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John Carpenter's

 

Q&A with Anne Billson 

Anne Billson is a novelist, film critic and photographer who has lived in London, Tokyo, Paris and currently lives in Brussels. Her highly-praised fiction includes Suckers (an astutely satirical vampire novel set in 80's London), Stiff Lips (a spooky modern ghost story set in Notting Hill) and The Ex (a supernatural detective story.)

Anne has also written several non-fictional works dedicated to film. These include the Spoilers and Anne Billson on Film collections of film reviews and columns for The Guardian. She has also written monographs on Screen Lovers, Michael Caine, Let The Right One In, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and...John Carpenter's The Thing, which, at the time of writing, is the only English language published book dedicated to the analysis and appreciation of our favourite film.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-22Thing-22-BFI-Modern-Classics/dp/0851705669

In addition to her blog linked above, you can also catch up with Anne via her Twitter feed and her ebooks can be purchased on her Amazon and Smashwords pages.  On the latter, she has very generously given away a highly-entertaining short story describing the events of Sir Ridley Scott's Alien from the point of view of Jones the cat!

We would like to express our warmest gratitude to Anne for participating in this Q&A and for sharing her contemporary reflections on Carpenter's masterpiece during its auspicious 30th anniversary year.


Stuart Cohen asks:


Q. Thirty years on, the film itself hasn't changed, not one frame. The Sixty Four Thousand Dollar Question is, what has?

A. Film critics, audiences and the way we watch and write about films have all changed.


Q. You were one of the fortunate few who saw the movie on a big screen during it's original run. Many of the participants in this forum were not so lucky, having been initially exposed to THE THING via VHS pan and scan tapes or even (gasp) the network television version we had nothing to do with. Care to comment on the large screen/ small screen dynamic?

A. I'm still amazed people think that watching a film on a tiny computer screen or even a telephone is in any way equivalent to watching it on the big screen. It's not just a matter of size (though there is that) but when you see a film at the cinema the experience is immersive, you're forced to give it 100% attention. I just know when I'm recommending certain films to certain friends, they'll play them on a computer or small TV, and they'll watch with only one eye on the screen, and they'll miss important stuff, and then they'll end up telling me, "Oh, that wasn't so great." OF COURSE IT WASN'T SO GREAT, YOU LUMMOXES!
 
My first viewing of The Thing coincided with the period I began to be aware of ratios, and realised that widescreen films shown on TV (which of course was the only way I'd hitherto seen a lot of them) had not just half the image missing, but had been re-framed and re-edited. I began taking an enormous amount of pleasure in the size of the screen and especially films shown in 70mm; the ones I remember being particularly knocked out when I saw them around this time include Once Upon a Time in the West (which I saw in the cinema for the first time), Mad Max 2 (that bit at the beginning where the small screen opens out into the wide!), Blade Runner, Scarface, Heaven's Gate and The Right Stuff. Those last two, you really REALLY have to see on the biggest screen you can find. On the small screen they're completely different films, a bit underwhelming.

So The Thing, for me, was always an immersive experience. I didn't see it unspoiled - I'd heard and read in advance about some of the special effects - but as we fans know, the special effects (though magnificent) are only part of the story, and it was the story that kept me gripped, not the effects. But I knew straightaway when I saw it on television that it just wasn't the same film, seen that way. The fact that it works in a pan-and-scan version at all is, I think, down to the storytelling and characterisation. You don't get the beauty and elegance of the film, you don't get the amped-up tension from Carpenter's framing and use of widescreen and sound design, you don't get the sheer shock value of the special effects, and I seem to recall it's not even clear what's happening in a couple of scenes, but you do get the story and the characters, which somehow manage to survive all the cropping and reediting and shrinking. So I think that's what has always hooked people. If there's someone here who first got to know the film on pan-and-scan but who only later saw it on a big screen, I would love to know what their reaction was. Did it seem like watching a completely different film?


 
XidiouX asks:

Q. It seems to me that, with John Carpenter's The Thing and Ridley Scott's Alien now both thirty-somethings, that in the intervening decades since both of these seminal movies were released, there has been a distinct lack of subsequent, noteworthy developments in movie monster cinema, in particular of the alien kind. I'm not sure whether to feel vindicated or disappointed. Would you agree? If so, why do you think this might be? If not, which more recent alien movie monsters have captured your imagination?

