Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What Needs Does He Serve By Killing? The Tao of Hannibal Lecter

In the impressive anthology Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror, author and co-editor Daniel Shaw opines in his essay "The Mastery of Hannibal Lecter" that Hannibal the Cannibal (Anthony Hopkins) "is one of the most powerful human characters in the history of horror" and that this is "the primary reason why we are so drawn to him." (Scarecrow Press, 2003, page 11.)

That is no doubt an accurate observation, and so today I want to gaze into the eyes and heart of this popular silver screen villain and see -- to paraphrase the good Dr Lecter -- "what is it in itself?" about him that makes Lecter so powerful a force in our psyches.

"What is his nature? What does he do...?"

The first thing to consider, perhaps, is the context from which Thomas Harris's Dr. Lecter sprang. The character -- a serial killer -- was created in the early 1980s (in the novel Red Dragon), but gained wider prominence after the release of Jonathan Demme's 1991 seminal (and oft-imitated) The Silence of the Lambs.

In other words, Hannibal "rose" in the American pop culture during the very epoch that the public was developing a deeper awareness both of the real life serial killer and the tools which could be used to catch this strange predator -- the tools of Forensic Science.

"Hannibal the Cannibal" entered the Cinematic Bogeyman Hall of Fame, for instance, not long after Ted Bundy was executed in Florida, and in the very year that Jeffrey Dahmer was apprehended, 1991.

In terms of other cultural influences, best-selling
author Patricia Cornwell, a medical examiner in Richmond, penned the Kay Scarpetta novels (Post-Mortem [1990], and Body of Evidence [1991], for example). Cornwell’s literary work focused on a new kind of contemporary detective, one who could scour a victim’s corpse and pinpoint concrete evidence about the identity of the killer based on skin or hair fragments, semen samples, or DNA evidence. Forget crucifixes, prayer or arcane exorcism rituals, the key to exorcising serial killers from our culture rested in the law-enforcement deployment of behavioral science (psychology) and forensic pathology.

So clearly, Lecter appeared in The Silence of the Lambs at exactly the right time. But that serendipity alone doesn't explain the character's ongoing popularity, appeal and fame nearly twenty years later. To comprehend that, we must indeed understand "what he does," or more accurately, "how he does it." So, without further ado, I present the most important components of "The Tao of Hannibal Lecter."

1.) He Mostly Kills The Rude (Or, he operates by his own sense of morality).

Unlike many of the slasher bogeymen popular in the 1980s, Hannibal is not an indiscriminate killer. He isn't a berserker with a machete.

On the contrary, Hannibal selects his victims very carefully. He kills them because they have violated some code of behavior that he cherishes; and that personal code has something to do with...courtesy.

In The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal is directly responsible for the death of another inmate, Migs, who tossed a handful of his semen at Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) as she was leaving the cell block. Migs actions were disgusting and rude. They showed no respect for Clarice (and no chivalry, either) and so Migs violated Lecter's powerful sense of decorum. Lecter killed Migs by verbally upbraiding the man all night...until he swallowed his own tongue.

Similarly, In Hannibal, Clarice's F.B.I superior, Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) manufactures false evidence against Starling, another violation of chivalry and decorum, and makes it appear to her superiors as though she is having an illicit, romantic relationship with Lecter. Again, Lecter strikes back at the man for his moral trespass. Specifically, Hannibal cooks Paul's brain and feeds it to him. But not before reminding him, "I hate rude people."

Lecter's treatment of Mason Verger (a convicted child molester) is very much in the same mold. Lecter realizes that the man is a monster, and then sees to it that the man cuts off his own face. "Try peeling off your face and feeding it to the dogs," he suggests, while Verger is hepped up on drugs. Then, he hands Verger a shard of broken glass.

Again, Hannibal's official, appropriate capacity here is as Verger's court-ordered psychologist...but Lecter detected a "higher" morality he could serve and did not wait for society to punish (or possibly not punish...) Verger. He did it himself.

