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The suspense is better than the horror in John Carpenter’s The Thing

In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.

Every year around this time, I find myself pondering the thin line between horror and suspense. When push comes to shove, I’m more of a suspense guy than a horror guy, but it’s not always clear where one ends and the other begins. Take Hitchcock’s famous example of a bomb that’s been planted underneath a table, set to go off at 1 p.m.—and a clock above the table reads 12:45. Most people would agree that they’re watching a thriller. Change the threat from a bomb to a madman in a scary mask hiding nearby with a butcher knife, however, and you’ve probably got yourself a horror movie, even if the next (probably compressed) 15 minutes of screen time unfold in more or less the same tension-filled way as they would in the thriller. Indeed, two years ago this week I analyzed a scene from Halloween in which nothing overtly frightening happens at all. When I think of that movie, I rarely remember the actual murders, vivid though they are; what sticks with me is Michael Myers stalking his victims from a distance, and the anxiety of knowing that he could strike at any moment. It’s almost the opposite of a jump scare.

Most people label John Carpenter a horror director—which makes perfect sense, because he’s made at least 10 horror movies, as opposed to only about seven that qualify as anything else. Ironically, though, he’s not particularly skilled at horror per se (which is a big part of why his last few movies have stunk). It’s actually suspense at which he excels. You needn’t pore through his entire filmography to draw that conclusion, either. Just look at his 1982 remake of The Thing, which was widely panned upon release (just like Blade Runner, which opened the same day) but is now considered a classic. Both reactions seem comprehensible to me, because there are two distinct movies rattling around in there, only one of which is terrific. Both of them are present in The Thing’s most famous scene, which sees Kurt Russell’s MacReady perform a test meant to determine which members of his Antarctic research team might in fact be lethal extraterrestrial organisms perfectly disguised as human beings. Take a look, and see whether, like me, you’re considerably more impressed by the deliberately drawn-out setup than by its explosive payoff.

Technically, the first part of this clip is itself a sort of payoff, as Carpenter had previously shown Clark (Richard Masur) secretly grabbing the scalpel with which he attacks MacReady. We’ve been waiting several minutes by now for the scalpel to make its inevitable reappearance. What distinguishes even this brief prelude to the scene’s main business (the test), however, is Carpenter’s formal mastery. It’s the threat of violence that energizes him, not the violence itself; MacReady shooting Clark isn’t remotely memorable, visually, whereas any film buff with a pulse will register the slow push into Childs (Keith David) as MacReady’s hand, holding the gun, moves forward, out of focus, in sync with the camera. Even better is the widescreen composition that follows, in which Clark’s hand holding the scalpel dominates the left side of the frame, MacReady takes aim from slightly off-center, and Childs and the others crowd the far right. I believe Carpenter uses a split diopter here to keep everything in focus, and the result is a shot that almost looks as if it’s in 3-D, featuring two separate and spatially distinct points of tension. Remarkable.

Next comes the test, which would be incomprehensible without some exposition to help viewers along. That was child’s play for John W. Campbell Jr., who wrote the short story (“Who Goes There?”) from which every version of The Thing has been adapted. It’s trickier to pull off on screen, though—the previous version, 1951’s The Thing (From Another World), didn’t even try, skipping the test entirely. Carpenter makes it cinematic by slowly panning across the grim faces of the five other surviving men, as MacReady tells us what to expect. Human blood, he theorizes, won’t react to a hot wire; Thing “blood,” which is no different from any other particle of its self, will involuntarily recoil. Various possible clues regarding who’s human and who isn’t have been thrown out, and a cheeky one is visible here, as MacReady strips the wire: In one shot, he’s looking over his shoulder at roughly the same angle as is a woman on a poster tacked to the wall behind him. “I have VD!” reads a label attached to the woman’s blouse, reinforcing any suspicion we might have that MacReady himself may be a Thing. (Given that the Thing retains all memories of the organisms it replicates and can mimic them in every detail, it’s not entirely clear whether a victim is aware at all times that it’s no longer human. The ruse may entail an illusory “original” consciousness.)

Windows (Thomas Waites) is tested first, which all but guarantees that he’s uninfected—only a dramatist dead set on subverting expectations would craft a game of Russian roulette in which the first chamber that’s fired contains a bullet. If I’d had to guess which person would be revealed as a Thing, I wouldn’t have been able to pick an individual, but I would have felt fairly confident predicting it would probably be the sixth or seventh person tested, out of eight (including the two corpses). That just makes the most sense, since the goal is to sustain the tension for as long as possible, and there’s no tension left when only one candidate remains. As it turns out, I would have been wrong: Palmer (David Clennon, who gives a wonderful little shrug of resignation at the moment of truth) is tested fifth, and his blood sample shrieks and leaps out of the container—a rare jump scare that truly works. In any case, knowing how the scene is likely to play out doesn’t make Carpenter’s specific sequence of shots any less nerve-wracking. Look at the way that he cuts from the wire descending to a quick close-up of Windows, tensed in fear, then back to the wire, as it makes contact with Windows’ blood and harmlessly hisses. One down, seven to go.

Once Palmer is identified as a Thing, however, things fall apart in a hurry. I’m as nostalgic as anybody for the days before computers took over Hollywood (and I haven’t seen the 2011 Thing, so can’t make a comparison), but Rob Bottin’s grotesque creature effects seem fundamentally at odds with Carpenter’s exacting sensibility. Watching Palmer’s transformation this time, I was reminded of various gross-out moments from Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive and found myself wondering whether I’m supposed to find this funny. I don’t, exactly, but the combination of really obvious prosthetics and the other actors yelling their heads off makes it seem as if I should be laughing, even though comedy would be tonally out of place. I’ll give the scene points for black comedy in having Childs and Garry (Donald Moffat) tied up on the same couch with Palmer, making it impossible for them to get away from him when he starts Thinging out. I don’t think Bottin’s work has aged very well—suspense has one clear advantage over horror, in that its mechanics never go out of style; what’s considered scary, by contrast, changes drastically over time—but the bigger problem is that Carpenter doesn’t seem to know quite how to shoot this part. He resorts to a frenzy of chaotic motion (which is to say, generic “coverage”), and his precision vanishes; a cut from Windows’ leg smashing an overhead light to Windows being thrown to the ground is so clumsy that it could have come from a student film. It’s hard to believe that the same director was responsible for both prelude and aftermath, so amateurish does the latter seem compared to the former. Just as it’s hard to believe that the same director made both Assault On Precinct 13 and The Ward. Suspense, not horror.