A. I reckon zombies and vampires have eaten most of the aliens, since they seem to be the movie monsters of choice nowadays, though I hear the Syfy Channel is busy churning out cheap and cynical shark/octopus/crocodile combos. Perhaps contemporary film-makers are unsure what form an alien monster might take - ever since I first saw Star Trek I've always felt a bit frustrated by the assumption that alien lifeforms are essentially humanoid, which is one of the reasons why I like the body snatcher films and The Thing - at least if the monster deliberately takes human form or occupies a human body it makes more sense that it would look humanoid.

Personally, the standard Roswell alien look (as seen in Communion, Close Encounters, The X-Files etc) never scared me to begin with and now bores me rigid, and film-makers haven't tried very hard to develop it in interesting ways. Beyond that, the idea of a monster seems to be stuck at variations on the giant lizard/tentacled cephalopod/amorphous blob or digital inkblot. CGI should have liberated imaginations, but instead it seems to have hobbled them. I suspect film-makers are tackling stories the wrong way round - trying to think of a cool-looking monster and then shaping plot and characters around that, whereas it might be more interesting to do it the other way round, working out logically what kind of a monster would thrive in a given environment or situation, and why.


Neither of my two favourite recent monster movies have been about extra-terrestrials, but perhaps could point the way forward since they each put a new spin on an old monster format; Troll Hunter because it resuscitates a legendary creature that hasn't yet been done to death, and Splice because it's as much about the emotions of the creature's creators as about the creature itself. I think that holds true for any alien monster - the best ones (like the Id Monster in Forbidden Planet) act as a kind of mirror or magnifying glass for human behaviour.


Q. At the time of its release, The Thing was interpreted by many people as an allegory for HIV/AIDS, one of the major real horrors of the day. Here we are, thirty years on and still puzzling over the meaning and significance of this movie. Do you think that there are any contemporary concerns to which The Thing is especially applicable? Do you think that it touches on any universal aspects of the human experience in a sufficiently insightful way as to guarantee its perpetual, evergreen relevance?

A. The best horror movies are interactive in that they don't shove one particular metaphor down your throat, but leave audiences free to pick and mix their own interpretations. A film that offers too much closure - which lays out its subtext for everyone to see instead of leaving it for the audience to decide, or which explains everything and ties off all the plot threads before a tidy ending - doesn't live long in people's imaginations, because there's no room left for us to incorporate our own fears or wonder "what if". It needs some unhealed wounds for the bacteria of longevity to thrive.
 
One of the reasons The Thing still holds up is that it's as much about the people as the monster, and its philosophical concerns are as relevant as ever - what is identity, what makes us human as opposed to simply the imitation of a human, how can we trust our fellow human beings and so on. And, like all horror films, at some level it's about those things we don't like to talk about (or at least not in a way that isn't jokey or superficial) - sex and death. Disease (which would include Aids) is in there too.  
 
As Kim Newman has pointed out, most of today's horror movies aren't really about anything other than how shitty people are to each other, but the Big Concerns of Our Age that surely OUGHT to be finding their way into subtexts nowadays are a) economic meltdown b) ecological meltdown c) eternal youth (including cosmetic surgery and body horror) and d) pandemics, such as swine or bird flu. I don't know if any of those could be applied directly to The Thing, but you could certainly make an argument for at least three of them.



Q. You mentioned to me that you are "very interested in the structure of the film, of the way the screenplay, casting and performances set up the characters, build tension and so forth. Also, the technical aspects such as camera angles, use of the widescreen format and sound design, all in which I've become increasingly interested since I wrote the book." I’d like to ask you to elaborate on this. How do you think that these technical aspects of the film succeeded in enhancing the mood/atmosphere and in reflecting the narrative?

A. John Carpenter is a master at the use of widescreen to amp up tension - Halloween is a case study in the way it leaves plenty of dark spaces for the spectator to ogle nervously. He repeats this technique with The Thing, where he really uses the frame, and the depth of field, where we can see the creature's remains oozing, for example, or a figure passes in front of the camera, too rapidly to be identified. But I think the most impressive thing is the way he arranges a bunch of several people within the frame, especially in the autopsy scenes. He does it so elegantly and naturally you barely notice, but it's a measure of the directing and acting that everyone looks as though they should be there.
 