In Hannibal Rising (2007), the audience witnesses an early example of Hannibal's sense of chivalry and moral code. A fat butcher (Charles Maquignon) insults Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), young Hannibal's lovely ward. The butcher's insult is sexual in nature (involving the shape and form of her genitals) and unforgivably crude. So Hannibal bides his time...then strikes back with a vengeance: gutting the butcher with a samurai sword, and then decapitating him.

The real problem with Hannibal Lecter, as Will Graham points out to the good doctor in Red Dragon, is simply that he is insane. Lecter's moral barometer is off the mark at times, and this fact makes the killer an unpredictable monster. For instance, Lecter famously killed an untalented flutist (and then served his corpse to the symphony board members...), but a poor performance (or even a series of poor performances...) hardly feels like an adequate justification for murder. Similarly, that census taker whose liver Hannibal ate (with a nice chianti and some fava beans...) could only have been so obnoxious, right?

In other words, Hannibal Lecter remains terrifying because the filmmakers (and Hopkins) allow us a glimpse of his moral code and justifications for murder, but not an ironclad, black-and-white understanding. Also, Hannibal brooks no interference over issues such as his personal freedom (as a few unlucky Tennessee police officers learn the hard way in Lambs). This means that Hannibal will always be at odds with characters like Clarice, and thus always a menace.

Still -- in broad strokes -- we can see that Hannibal punishes the morally corrupt who, for one reason or another, have escaped justice. He kills all the men who murdered his sister, Misha, in Hannibal Rising, destroys corrupt figures representing authority/the establishment (Krendler, Pazzi and Dr. Chilton), punishes rudeness (Migs) and, essentially, rewards politeness.

2.) He Appreciates The Finer Things (and Admires Beauty)

Hannibal Lecter is no mad-dog killer. He boasts a keen intellect, and is thus able to contextualize himself and his life in terms of literature, music, art and history.

In Hannibal, the serial killer presents in Florence a meticulous lecture on the work and life of Dante Alighieri, for instance.

In The Silence of the Lambs, we see his beautiful paintings of Florence in his cell, too. He isn't a dabbler...he's an artist and a scholar.

Hannibal admires physical beauty as well, particularly in women such as Lady Muraski and Clarice Starling. So much so, in fact, that Lecter is unwilling to corrupt such ideal beauty with his own hand.

At the conclusion of Hannibal, the cannibal half-heartedly makes a sexual pass at Clarice (Julianne Moore), aware that she will deny him; and more so that he wants her to deny him. She represents an ideal for him: an ideal of incorruptibility. And in denying his advances, Clarice passes Hannibal's test. (This is quite different than in Harris's novel, Hannibal, by the way, wherein Clarice and Hannibal run away lovers.)

It's odd to write these words of a serial killer, but Hannibal -- as a character and fright icon -- boasts clear aesthetic, intellectual and interpersonal standards, and in the tabloid, gutter culture of the 1990s (the era of The Jenny Jones Show, Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer), that was something that many people came to miss.

Also, it's critical to note here something else about Lecter's nature as a Renaissance man. Historically-speaking, the slashers of the early 1980s morphed into the rubber reality killers of the latter part of the decade: all-powerful supernatural forces like Freddy or Pinhead.

Arguably, Hannibal Lecter remains as frightening as either of those two silver screen bogeymen, yet there's an important distinction: he is grounded entirely in reality. To make Hannibal appear formidable the makers of the Lecter films (Ridley Scott, Jonathan Demme, Brett Ratner, Peter Webber) could not rely on the supernatural elements that built up Freddy, Pinhead, or even Candyman.

Instead, they presented a human character possessing full control of his psyche, in full control of his body, who -- simply put -- was smarter and more deadly than anyone else he might happen to share a room with. Hannibal is thus an unusual mixture of the best in us and the worst in human nature. He loves art and literature, but uses his knowledge of it to commit murder. He understands the human mind, yet uses that understanding to hurt others. He can paint a delicate, beautiful landscape...and then turn around and bludgeon a man to death. Hannibal is a gourmet cook...and a cannibal. He has achieved more than most men have in a lifetime...and yet Lecter is a monster.

