pourquoi? parce que

The Thing

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The ThingI already knew The Thing quite well, having screened it for my college film society, as part of a body-horror double bill. But some stimulating retrospective pieces in national papers whetted my appetite, and when I found it was showing at my local multiplex I couldn’t resist. It was the prospect of seeing that masterpiece on an enormous screen, with a presumably thin audience and all the privacy in the world that made it so, frankly, irresistible. One thing failed to disappoint – the film.

To my ambivalent surprise, I arrived to an officially sold-out screening. 10 left out of several hundred seats. This is fine, I thought – quite pleasing to see so great a turn out for a left-field rerun – perhaps a serious crowd of cult fanatics. Maybe we will see more of this sort of thing. Of course, I could no longer expect a comfortable space with aural insulation – but having seen The Thing before, surely I won’t be so tetchy about getting under the skin of the film – becoming immersed in the experience so I don’t miss a thing, so I respond in good tune.

I enter the theatre, having missed the opening shots of that remarkable first scene – a husky in flight from two helicopter-mounted Norwegians, letting rip with assault rifle and grenade. I stood aside and let the action subside before interrupting other virtuous filmgoers. Ah-hah! A perfect seat nestles half way up the stairs, at the middle of a row. Not too bad, I think, as I politely slip past the seated and sink into my chair. Then it begins to sink into me.

The Thing2I don’t have room to take off my overcoat. These two chaps beside me have splayed their legs and bulging forearms into what is, by right and payment, my space. I bide my time, then innocuously squirm, with some contortion, out of my coat. I patiently and silently open my snack, and try to enjoy losing myself in the atmospheric, aesthetically pleasing and perfectly scripted opening act. But something bothers me – not the soft, warm breath of my new companions – but their periodic, inexplicable sighs.

This is tolerable – I can even pretend that it adds to the tension, perfectly evoked and paced by Carpenter. This heavy breathing is close, intoxicating, like the breath of the dogs as they watch the Intruder enter their pen, uncannily undoglike. But then we move into what is one of the most engaging, fraught and eventful second acts of any genre piece I’ve seen in a long time. When it is time for the big scares – the horrific body-shock gore eruptions – we find not frights, spills or the comical absurd. It is sheer horror – fear of the inhuman – but of a rare kind. Horror so pure and reified that we are almost afraid of our own capacity for disgust. Carpenter’s effects team really draw out the most putrid revulsion – a genetic ethical surrogate.

And while I coil up inside, the man to my left is laughing. Hard and loud. He guffaws like a real meat puppet. I can hardly register the grunts and motions on my right while so preoccupied with this buffoonery. I sound like a real jerk, right? What right have I? Here: no one else in the entire cinema is laughing. I am next to the only man laughing. It’s his response – fair enough? This is a learned response, a behaviour to cope with the irony of the contemporary horror picture. This is a response which feeds off the attention-deficit over-stimulus and ultra-violence which audiences are now too often spoon-fed.

The Thing3Carpenter doesn’t mean for us to laugh – perhaps in subsequent viewing – perhaps away from the cinema, amongst friends. But this is so obviously meant to disturb that it seems like an outright affront. Why am I so confident in my conviction? Carpenter sets up laughs for catharsis after each of these horrific episodes. We become tense, we fill with anticipation, we are brought to a crescendo of revulsion, and the infernal annihilation of the monsters that disgust us – and then one of the characters tells a cracking joke. I want to laugh at the jokes, because I want to have that experience – that intended experience.

I cannot laugh at the jokes. I look like a prick because I can’t laugh at the jokes once I’ve been robbed of any requirement for release. This pituitary retard on my left keeps cutting these big farts and deflating all tension, removing me from all horror, and denying me even the release of laughter. Before the film is over, his copy book is thoroughly blotted: an offensive chlorine scent of perfume; the pop-fizz of his soda can; a scurrilous girlfriend talking loudly to him while fisting her way through sweetie bags. I cannot go on; I will go on: the knuckle-baiting slap of his slack-jawed gum chewing; his assorted snorts and jeers, roars of solitary laughter and a petulant finger pointed at the screen (the only, only man to laugh at the head-eating climax). His breathing whispers to me: a living effigy of bathos. As he leaves, the coup de grace: a little belch in my face.

I had no intention of taking this so seriously. I sought an entertaining experience amongst a like-minded crowd, but somehow (somehow always) I ended up next to the one incredible burke. This is always my ambivalence when venturing to the theatre – someone else outside the work may well ruin my experience of it. This can happen even when I am trying to appreciate it in a communal spirit of levity – by being denied my response to the horror, I am pulled out of even the humour. Perhaps this pertains to a trait of the film.

Without taking The Thing seriously, it can still be taken as a serious experience. Opening oneself up to a film and entertaining it conceptually, rather than grazing on audiovisual junk-food, allows these sorts of films to present worlds of fascinating depth and colour. If one approaches them in the same way we view Transformers, The Ugly Truth or The Final Destination, they will seem lackluster, full of boring punctuation between the gore, fire and gags. There is a certain obligation on the part of the viewer to get in tune with the mise en scène, rhythm and style, the language of the picture, to access what it actually has to say. Then we can gag or laugh as and when appropriate.

I went to see The Thing, but what I got in the end was as much an experience of the public as of the film. I tend to think of myself as quite a generous and gregarious person (despite evidence to the contrary), and find it repeatedly disheartening when my estimation of my fellow humans is so sullied. For all they can complain about the drivel they are forced to sit through, critics must admit that their major luxury (aside from the free tickets) is the opportunity to see films in the cinema with the right audience. People who are all differently but together harmoniously attuned to the works they have gathered to appreciate or berate.

Here’s to the press screening and to The Thing.


The Thing, Writ. Bill Lancaster, Dir. John Carpenter, Story by John W. Campbell, Star. Kurt Russell, David Foster Productions, USA, 1982 // reruns in cinemas now
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Written by James P. Campbell

16/09/2009 at 00:29

2 Responses

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  1. Did we have a problem with Invasion of the Body Snatchers? I can’t remember.

    Enjoyed the article. To me, the he most interesting comment is found in the third to last paragraph. It’s certainly down to the individual to decide when to truly engage with a film. There are many factors in the decision and it’s rarely limited to what you actually see on screen.

    I’m not sure I’ve ever had an experience that bad in a cinema. I think I’ve been spoiled by the Picturehouse. Remember Godzilla? That was a good size for an audience…


    05/10/2009 at 23:50

    • Thanks for comment – nobody came so I don’t think we stayed to screen Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Shame..
      Godzilla was excellent, and I enjoyed the lack of people! Sometimes, though, I like there to be one or two heads on seats, to remind me it’s a shared experience, or that I’m in a cinema.


      06/10/2009 at 08:17

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