By today's standards, it's what Carpenter doesn't do that is extraordinary. The pace isn't frantic but measured, almost leisurely, but the story sets up such irresistible hooks that you're eager to see the mystery solved, but at the same time (I still remember this from my first viewing) rather dreading what that might involve - it's great storytelling, and gives us time to get to know the characters without having them say things like, "Hi, I'm a palaeontologist". The editing is steady and never devolves into chopped liver - you get a good long look at those special effects, whereas nowadays, I suspect, they'd be sliced into an impressionistic flurry.

 

Q. One thing I fail to understand at all is the dismissive nature of many of the reviews of The Thing at the time it was released. I can understand why someone might not like it, but I fail to comprehend how a spectacle that was, for me, so traumatic to experience, could be shrugged of by anyone anymore than they could shrug off, say, being hit by a car. Does cinema still have that power to completely overwhelm the viewer and, if so, which (other) films have had such an effect on you?

A. Critics seem to pride themselves in remaining unaffected by the films they're watching, and they tend to watch horror films at ten thirty in the morning, surrounded by other critics, which isn't the ideal situation in which to see a horror movie - I bet if they were obliged to watch horror movies after midnight, on their own, their opinions would change. The only reaction they permit themselves is a sort of wry intellectual amusement, and if they have been traumatised they're never going to admit it. Admitting that you have been disturbed by a horror film is tantamount to admitting that the film works, and that you yourself are vulnerable to the same fears as everyone else, and since part of horror's power is primal rather than intellectual, it's preferable to remain detached rather than start digging around in your own psyche, maybe uncovering things about yourself you'd prefer not to have to confront. Flippant dismissal, with or without sneering, enables critics to demonstrate in public not only that the film hasn't got to them, but that they're regular human beings and NOT AT ALL sick or twisted or frightened.
 
Also, critics in 1982 were pretty much a middle-aged or even elderly bunch; this was before the advent of youth-skewed film magazines such as Empire, before internet and blogging, and the nearest you had to an alternative criticial viewpoint was in listings magazines like Time Out or City Limits. (I don't know about City Limits, but the Time Out reviewer - the very wonderful David Pirie - dismissed The Thing as an ineptly plotted remake of Alien.)
 
The older you get, of course, the less you're likely to be traumatised by a film, simply because you're more likely to have seen it all before. It's no coincidence that your films fétiches - the films that mean so much to you regardless of their objective quality - are the ones you saw in childhood and adolescence, when you literally had NEVER seen anything like that before. On the other hand, I'm quite relieved not to be traumatised regularly - there's only so much trauma you can take. When I was small I was freaked out on a regular basis by Bambi, Lost Weekend, The Red House, Roma ore 11 (Italian neo-realism!) and Sammy Going South - not necessarily the entire films, but scenes or images which etched themselves into my brain.
 
Since then I've had the breath knocked out of me by Charge of the Light Brigade, Night of the Living Dead, Theatre of Blood (I know it was funny, but I wasn't expecting the gore), Taxi Driver, Grave of the Vampire, Scanners, Videodrome, The Terminator, Aliens (more than Alien) and, of course, The Thing.
 
More recently - Ringu and Kairo scared me silly, and The Descent made me hyperventilate. And I found Let the Right One In terrifying - though I was more scared of the bullies than of the vampire.

 

Q. Do you think that The Thing is now widely appreciated to the extent which it deserves and, if so, what factors do you think have contributed to its rehabilitation?

A. There's a broader tolerance for genre fare now than there was 30 years ago, probably because there has been an increase in younger critics weaned on the likes of Star Wars. But the tolerance is itself often quite narrow-minded - it's notable how many of the so-called fanboy generation will go easy even on the lamest of superhero movies while happily eviscerating fantasy blockbusters they probably haven't even seen, like Harry Potter or Twilight.
 