3.) He Lets the Punishment Fit the Crime

Hannibal's moral code or sense of justice is not arbitrary or capricious. When this madman commits murder, the punishment fits the crime, at least, again, for the most part.

For instance, in Hannibal, Lecter makes certain that Inspector Francesco Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), -- who has accepted a three million dollar award for Hannibal's capture -- dies according to the traditional, historical method of those who have been avaricious: hanging.

Before he kills Pazzi, Hannibal informs the detective that avarice and hanging were linked in Medieval times. He then proceeds to hang poor Pazzi in the tradition of the detective's ill-fated ancestor. Hannibal then throws in a little disembowelment for good measure...

Paul's punishment -- seeing his own brain eaten -- goes back to Hannibal's considerable knowledge of Dante Aligheri. In The Inferno, in the second lowest circle of Hell, there were two men depicted there: Ugolino and Ruggiero. Ugolino was seen eating the skull of his betrayer, Ruggiero, and this ring of Hell was explicitly reserved for those guilty of treachery (against country, family, benefactors, etc.). Hannibal -- an expert in Dante -- no doubt saw Paul's betrayal of Clarice (his "kin" in the F.B.I.) as the sin for which he was to be punished. He picked a literary punishment that fit the specifics of the transgression.

In Hannibal Rising, a film which depicts Hannibal's earliest crimes, the audience sees how the serial killer develops this sense of "the punishment fitting the crime." Hannibal learns that his sister was not only killed, but eaten, and so sets about eating the men who committed this crime. It's an eye-for-an-eye punishment (or a cheek-for-a-cheek, as the case may be.)

4.) He is a Mentor (and he doesn't play favorites).

A man of great knowledge and yes, even wisdom, Hannibal is not shy about sharing what he knows (especially if there is a "quid pro quo" that interests him). As Hannibal notes, he comes to his victims and friends both "in the guise of a mentor."

Lecter mentors F.B.I. agents Will Graham (Ed Norton) and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), but then turns right around and also mentors the budding serial killer known as "The Tooth Fairy" (Ralph Fiennes) in Red Dragon. Hannibal is not confined or bound to our conventional sense of morality, and is thus a willing teacher to anyone who approaches him with respect and courtesy.

In Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, intrepid F.B.I agents go before Hannibal and must lay themselves bare before his laser-like mind; before his total understanding and mastery of human psychology. They do so willingly, to catch monsters like the aforementioned "Tooth Fairy" or "Buffalo Bill," but their experience is nonetheless terrifying to those of us in the audience. As Jack Crawford insightfully warns Clarice: "you don't want Hannibal Lecter inside your head."


So while Freddy Krueger arrives through the subconscious doorway of your dreams, Hannibal is, perhaps, equally powerful. He utilizes his uncanny, inevitably accurate, complete understanding of you -- your very identity -- against you. He gets inside your head in a different, more subversive way, perhaps.

Finally, Hannibal Lecter boasts a great, ghoulish sense of humor. Before killing you, he may ask "bowels in or bowels out?," or some such thing. Like Krueger, Lecter is an acknowledged master of the bon mot. In this case, however, the humor doesn't mitigate the terror in the slightest. When Lecter amuses himself at your're going down. Soon.

With Hannibal Lecter on the prowl, the lambs never stop screaming...

Monday, June 28, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Director Quentin Tarantino may have intentionally mangled the English language with the misspelled title of his latest cinematic effort, Inglourious Basterds (2009), but this prodigious talent speaks the language of film with a perfect accent.

Although Tarantino's production shares a title (sort of...) with 1978's The Inglorious Bastards (from director Enzo G. Castellari) there's not actually much similarity between the two efforts. Both films are set during World War II, and both films concern an important mission behind enemy lines.

After that, leave your expectations at the door. The 1978 film is a low-budget exploitation actioner (with Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson), but Inglorious Basterds is Tarantino's trademark specialty: art-house exploitation.

In other words, Tarantino doesn't craft anything remotely like an action yarn here. Instead, Inglourious Basterds is an almost sedentary, deliberately-paced film about personal warfare, not the international, global variety we've come to expect from the WWII film. This isn't Saving Private Ryan (1998). No beaches are stormed. No wartime platitudes are reinforced.

