure in the ebb and flow, and the cut and thrust, of dialogue.  And he gives his scenes a theatrical length that allows his actors and actresses space to properly act.  Incidentally, he also insists on dividing his films into ‘chapters’, which is a rather literary habit.

 

Of course, in doing this, he lays himself open to the other line of attack, i.e. that his films are uneconomical, excessively talky and never know when to stop.  (For the record, The Hateful Eight has an imposing running time of three hours and seven minutes.)

 

But if, like me, you appreciate a movie where words – as opposed to, say, CGI – are the thing that matters, you’ll find much to cherish in The Hateful Eight.  It helps that the words here come out of the mouths of a first-rate cast.  Jackson is his usual inimitable self as Marquis Warren (a character named after the writer, director and producer Charles Marquis Warren who specialised in westerns, both movies like 1951’s Only the Valiant, 1968’s Day of the Evil Gun and 1969’s Charro! and TV shows like Rawhide and Gunsmoke).  Russell and Bruce Dern are good value too and I suspect Tarantino cast them because of their past western credentials.  Russell played Wyatt Earp in Tombstone (1993) and Dern made several westerns in his youth, including 1972’s The Cowboys, at the end of which he shot John Wayne in the back – the scumbag.

 

But the most memorable performances are those by Walton Goggins as the gormless and unreliable Mannix, a man who needs to keep his limited number of wits about him if he’s to survive events in Minnie’s Haberdashery; by Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ruth’s prisoner Domergue, a sly, cackling and occasionally rabid creature whom you really wouldn’t want to be handcuffed to; and by Tim Roth as the delightfully pompous Mobray, who seems to channel Richard Harris’s English Bob character in Clint Eastwood’s classic 1992 western The Unforgiven.  Demian Bichir and Michael Madsen make less of an impression, though, never quite managing to elbow their way past the other, larger-than-life characters to claim part of the limelight for themselves.

 

I didn’t feel breathless after seeing The Hateful Eight in the way that I did after seeing Pulp Fiction 22 years ago; but I’d still rate it as Tarantino’s best movie since the 1990s.  It’s more substantial than the schlock-obsessed Kill Bill movies and Death Proof.  And it makes more sense than Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, both of which seemed to abandon the laws of logic whenever it suited Tarantino’s storytelling.  That said, I did detect one lapse of logic in it – when the tensions that’ve simmered between the Yankee Warren and the Confederate Mannix and Smithers boil over halfway through the film, you expect repercussions afterwards; but there aren’t repercussions and this sub-plot abruptly disappears.  Otherwise, and especially compared to its two predecessors, The Hateful Eight’s plot is fairly cogent.

 

The Hateful Eight won’t win Tarantino new fans or win back the respect of those who went off him post-Jackie Brown.  But if, after nearly a quarter-century, you still have a fondness for le cinéma Quentin-ique, this should keep you satisfied till the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino – which will hopefully be due sometime around 2020.

 

By the way, I like this picture of him with Miss Piggy.

 

From muppet.wikia.com