But I should point out that when I first saw The Thing, I wasn't a film writer but a member of the paying public.  Most of the people I knew who'd seen and loved it were also members of the public. So it's not as though our opinion changed; we always did think the film was great, and I'm sure we weren't the only ones - but back then we were in no position to make our opinion heard. So it might just be a question of the people who liked the film getting older and gradually carving out positions for themselves in the media, and then finally reaching the stage where they were able to write or talk about how great they thought it was.


 
Q. In your blog, you expressed disappointment with the prequel. Are you prepared, if reluctantly, to accept it as canon?

A. I'm not really a fan of the concept of "canon". In fact, I'm not at all sure what it is. Is it a fancy word for franchise? In any case, I think a film should stand or fall on its own merits, whether or not the rules of "canon" have been broken. And I'm afraid I don't think the prequel succeeds on any level. Then again, I think the only way a satisfying sequel could be made now would be if it were a low-budget indie production based on the people-talking-in-a-room principle with minimal special effects. The demands of a big budget production would undercut any potentially interesting narrative developments. (I get the impression that a number of my complaints about the prequel's screenplay were actually addressed in earlier drafts of it.)


Q. Have you played the 2002 Computer Artworks game or read any of the Dark Horse comics? If so, what did you think of them?

A. I've read some of the comics, but while there were a few interesting ideas I found the imagery and stories for the most part disappointingly uninspired, and the characters unengaging.
 
I started playing the game once but got bored, though it should be pointed out I am so crap at games I usually get stuck at embarrassingly early stage - in LA Noire I couldn't even drive the car straight and kept knocking bystanders over, and then I never got further than the roof, because I couldn't work out how to catch the guy. But most of all, I am wary of spending too much time on games since I am too easily addicted and would turn into one of those people who die of starvation because they forget to eat and drink. I haven't finished many games, but each of these titles speaks of sleepless nights, non-existent social life and a full complement of cheat-codes: The Lurking Horror, The Legend of Zelda, Quake, Unreal Tournament, Mortal Kombat: Deception.



Q. In relation to the above, although The Thing's 'Expanded Universe' has not grown to anything resembling the proportions of other franchises', do you like to see official (at least in the sense of being licenced by Universal Pictures) further explorations of The Thing concept and mythos? If not, should Carpenter's film have remained an isolated, singular event?
 
A. I don't mind "further explorations" if they truly are explorations or elaborations. I've written elsewhere that one of the themes I would love to have seen explored or even just touched on in the prequel (or in any sequel that might be made) is the question of at what point one turns into a Thing. How long does the host human have a toehold in the mutating organism? Is there a human residue left in the finished simulacrum, because if it's a perfect replica surely the personality is replicated too? You know, a few philosophical questions thrown out there - not discussed in dialogue, but hinted at in the course of the action.
 
But if it's just a question of remakes and rip-offs, with innumerable sequels in which the The Thing is reduced to a sort of Jason-cum-Freddy bogeyman which morphs into lots of different forms while slicing and dicing its way through the cast - what's the point? Been there, seen that - Freddy already did that morphing thing in the Nightmare on Elm Street films.



Q. In your book, you acknowledge Mark Kermode, whom I know from interviews I've seen with him is also a huge fan of The Thing. As such, I'd like to ask in what ways he helped with/contributed to the project?

A. I can't remember any details, but Mark was probably one of the people with whom I'd had an interesting conversation about The Thing. I do know that both he and Kim Newman know everything there is to know about horror and science fiction, and they are both very generous with their time and ideas.
 

Q. What do you think about The Thing From Another World in comparison with John Carpenter's The Thing?

A. Completely different movies! Same source material, but different approach, different dynamic, different monsters. I like The Thing From Another World, but it never affected me the way The Thing did. On the other hand, I expect if I'd seen it as a child it would have scared the shit out of me. But it has a couple of amazing images (which of course Carpenter recycled) and an unforgettable last line.


Q. Has The Thing, to any extent, 'infected' your own fictional creations?

A. To a degree, in that everyone in my novels is wearing a mask, especially in The Ex, which is a ghost story in which nothing and no-one - not even the ghost - is what it appears to be. Also, I've always liked the way characters in The Thing react to the most extraordinarily horrific visions with banal comments such as "You've got to be fucking kidding"; I like the way people have the capacity to drag even the most momentous, extraordinary events down to their own level - it's stupid, but at the same time quite admirable and very human. So it would make sense that if, for example, vampires were taking over London, you would be more preoccupied with work, or boyfriends, or neighbour noise, like the narrator of my vampire novel Suckers. I think it was Stendhal who was there when Napoleon invaded Russia, but his diary entries around that time are mostly about his toothache.
 