"Looks like the shoe's on the other foot," The Powerful and the Powerless in Inglourious Basterds

The backdrop for this 2009 drama is indeed the war effort in general, and a group of American soldiers behind enemy lines, but the guts of the narrative involve feelings of personal disquiet: the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness engendered by the Nazi Regime, and the Basterds' dedicated attempts to give the Nazis a taste of their own medicine.

Some scholars and pundits have suggested that the film is morally facile, a simple revenge picture that makes the American Basterds (Jewish-American soldiers...) as reprehensible as the Nazis they fight in Europe; but that doesn't seem legitimately the case.

Tarantino's focus isn't necessarily on brutal, bloody violence, but on power, and how it feels to be the party without it. The Basterds in the film, as well as a Jewish cinema owner named Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), exact violent retribution against the Nazis, it is true. But, oddly -- in almost every situation -- it feels not like eye-for-an-eye Draconian violence, but rather an assertion or re-assertion of self, or self-actualization, if that's possible.

This is why, I suspect, the film's fiery final sequence quotes extensively from De Palma's Carrie (1976) and the famous sequence at the Prom. Both movies concern the victimized pushed too far, taking back the power for themselves in an apocalyptic showdown.

I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, however. Inglourious Basterds is a film consisting of five separate, even episodic chapters. The first chapter "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France" goes a long way towards establishing the feelings of personal powerlessness the Nazis so ruthlessly exploit.

A dairy farmer who is hiding Jewish refugees in his house is visited on his remote farm by Colonel Hans Landa (Christophe Waltz), who is nicknamed "The Jew Hunter." Landa gains entry to the house, enjoys a glass of milk, switches the conversation from French to English, and then -- without even verbally leveling much of a threat -- makes the weeping farmer, LaPadite, surrender his hidden wards. The refugees are then brutally shot down, and only 18-year old Shoshanna escapes the massacre.

The conversation between Landa and LaPadite is lengthy. It goes on and on, and Tarantino holds the scene for a duration approaching twenty minutes. The aspect of this scene that makes it work so splendidly (and makes it increasingly suspenseful as it continues...), is the very thing that remains determinedly unspoken: Landa's total and complete domination of the poor farmer. LaPadite has no options; no recourse; nowhere even to lodge a complaint. He can't fight, or he will sacrifice his family. He can't bargain, either. There's absolutely nothing to be done. Landa comes into his home, is unfailingly polite and courteous...and is completely in control. The Nazi has no need to flex his muscles (or twirl his metaphorical moustache), to assert his authority. His authority simply...goes without saying.

This powerful and frightening idea recurs in Chapter Three, "German Night in Paris." Shoshanna, now a cinema owner in France hiding under the name Emmanuelle Mimieux (think Yvette Mimieux), unexpectedly meets Nazi sniper and war hero Zoller (Daniel Bruhl). He is starring in Goebbel's latest propaganda film, Nation's Pride, and he quickly devises the notion that Shoshanna's cinema should host the film's premiere.

Again: she is not asked about this. Her counsel is not sought. She is not given an out so she can politely demure. Instead, she is escorted to a nearby restaurant and introduced to Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), who also immediately and unquestioningly assumes her total and complete cooperation. Like Landa in Chapter One, the Nazis here are not over-the-top schemers or brutal torturers for us to sneer at. Instead, they are so confident in their total authority that there's no need for showy demonstrations (as we would no doubt see in lesser films...).

In the most dramatic example of Shoshanna's utter powerlessness in the face of the Nazi domination, Hans Landa even gets to dictate to the cinema owner when she should eat her strudel. She is about to take a bite, but he has forgotten to order whip cream. "Wait for the cream," he utters with a wolfish smile.

It isn't a request. It's an order.

Thus, in albeit strange fashion, the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds are more frightening than almost any you've ever seen depicted before in a movie. They appear courteous and civil, but that's only because their domination is unchallenged; unquestioned. These men walk the Earth as Gods: every demand met, every order followed, every desire sated.

