Screen Scars: The Thing
[Spoiler alert]: this post contains plot details from John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing. If for some reason you haven’t seen this movie, I’d like an explanation of what you’ve been doing during the last forty years. Besides screwing up.
Grains of sand fall through an hourglass, marking the death of minutes with painful physicality. Red crosses on a calendar erode the space between our present selves and who we strive to become. As a species, we’re obsessed with our ability to quantify time; any form of measurement will do, whether it’s wearing a watch or denoting the years surrounding the birth of a prophet. For those acquainted with John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing, there is no BC or AD—only BK (Before Kennel) and AK (After Kennel).
The BK scenes in the film are studies in minimalist horror; desolate white landscapes meld with Ennio Morricone‘s haunting score, driving the central theme of vulnerability deep into the minds of the audience. The outcrops of jagged rock and ice are a constant reminder that our skin is only a soft few centimeters preventing our organs from escaping; that’s frightening enough, even without the ultimate in alien terror taking a nap beneath the snow.
While The Great Old Ones focus on a different set of cosmic critters, their song “Antarctica” is a fitting companion for these opening shots. The grinding doom riff that opens the track buries listeners beneath an endless gray sky, where towering mountains mock the size and longevity of man. There’s an otherworldly tone to the guitars that twist around the black metal riffs, a dissonance that mimics an alien tongue we could never grasp. Dread is a powerful tool in unsettling an audience, and both entities use it to great effect—even in moments of calm, we fear that the next explosion of violence lurks nearby. Every change in tempo, every lingering shot takes on an uneasy weight, and when the moment comes, we’re too lost in thought to be prepared.
In every person’s life there are moments of transformation, milestones that have the power to lodge themselves in memory and even alter our future paths. The freedom of losing the training wheels for the first time or the infatuation of puppy love are common examples, but watching a husky’s face rip open like a blooming tulip works just as well.
Together, the practical effects dream-team of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston bring the Dog-Thing out of hiding; it’s a horrific scene made more oppressive by the puppet’s physical presence in the kennel. It may not have been alive, and the actors may have known this, but one can only imagine having to share space with this abomination of thrashing tentacles and exposed viscera. The looks on the actor’s faces mimic those of the Nostromo‘s crew in the famous chest-burster scene from Alien; a flicker of belief, of real fear amidst the scripted acting.
I remember watching this scene in a dark basement with my dad and stepbrother when I was nine years old. When the crew first opened the kennel gate and the Dog-Thing came into view, twisting its neck to face the camera, I looked to my stepbrother in disbelief; I must’ve been looking for reassurance that this was fiction. This was the first time I’d experienced the beauty of body horror, the obliteration and surreal recreation of flesh, and it made a profound and lasting impact on my art style and imagination in general. I recently dug up this relic from the start of the AK years; as evidenced by the teeth and eyes growing on the Snake Keeper’s scythes, I was very much into the “every part of the organism is alive” concept, extending the idea to inanimate objects.
If the BK scenes focus on tension, the AK scenes bathe in excess, with each consequent appearance of the Thing leading to extended bouts of bloodshed. It’s not a single iconic organism (as it appears in a different form every time it’s on-screen), nor does it carry the sexually perverse connotations/imagery of the Xenomorph, but its animalistic instinct to survive sets it apart from its contemporaries (particularly E.T., which was a major box-office competitor, somehow).
Ascended Dead‘s feral death metal is a fitting accompaniment to these scenes, particularly “Bloodthirst,” which begins with wordless howls that border on inhuman. The churning glut of riffs that follows only vaguely resembles a song—it’s more like being pulled apart in the chaos of an animal attack, with the violent pounding of the drums matching your heart rate. It doesn’t think, it doesn’t have a belief system, but it will invade every last cell of your body until you’re assimilated.
I reached out to some Toilet buddies in search of their screen scars. Here are the scenes that haunt the halls of their memories:
Nina: “When I was around 8 I had Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on a video cassette. I remember rewinding/playing back the heart ripping scene over and over again, thinking I was watching something very naughty.”
Hans: “My parents’ VHS collection had Gremlins and Christine, which I watched on the regs (along with Monty Python’s And Now For Something Completely Different, which may be the reason I never eat a banana without announcing that I will do so). The former didn’t faze me, but the dude getting crushed in the alley in Christine was a little hard on me. Moreso than Arnie’s death scene, I think. However, the only thing that ever kept me up at night was the scene in Jurassic Park where the annoying dude gets the acid (?) spit in his face. Something about the way he screamed really got to me, and the image was etched in my mind because my brother turned the movie off right away with an ‘oh right, you’re too young for this.’ Thanks dude, it’s a lil’ late for that.”