After-Image: ‘The Thing’ (1982)

After-Image looks at single images and the emotional and narrative weight they carry. This week: Nobody Trusts Anybody Now And We’re All Very Tired.

Sometimes we get so caught up in world-building, or narrative that we forget that cinema is a visual medium. In this occasional series we look at single images and the emotional and narrative weight they carry. This time: Nobody Trusts Anybody Now And We’re All Very Tired

Most horror movies are determinedly masculine.

From the very… shall we say, direct? male gaze of the slasher movie, to the choice of penetrating trauma as the manner of death in the vast majority of cases, the horror movie has never been shy about its manliness. When you do get a more feminine approach  – as in, say, Cat People – it touches a totally different nerve in the audience.

The Thing grabs that nerve and twangs it like an inbred albino with a banjo.

The Thing looks at the phallic monsters then in vogue – we’re looking at you, Mr Penis Headed xenomorph from Alien and you, Captain Tentacle Rapey maggot from Galaxy of Terror – and deliberately turns away. The creature in the Thing is presented in film language terms as feminine – small, intelligent and reliant on manipulation rather than brute strength for most of the film. One of the most arresting moments is when the Thing manifests a whacking great vagina dentata and bites off the arms of a character.

Cards on the table time here – The Thing is one of my favourite movies because of the near technical perfection of it. A lot of people view John Carpenter’s update of the Cold War Rampaging Carrot original as a special FX tour de force. It is, it absolutely is and it is a travesty that Rob Bottin didn’t win an Oscar for his feverish work; astonishing on both a conceptual and craftwork level. The joy of the film is in seeing how well Carpenter is able to manage the numerous dialogue scenes. People forget how much of the film is simply a bunch of guys, standing around talking. It’s 12 Angry Men and One Angry Thing. By removing the film from the original Cold War paranoia, the tension becomes more personal and private. If he Thing is presented as feminine, then the film becomes about how the male characters deal with the situation they are in. The film becomes – fittingly –  a Hawksian examination of masculinity under threat.

Which brings us to this week’s shot.

For anyone who doubts that Carpenter at the top of his game was simply one of the best directors working, just look at the economy of this. The strength is in the imbalance. Kurt Russell’s MacReady – the closest thing we have to a hero – is seated to the right of centre frame, leaving the entire other half of the frame empty. He is facing away from the door and away from that empty space in the frame. We have been conditioned by years of film language to see a composition like that and expect that space to be filled. Something is going to come into shot, something behind MacReady, something he cannot see – and the threat is created simply through the position in the frame.

The colour palette is clear; the cold blues and whites of the background isolating the figure of Mac; Mac, of course, is wearing greens. The use of earth tones to present someone as trustworthy, honest and reliable is as old as the use of colour in art. But as we start to notice the details, the picture becomes more complex. MacReady is luxuriantly bearded and be-barnetted – this is Kurt Russell in his hair-metal pomp, a figure so iconic that they spend a fortune to recreate him with CGI in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 – which serves as both a way to sell the coldness of the setting but also to underline the masculinity of all the characters. And here we see Mac surrounded by the film language of manhood; the beard, the whisky on the desk, the gun. This is a hero as he should be.

But.

He’s got his back turned to the door like a teenager in a slasher movie. He’s slouched in his pool of light, alone in the dark. He’s talking into a tape recorder because he has no other human being to talk to.

The dialogue is great – from a screenplay littered with fabulous lines  – and delivered by an actor comfortable enough with his position and his director to show real vulnerability. It’s worth having the full little speech:

“I’m going to hide this tape when I’m finished. If none of us make it, at least there’ll be some kind of record. The storm’s been hitting us hard now for… 48 hours.. We still have nothing to go on. One other thing: I think it rips through your clothes when it takes you over… Windows found some shredded longjohns but the nametag was missing.. They could be anybody’s.. Nobody… nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired… there’s nothing more I can do, just wait… R.J. MacReady, helicopter pilot, US outpost #31.”

This is not the speech of a man who expects to survive. This is the last will and testament of a man who knows he has been beaten and knows that he is going to die. The most interesting thing, though, is that you don’t need the dialogue. Everything contained in that speech is contained in the single shot of MacReady, all the props of cinematic masculinity uselessly arrayed before him, his back turned to the opening behind him; vulnerable and alone.

So why don’t you and I watch him. Just wait a while.

And see what happens.


 Herbert West – when he’s not reanimating the dead – teaches at a secondary school in the north of England. He is the host of the Trial of a Timelord podcast which can be found on Twitter at @WhoTrial

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