From the predicaments of the farmer and Shosanna in their respective chapters, the audience quickly detects how the basic human freedom of choice (even the choice when to eat your dessert) has been removed from those living in territory occupied by the Germans. Tarantino's selections (in actors; in tone; in holding on a particular scene) all play this idea out adroitly. The scene set in the Tavern is not much different: an S.S. officer strides onto the scene and expects to have his demands for attention met, without question.

The eminently just punchline comes in the film's valedictory scene (and shot). The leader of the Basterds, Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt) has been forced to cede authority to Landa. Landa thinks that -- as usual -- he is totally in charge. He has become used to his unlimited, unspoken power. And with one powerful, if small act, Raines questions that assumption....with a knife. It's not just revenge for the sake of revenge; it's not bloody for the sake of gore. It's a lesson, actually, in what freedom represents; and the fear that people feel when that freedom is stolen from them. When Aldo carves swastikas on the foreheads of his enemies, he is questioning what the Nazis believe is unquestionable; their total authority and superiority. Aldo does not kill, but he makes the Nazis experience fear -- and powerlessness -- for the first time.

"We're going to make a film. Just for the Nazis." Homage and Tribute in Tarantino's Film

Inglourious Basterds also proves intriguing in much the same the fashion as Tarantino's other films. In other words, the movie functions as a dedicated homage to other war films, and as a tribute to the culture of movies itself.

In ways simple (Aldo Raines = Aldo Ray) and ways complex, Tarantino gets in some edgy commentary here about the power of images; about the power of the medium itself.

Even casting is vitally important. For instance, horror director Eli Roth plays the "golem" nicknamed "The Bear Jew," the Basterd who brandishes a baseball bat against recalcitrant Nazis.

We already associate Roth with scenes of extreme violence and gore thanks to his role directing (the masterpiece...) Hostel (2005), and so the actor's participation in what promises to be the film's most violent scene works commendably to the movie's advantage. Here comes Eli Roth doing what Eli Roth does best...or so we think.

But Inglourious Basterds is a movie about movies in deeper, more meaningful ways too. A propaganda film, like Goebbel's "Nation's Pride," could conceivably galvanize a demoralized nation, we are meant to understand. It could literally turn around the war, and that's something that can't be allowed to happen. How Shoshanna subverts Zoller's film is one of the film's highlights; especially since her "phantom edit" plays to what is literally a captive audience.

Likewise, a movie critic like Hicox (Michael Fassbender) could conceivably boast the knowledge to make for an effective undercover agent in France, although a hand signal (not entirely unlike "thumbs up" or "thumbs down") could also doom him.

And finally, as Inglourious Basterds trenchantly reminds us, a film can be an instrument of propaganda or an instrument of justice. Film might even be, literally, a weapon. Film reels double as the bomb that kills Hitler in the film's denouement.

And there's another thing about movies that Tarantino tells us. They have no overriding responsibility to be true to the historical record. I mean...we all know how World War II ended, but Tarantino provides us a more satisfying, fairy tale, movie ending: one in which the powerful are given a lesson in powerlessness, and those without freedom find -- even for an instant -- liberty's power.

Inglorious Basterds
is not the place to seek historical accuracy; it's a place to ponder the ways that movies -- as propaganda or vehicles of justice/vengeance -- can satisfy and offer emotional closure regarding a whole variety of issues. Isn't it better, really, that a Jewish woman victimized by the Third Reich should bring it down? If we could write our own endings, isn't this the dramatic, poetic one we'd want? The underdog has her day, and the scales of justice are righted. Since this isn't real life, why not?

"I think this just might be my masterpiece." Or "That's a Bingo."

Given the importance of movie history and film in Inglorious Basterds, I find it fascinating that the last act in the film quotes so heavily from the work of Brian De Palma.

I mentioned Carrie at the Prom vs. Shoshanna at the Premiere, but it's much more than that too.

Notice, for instance, that the interior of Shoshanna's cinema is colored and designed to resemble the palatial interior of Tony Montana's Miami home in Scarface. There are staircases bracketing both sides of the central hall, with a ledge above -- on the second floor -- and, finally, a room (in the center of the frame...) leading back to a private domain (office or auditorium).