 
Q. Where would you rank The Thing in your list of favourite films? If it isn't number one, what is, and why?

A. It now resides in that special place BEYOND number one; it's not so much a favourite film as a part of me. I can't tell you what Number One is because I don't know, but if it were a question of what I'd take to watch on a desert island, The Thing probably wouldn't be it because I probably know it well enough to play most of it in my head.


Q. Why the lips?

A. They're photographs of me I had taken for an art college slideshow in the 1970s. The original brief was to find images to accompany Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, in which the vocalist uses a technique called Sprechstimme, somewhere between singing and speaking. So my original idea was to have close-ups of very red lips in a Pierrot-type whiteface, then I did some black and white photos too, and added props to provide variety. Basically, they're striking images, the copyright belongs to me and, as someone recently pointed out, the mouth motif provides a unifying theme that links all my fiction and non-fiction together.


Q. Very broadly, I'd like to ask you about possible gender politics underlying The Thing. Do you think, today, that The Thing is metaphorically female? You suggested this in your book and the same conclusion has been arrived at by many male commentators.

A. If the Thing is metaphorically female, I don't think this was a conscious choice by the film-makers - which is as it should be. It's just one reading of the film, but I think a hugely entertaining reading which makes a lot of sense. Maybe the prequel (which after all had introduced a leading female character into the virtually all-male environment) should have taken that idea and run with it, but it's clear they didn't think about gender politics at all. In the early 1980s, which is when the prequel is set, there is NO WAY an all-male group would have accepted a young, unknown female scientist as a leader. While there may have been the odd enlightened soul, the others would at best have been patronising and barely allowed her to speak; at worst they would have been aggressive and almost certainly have subjected her to sexual harassment - a concept which at that time had yet to be identified and condemned, but which until fairly recently was tacitly accepted as just one of the routine perils of being a woman in a predominantly male workplace.
 
I like to think of The Thing itself as a bit like the Jean Arthur character in Only Angels Have Wings (the Howard Hawks film that Carpenter said he wishes he could have remade - see the Carpenter interview on my blog) in the way she infiltrates the all-male milieu with her girly ways, not understanding their rules, upsetting the status quo, causing a kerfuffle and setting them against one another - but a Jean Arthur who reacts with tentacles and teeth when she doesn't get what she wants.



Q. The Thing fanbase is, like the Outpost#31 station, perhaps needing more of a woman's touch. From a female Thing fan's perspective, is there anything us guys should know?
 
A. Hmmm. Depends what you mean by a woman's touch, so perhaps you should start by asking yourself what that really is. Does it mean decorating Outpost #31 with frilly curtains and vases of flowers? Or suggesting the best way to get rid of a Thing would be to boil it, bake it, stew it, fry it? Or appealing to emotion rather than logic? Or something else entirely? I think female perspectives can be as many and varied as male ones, so maybe that's what you should bear in mind.

Maybe it would be fun to write a story from the viewpoint of the female Thing (I know Peter Watts has already written a story from the alien's perspective.) But perhaps you should think twice before calling someone a "cheating bitch". Maybe what happens in The Thing is MacReady's cosmic punishment for abusing his Chess Wizard.

 
 
CplFerro asks:


Q. Are there any real-life organisms you find as metaphorically compelling as this imaginary one?

A. I think any real-life organism would probably be fascinating if you examined it in detail, but I'm slightly obsessed by the idea of things that live at the bottom of one of those ocean trenches, where "the water pressure is the equivalent of having about 50 jumbo jets piled on top of you" so they're all warped out of shape and have lamps hanging off their heads and so forth. Also, I like the idea of stuff you can't see with the naked eye - viruses, bacteria and so on, and I like the idea of aliens that behave like those. I guess the Thing is a sort of virus. If mankind were ever to stumble across life on another planet, I'm not sure we would even recognise it as life, because it would be so far outside our frame of reference.  

 


 
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