27 April 2010

The Thing

I didn't grow up on "scary movies" or "gory movies" or anything, and I hadn't seen any Carpenter film until I was an adult -- not even Big Trouble in Little China! (Exception: Memoirs of an Invisible Man.) It's not like I was sheltered, exactly. My parents really don't like them and I never really took to them, so it never came up when I was a kid. My point is, I come to this without nostalgia, and The Thing is a pretty excellent film. It's smart. It's freaky. The effects hold up really well (the motion feels fake but the creature designs and models still look fantastic). But it's not very scary. It has moments, sure, but it's no scarier than Terminator or Predator. It's less scary than Alien, which I do consider a horror. The Thing is a horror in that it's a monster movie, but it doesn't instill or sustain any real sense of fear.

On the other hand, it's populated with distinct and realized personalities, and the action is entirely and always character-driven. And people react pretty realistically to the horrific things around them. Plus, it's equal parts Lovecraftian mind-boggling-horror and Dickian layered paranoia, and both parts are handled really intelligently. So it's a no-brainer I like this film. But the way I see it, it's not a horror.

I only bring that up because I'm seeking out scary, and I'm trying to figure out what is and isn't scary in a film. And the reason I don't think The Thing counts is that it's too explicit with its monsterness. It's creepy (a favorite is the famous spider-head), but I think it shows us too much to qualify as scary. I'm thinking of The Host and Cloverfield, but also Poltergeist and even Jaws -- movies with monsters retain the scary until the monster's nature (or form) has been more or less revealed, and then it's just "How do we beat it?" The Thing has some of that, I admit, but it plays out more like a mystery, with clues discovered systematically throughout. It's a procedural. And, like I said, it's smart -- and better than if it played out like a horror -- so none of this is a complaint. It's just what thoughts on the horror genre and my expectations from it I've had while watching a great science fiction movie with a monster.

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