In Scarface, this grand hall is where Tony goes out in a blaze of glory ("Say Hello to My Little Friend..."). In a very real way, that's also Shoshanna's fate.

Both characters also share something else in common: they went from being powerless, to possessing all the power. Only in Tony's case, he misused and abused that power (through a drug haze). By contrast, our sympathies remain with Shoshanna throughout Inglourious Basterds. She is setting things right (and ending the war...), not committing a cocaine-addled suicide.

Why quote De Palma so extensively here? Well, we know that Carrie is in Tarantino's top five favorite film list (at least last time I checked). But the images and compositions that recall De Palma are well picked for reasons of theme and recognition too. Both Carrie at the Prom: the victim taking out the victimizers and Tony's last stand: a staccato suicide by machine gun -- embody an important part of our contemporary pop culture lexicon. Carrie is about the effect that cruelty has on a person, even a good person. And Scarface is about power corrupting, absolutely. Shoshanna may be Carrie; and Hitler may be Tony Montana, in some sense..

One of the things that I admire most about Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's manner of making the intimate seem epic. This movie is about a big topic indeed (World War II) but it features almost no scenes of battle or any traditional war scenes, for that matter. The film consists mostly of a scene in a farm, in a tavern basement, and, finally, in a cinema. We see no tanks, no infantries on the move, and no impending air strikes.

Instead, Tarantino hammers home his theme of the powerful versus the powerless, and does so with just a handful of very interesting, very human characters. The drama is entirely intimate though, in typical Tarantino fashion, it's the human behavior is also a bit exaggerated in some caes. In the case of Aldo Raines, I would argue it's almost cartoonish. But even he reflects something vitally important.

Sometimes you need bravado in the face of a powerful enemy.

Inglourious Basterds
reveals that Raines has that bravado in spades, but even moreso, that the film's director does.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

28 Years Ago This Weekend...

...John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) was released in theaters nationwide (against Steven Spielberg's E.T.) to a slew of negative reviews and even a backlash against its talented director.

It's a funny turn of events: today, almost three decades later, the film is critically lauded and there's even a prequel in production. But in 1982, the film was considered a bomb, and some people even feared Carpenter's career was over. Hah!

Here's a snippet from my review of The Thing:

In the waning days of the summer of 1982, my parents took me to an afternoon matinee, a double-feature at a second-run theater in Los Angeles. I couldn’t have guessed so beforehand, but this excursion to the movies was a life-changing event for me.

That description sounds like unwarranted hyperbole until you understand that the double-bill consisted of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Imagine -- just for a moment -- seeing those particular films back-to-back, one after the other, on the big screen.

Then consider the impact these two genre films have on our pop culture had over time. It's...staggering.

If you think about it, both productions share more in common than may appear obvious at first blush. Primarily, both Blade Runner and The Thing explore the existential angst of what it means to be human. Protagonists in each film combat creatures that mimic or imitate the human shape, but are indistinctly inhuman. In both films, the impostor is also an infiltrator...virtually unrecognizable -- hidden -- in a larger population. Both films also feature ambiguous endings: we're not exactly certain if humanity is victorious. In far more grounded terms, both genre movies have outlived overwhelming mainstream critical disdain and poor box-office receipts.

Indeed, Blade Runner and The Thing have emerged as two of the most beloved (and forward-looking…) films of the Age of Reagan. They've defined the direction of their respective genres too.

Suffice it to say, I had much to think about in the days and weeks (and months and years…) following that double feature matinee. So today, in keeping with my recent John Carpenter theme here on the blog, I want to gaze at The Thing, the film that almost literally cost John Carpenter his career in Hollywood.

