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The Thing: The Blueprint And The Aesthetic.



Mid-month, I caught wind of the fact that one of my friends was heading up to Leicester Square to see a screening of John Carpenter's "The Thing" - which got my attention for a couple of reasons. One, because I'd not seen said friend in a while and two, because the film was being screened at the Prince Charles Cinema.

For those that don't know, the Prince Charles Cinema isn't like the Odeon or Vue, etc. - those cinema chains that primarily show the latest releases. No. The Prince Charles Cinema - named when Charles was a prince and not the current king - will show screenings of older films in any and every genre, e.g. Labyrinth, Star Wars, Psycho, etc. But where the cinema really got my attention was where, some years ago, they had employed 'ninja ushers' to keep silence and order during the screenings.

So I caught up with said friend (and one of their friends) in Leicester Square to chill and catch up beforehand. For all my years in the city, I'd never been to the Prince Charles Cinema before, even though I've been in Leicester Square plenty of times. The last time I was anywhere near there, if memory serves, is when I caught up with fellow author Erik Hofstatter when he was in town to catch the 30th anniversary screening of Hellraiser.

I digress.


What I'm mindful of with the smaller independent cinemas - similar to actual theatres - is the seating, because I don't do well in small seats. Having finally made it inside the cinema, all fears were allayed, since the seats were big enough and there was plenty of leg room, for those of us with good height that don't miss out on doing squats. Also good was the fact that despite the absence of the ninja ushers, those who were ushering still kept silence and order. In particular for one gossiping couple that, despite being shushed by an irate audience member, were given a second and final warning that if they didn't be quiet, they'd be removed from the cinema. That shut them up quite nicely.

As for the film itself?

I still have that sense of wonder as it were when I watch the film. There's the narrative, the intrigue, the characters, the music - all of which make the film more than the sum of its parts. This is also a good time to remind you that, for the most part, I don't watch horror films because they scare the shit outta me. I've grown up watching them, which is partly why I don't watch them anymore as they scared me to that point - but note that The Thing hasn't scared me once. Notable that it's scared so many other people. Me, I was just in awe of the film.

Again, I don't watch horror films - or horror TV - for the most part, but even back then, the narrative and direction in The Thing was ahead of its time. You had an all-male cast, not including the voice of the Chess Wizard, or Billie Holliday singing, "Don't Explain." You had black characters in the cast - at least one of which made it to the end of the film. There was a lack of tension music in the film, certainly in those instances where the antagonist is on the attack, as it were. But there are elements of the film which definitely influenced me as a storyteller.

DIRECTION / PHOTOGRAPHY. Probably the most influential aspect of The Thing on my work is the sense of cinematography - how to convey that in a written work. There are instances in The Thing where the setting is a much as character as those that move around ...whether they're human, canine, or alien. Certainly the scene where the dog is wandering around the U.S. camp while MacReady and Copper go to the Norwegian site. And definitely the scene after Blair's ship is discovered and MacReady answers Nauls' question of where Blair was trying to go, with, "Anywhere but here." To see the camera pan across the camp is beautiful - not only does it give a sense of place, but a sense of context. In this instance, it shows, 'this is the camp' and 'given all the drama so far, settle in for what's gonna happen next.' Because I take great pride in capturing London as a character, this is a device I use more and more - to show you the physical setting. This is the case with Someone Is Late (from the Misery And Other Lines collection), the aftermath of the wine shop scene with Richard and Kieran in Downwind, Alice - and definitely the third act in There Goes Pretty, once Denny has been rescued from the house. The narrative is set up as if to show you someone or something moving through that scene, that location.

THE MONSTER. Another consideration is the design and motivation of a monster. For the record, I have read the John Campbell novella Who Goes There? - on which Carpenter's take on The Thing is aligned to, rather than its predecessor, the black-and-white film The Thing From Another World. From what I remember of the novella, Carpenter's take is more in line with that particular iteration of the monster. Which brings to mind the prequel film of The Thing, which is set at the Norwegian camp prior to the events in Carpenter's film. And this brings to mind one of the most important aspects of the monster, as Empire's review of the prequel rightly calls it - that the monster in the prequel is so powerful and violent, you wonder why it bothers to hide at all. And it's this - as well as how a monster looks - which is what intrigues me about any monster I write. Not just how it looks, but what can it do and what can't it do? What motivates it? Remember that if a monster isn't human - or at least entirely human - you can't expect it to have a human sensibility. Therefore, it's not going to think, feel and act how you or I would.

MacReady's speech to the others after burning the blood is a solid callout to logic and reason in an environment where mistrust, panic and fear will grow. "I know I'm human. And if you were all these things, then you'd just attack me right now. So some of you are still human. This thing doesn't want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It'll fight if it has to, but it's vulnerable out in the open." Monsters, like people, have strengths and weaknesses. They have drives and fears. MacReady, in spite of whatever faults he has, doesn't insult the antagonist, he simply acknowledges what it is, what it does, and what it needs. Monsters don't have to be big or strong or blessed with numerous sharp teeth to be frightening, and beyond the physical appearance of a monster, that's what makes them monstrous, that's what makes them frightening - their motivation. This is something else I take pride in, whether the monster pursues you for something you feel you're innocent of (e.g. in Forfeit Tissue), or whether the monster is only after you (e.g. Downwind, Alice), or whether the monster is after you simply because it's set its sights on you (e.g. But Worse Will Come). And from a creative point of view, there's a glut of monsters in fiction to choose from; vampires, werewolves, demons, zombies, etc. But what moves me - much like Rob Bottin would have done with the creature effects in The Thing, is to craft something that fits the appearance, character and motivation of the monster in question.

MUSIC, OR LACK THEREOF. The lack of tension music is another one. Having had the good fortune to ask Carpenter about this some years ago at FanExpo in Toronto, he simply said he didn't feel those scenes needed tension music. Yes, I'm aware that a written work has no music - but the same way I write with more of a cinematic eye, so it is that I write with more of a cinematic ear. The scene between Shirley and Margaret in the Closure novel is a prime example. From when the conversation starts to when it finishes, I had no music in mind for the height of the scene. If anything, there would only be an undercurrent of music, e.g. a note from a cello underscoring the aftermath of that scene once Margaret departs, leaving Shirley alone to process the gravity and horror of what's happened. For me, I can't write to music - unless that particular scene I'm writing has that piece of music in it - but I do listen to certain pieces of music to get in the zone, as it were. The piano score from the opening to The Evil Dead by Joseph Loduca is one such piece.

There's something I've said before in terms of general aesthetic when it comes to a story. Yes, I want to tell a good story and an honest story - as in without gimmicks ...but there's something so simple and basic there also. Which is this: I want to unsettle you. Scare you.

Disturb you.

I want to craft a narrative, a monster and set pieces that draw you in, then pull the rug out from under you as you wonder what happened. Or to have someone stare the monster in the face without it attacking because it doesn't need to. Or have someone in fear in the aftermath of the monster because they have the space and quiet to realise just how deep the horror goes.

So if I made your skin crawl, if I had you looking over your shoulder, if I had you re-reading something to see where I wrongfooted you? It's all intentional. And if I haven't?

Then I've got work to do.

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