One of my favourite directors is John Carpenter. Even the least of his films are imbued with his creative watermark. 1978’s Halloween is the blueprint for all subsequent Middle-American anxieties about youth turned into grim slasher horror; 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13 is a nigh-unbearably tense thriller that manages to foster deep isolation in the middle of a crowded city; I would argue that 1988’s They Live is more relevant & socially resonant now than even at the point it was first released. His Apocalypse Trilogy, most overtly in the 1987 science-cosmic horror (and one of my very favourite films) Prince of Darkness, posits multiple interpretations of the end of the world. The third of the trilogy, 1994’s In The Mouth of Madness, is a homage to literary horror traditions from Lovecraft to King. But it’s the first – 1982’s The Thing – which has remained in the public consciousness the longest, finding Man to be the warmest place to hide its creeping dread.
I can’t even begin to explain The Thing, a loose adaptation of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” where the extraterrestrial, well, thing of the title manages to creep around everything from still-formidable Cold War Paranoia to self-destructive masculinity, fear of the loss of self to good old-fashioned existential cosmic dread, with a tightly-knit script, impeccable performances, brilliant production, and groundbreaking effects. But the most powerful – and most desperately sad – thing about The Thing is the erosion of trust in a close community. People who came to know one another, who relied on each other to survive in a deeply hostile environment that humanity was not equipped to inhabit without technology, started to betray each other and themselves in their rising panic about something that was not them.
You can see why it’s been so popular.
Yet when it came out, it bombed. Critics and audiences alike hated it, loathed it, acted like it stole the last Freddo from your wee brother. All the love that Carpenter, the cast, and the crew poured into the film was met by scorn, derision, apathy, anathema. Vincent Canby of The New York Times declared it “a foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is fun as neither one thing or the other. Sometimes it looks as if it aspired to be the quintessential moron movie of the 80’s.” Gary Arnold of The Washington Post sneered “John Carpenter’s The Thing is a wretched excess… laying waste to the accompanying human interest, wit and thematic suggestiveness.” Time Magazine announced “Designer Rob Bottin’s work is novel and unforgettable, but since it exists in a near vacuum emotionally, it becomes too domineering dramatically and something of an exercise in abstract art.” And this clearly got to Carpenter:
Well, the passage of time can be a wonderful thing. (How many times am I going to write thing in this thing about The Thing? Aye, that’s the… thing.) Nowadays, The Thing is hailed as a masterpiece , indeed one of the greatest science fiction films ever made long with its fellow adored-in-hindsight masterwork Blade Runner, and it’s a perennial of critic’s and audience choices – sometimes the same critics & audiences who lambasted it on its release. Yet although Carpenter bounced back & continued making films for over a decade, the failure of The Thing still got to him:
I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit. I don’t think the studio knew what kind of movie they were getting. I think they wanted Alien, a crowd-pleaser. And it was way too ferocious for them. They were upset by the ending—too dark. But that’s what I wanted: Who goes there? Who are we? Which one of you is real? The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane. Even the original movie’s director, Christian Nyby, was dissing me.
It was clear that this affected him even now, as fellow visionary director (and another personal favourite) Guillermo Del Toro revealed in 2016. His final anecdote has stuck with me for a long time:
When I think of John Carpenter, I am amazed at the fact that we take him for granted. How can we? Why should we? He is lightning in a bottle
Assault on Precinct 13 by John Carpenter. Carpenter flexing his muscles, revamping the archetypes of a Western and establishing his own.
Halloween by John Carpenter. A genre supernova. Creates a taxonomic category that still lives. Unsparing precision, simplicity and elegance.
Sidebar: We must all agree that Carpenter is a brilliant writer / director. A rare breed. A true auteur. Oh, and a hallowed composer.
The Fog by John Carpenter. One of my favorites. Highly original blend of bare bones folk tale horror and metaphor. The film works like JC’s scores, by spare rhythmic punctuation. Its origin reveals a literary streak in JC
Carpenter’s scores fluctuate w his films. Listen to them: they embody the spirit of each film perfectly. They are his final auteur voice.
The Thing by John Carpenter. A game-changer (again) and one of the finest horror films ever made. It cannot be matched. Holy Grail. Make up effects, score, cinematography, production design are all utter perfection. But so is the script. The irony is that most reviewers at the time were entirely blind to the virtues of story and character. The movie bombed and was panned both. And I believe it fragmented Carpenter’s heart somewhat. F*** them all. Carpenter chose (like Scott in Alien) to define character and story through audio-visual coding and their interactions. Viewers needed to pay attention to the way characters related and spoke. Structure not neatly packaged into a pre-digested structure. The movie was fiber, not pablum. You had to chew but we were at the peak of pre-chewed regurgitation.We MUST atone for the errors of the past. Masterpiece.
Anecdote: One night, over dinner, I told John Carpenter, how much all generations love The Thing. How amazing it was that it had over time, “found its audience” and was now revered. “What f***ing good does that do to me” he said. We ordered dessert.
What good does that do to me.
I recall the many people who voted No in 2014 who’ve now come over to the Yes side. I’m grateful and appreciate them, welcoming them with open arms. But I would be false if I did not have that imp in the back of my mind sneering “aye, what good does that do now?”
It’s not helpful. It’s not kind. But it’s there. And the only way to shut it up is to prove it wrong.
I have never, in my entire life, wanted to be wrong more than with what I fear will happen within the next 5 years -which is to say, nothing, in regards to independence.
But we have a First Minister who rejects the immediate necessity of independence until “after Scotland has recovered from COVID.” A majority gained from a party whose co-leader stated that their manifesto was not a manifesto for independence. SNP MSPs are openly de-prioritising independence to a breathtaking degree. The greatest First Minister Scotland has ever had continually traduced and ridiculed and smeared by people who should know better, who should have the inquisitive mind & desire for truth to look beyond the mainstream media’s manufactured accounts, who should realise – after all that we’ve been through – that being unpopular doesn’t make you wrong.
Film reviews are not objective statements of fact, Alex Salmond would be the last person to compare himself to Martin Luther King or Richard Doll, and politics is not the same as geology or medical science. But the easiest thing to do for the 40,000 Scots who saw past the media blackout from the British Establishment, the perpetuating falsehoods & re-runs of a trial even from those who should be on our side, is to soundly prove us wrong.
Make sure the SNP don’t let this mandate slip away as they did the 2016 mandate. Demand that they prioritise independence, because Scotland cannot recover fully without the powers of independence unless England explicitly wishes it – and in the process, proving to Soft Nos that maybe we cannae dae it alone. Bring that referendum, stare down the intransigent UK Government that wouldn’t even respect its own laws let alone the democracy of what it clearly views as a county council, & deliver a choice to the people of Scotland in what has, indeed, turned out to have been a bit more than a political generation.
Because if you can’t, then you might finally feel the scales fall from your eyes. You might recognise that we had genuine fears, and watch them come to pass. You might even come on to our side.
But what good does that do us… unless you’re willing to do something about it?
Prove us wrong.
Our country depends on it.
I don’t want to be singing the John Carpenter blues in 5 year’s time.