Why? Well, in the summer of Spielberg's E.T. -- in the days of the ascendant Moral Majority -- a great many critics found Carpenter’s trailblazing horror film…questionable. On one notorious occasion, the auteur was actually termed a “pornographer of violence” for what was, in essence, a faithful visual recreation of a short story written in 1938 (“Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell). The moral watch guards weren't alone in their condemnation of The Thing; an older generation of horror fans raised on Howard Hawks' original version of The Thing also seemed to reflexively dislike this remake. This dislike was in spite of many deliberate (and elaborate) Carpenter homages to that famous screen predecessor.

I summarized the poisonous critical reception to The Thing in my book, The Films of John Carpenter (McFarland; 2000), but for context and history, I wanted to provide at least a handful of quotes here and now, so you might accurately glean a sense of the absolute vitriol spewed at the film and its helmsman.

Newsweek called The Thing an example of “the New Aesthetic – atrocity for atrocity’s sake.” (David Ansen; Newsweek: “Frozen Slime,” June 28, 1982). Reviewing the film for Starlog, Alan Spencer wrote: “It’s my contention that John Carpenter was never meant to direct science fiction horror movies. Here’s some things he’d be better suited to direct: Traffic accidents, train wrecks and public floggings….” (Starlog # 64, November 1982, page 69.)

And that’s just the tip of the bloody iceberg, to adopt an appropriate metaphor.

Yet today - in 2009 - John Carpenter’s The Thing is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece. It resides in the top 250 movies of all-time on the IMDB (at #173), and I counted it as the best horror film of its decade in Horror Films of the 1980s (McFarland; 2007). Of The Thing, The Village Voice’s Scott Foundas wrote in 2008: “this spatial masterpiece of desolate Arctic vistas at odds with close-quarters claustrophobia has...been hailed as a high totem of modern horror-making. There remains something deeply unnerving about Carpenter's ambiguity as to whether the movie's shape-shifting alien is distorting its hosts' personalities or merely revealing something of their primal selves.”

For me, The Thing stands the test of time as a great film for several reasons. It’s not only the film’s finely-honed sense of paranoia that makes it a remarkable achievement, but the glacial, icy feelings of personal “alienation” from society that the story and presentation seem to evoke so powerfully.

Furthermore, John Carpenter’s The Thing involves not just alienation from civilization. It also makes a very squeamish, very uneasy case for the frailty and fragility of the human form itself; call it alienation of the flesh.

Additionally, it’s difficult not to interpret the “invasion” by the shape-shifting thing as an early harbinger of AIDS, a malady whispered about at the time of the film’s genesis as a “wasting disease” or “The Gay Plague.” In much more general form, the film succeeds in raising hackles over the universal fear of contagion, of disease…of the body subverted, co-opted and deformed by an implacable and invisible intruder. If not AIDS, the invader could be cancer, another STD, even old age itself.

Finally, The Thing represents such a singular experience because of the titular monster. Never before in the history of the horror film had audiences witnessed such an elusive, transcendent entity: a life-form in constant evolution and motion, never pausing -- never stopping -- long enough for us to get a grasp of what it "was." Although Scott's Alien was undeniably brilliant and fascinating in its depiction of an alien life-cycle, that life-cycle still had, ultimately, a recognizable shape and a direction (egg, face hugger, chest burster, adult drone...). By contrast, Carpenter's "Thing" was always...becoming.

The Thing serves as the first movement in John Carpenter’s self-named “Apocalypse Trilogy” (followed by 1987’s Prince of Darkness and 1994’s In The Mouth of Madness), and most genre fans are familiar with the general outline of the story, either from the remarkable Campbell literary work, or the 1950s Howard Hawks version, The Thing from Another World (1951).

In short, John Carpenter’s The Thing lands us in freezing Antarctica during the winter of 1982. A strange incident occurs at American Outpost 31, when a Norwegian helicopter breaks the peace and silence of snow.

The foreign chopper pilot and his cohort seem to be relentlessly (and madly...) pursuing a dog, a malamute. The pilot attempts to kill the canine, but in the ensuing scuffle the helicopter is destroyed and an armed Norwegian is shot dead by Outpost 31’s macho commander, Garry (Moffat).

Curious about what could have possibly driven the Norwegian scientists to such heights of apparent insanity, Outpost 31's Doc Copper (Richard Dysart) and helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) travel to the foreign camp and find it utterly ruined, destroyed. Record tapes reveal that the Norwegians unearthed a flying saucer – and an alien – frozen in the ice for 100,000 years. They used Thermite charges to bring both to the surface. MacReady and Copper bring back the tapes, and also the inhuman, half-burned corpse of...something.

Before long, the men of Outpost 31 must grapple with the fact that an alien life form is loose in their camp. It is a chameleon who can perfectly imitate human beings right down to the minutest memories and speech patterns. Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) calculates that after 27,000 hours from first contact with the civilized world, the entire planet Earth will be infected by the extra-terrestrial shape shifter. MacReady and the others must now determine -- in short order -- who is a “thing” and who is a man, and arrange for a blood serum test to help them identify the interloper (or interlopers) hiding in their midst.

Nobody Trusts Anybody Now: Alienation from the World At Large

The political and societal turbulence of the 1970s (from Vietnam to Watergate to the Energy Crisis to Three Mile Island) gave rise in some cases to a deepening sense of personal, community and spiritual dissatisfaction in America of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

One might term this mood the “spirit of the times,” but whatever we call it, many Americans began to feel deep misgivings about the status quo, about an increasingly untrustworthy, shallow, unjust, and material culture. The nation’s confidence – which had so memorably suffered a “crisis” in Carter’s America - had eroded.

Punk/thrash music gave voice to this sense of discontentment in popular music throughout the 1980s; and horror films such as George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) and The Amityville Horror (1979) pinpointed sources of anxiety in the consumer culture and such seemingly-sturdy American cultural pillars as home-ownership. In these visions, the faceless masses at the local shopping mall were actually slobbering zombies, and monthly mortgage payments could run you out of your too-expensive house faster than your average demonic possession....

There also begin to arise a sense in late 70s-early 80s America that the person next door – your very neighbor -- could actually be a monster in disguise…a person that, despite all physical appearances to the contrary, could be harboring monstrous, murderous secrets (think David Lynch's Blue Velvet [1986]).

In part, this uncertainty about the nature of "the next door neighbor" was a result of an unexpected reversal in population migration patterns. Whereas in earlier decades of the 20th century, people from small-towns had moved to the big cities (as part of industrialization…), in the early 1980s we saw “counter-urbanization:” a flight or escape from metropolitan population centers in favor of quieter, emptier areas, whether rural or suburban. This pattern was possible because of increased car production and affordability, and governmental incentives that made new home construction and home-ownership easier.

But the evils and eccentricities that some people (rightly or wrongly) associated with “big” cities also came home to roost in suburban America in this process of counter-urbanization. The Evils were named, in some cases, Ted Bundy, or John Wayne Gacy. On the surface: normal appearing. The truth: monsters in human shape.

As I’ve written before in regards to this epoch, the combination of inexpensive air transportation and the uniquely American tendency to put down roots far from one’s original home, assured that the neighbors within your average “Cuesta Verde” might be ethically or morally separate from the ideals of those living around them.

In a sense, this was true American integration: blacks and whites living peacably next door; Yankees and Confederates amicably perched across a drive-way; Christians and atheists on the same cul-de-sac; gays and straights sharing a common backyard, etc. Most of the time this was good -- we learn from each other's differences -- but in isolated circumstances (if your neighbor happened to be Jeffrey Dahmner, for instance)...not so much. With a burgeoning tabloid media developing on young cable TV, it was the negative and sensational incidents which became widely known and disseminated.

The resulting ambiguity about what evil might dwell in "the house next door” created an age of uncertainty in which people didn’t really know -- and therefore could not always trust -- their neighbors. The result: deeper alienation, suspicion and even paranoia.

John Carpenter’s The Thing is very deliberately crafted in this world of estrangement and alienation. Consider that all the men at Outpost 31 have left behind their mother society (America), much as many disaffected youngsters in the early 1970s attempted to leave the American culture for "new" communal societies. An early version of Bill Lancaster's script allegedly revealed MacReady’s specific sense of “displacement” after the Vietnam War, another expression of alienation from country...

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