Monday, January 27, 2014

Plague Town: Wandering Off In The Wrong Direction

One useful way to think about narrative is in terms of travel - starting at one point and ending at another. It can be movement through time or space or both, but most stories are journeys of a sort, with a beginning and an end. Not all of them by any means, but enough that the decision to break that assumption works as a stylistic choice precisely because it disrupts our expectations. How you choose to tell a story is just as important as the story you tell because it shapes how the audience will be able to understand the information you put in front of them. Strongly linear narratives can make a story feel inexorable, overwhelming. Fractured or non-linear narratives can be disorienting and dreamlike. Cyclical narratives reinforce ideas about inevitability. Narratives that focus on discrete moments over causal connection create a feeling of isolation. In general, good storytelling marries a narrative style to theme and imagery, either in complement or contrast.

The biggest problem with Plague Town is that it feels directionless and confused, both in narrative and tone.

The film opens with a woman noisily giving birth, and there's something oddly fraught about it - a woman outside asks a priest if "this could be the one", as he walks into the house, and the mother is refusing to go through with the birth. Not the "I don't think I can do this" borne of the exhaustion attending regular childbirth, more of a "I don't want this to happen." Which, if you think about the Catholic church's stance on abortion and birth control isn't really all that much of a surprise either. She hasn't had a whole lot of agency up until now, why should this be any different? The father just stands by helplessly, tending the fire. It's when the child is born that things start getting really strange. The priest takes one look at the child, whose cries seem pitched a little lower than you'd expect from a newborn infant, and he pulls a pistol out of his bag. The priest is going to kill the kid, which is very much not in line with church policy. The child's father, desperate, says "he's one of God's creatures, isn't he?"

The grim-faced priest says "I don't think so."

Given everything that came before, that last line is exactly the line you'd expect in this situation. But then things take a turn for the unexpected, and the priest's plans for the child are foiled in violent fashion. Jump forward 14 years, to a group of people standing by the side of the road.

(And this is the first real indication of the weird narrative and tonal inconsistencies that are going to plague [ha!] the movie. We know it's a 14-year leap not because the establishing events are appended with a title reading "14 years later", but because all of the above establishing events - the attempted execution of a baby by a priest - are preceded by a title reading "14 years ago", prompting the question "Fourteen years before what?" Well, before a bunch of people standing by the side of the road, that's what. We never really get a chance to catch up to events or really take in their implications, and just as we sort of have a grip on the thing, it's off to another scene and something else happening, trailing unanswered questions in its wake.)

These people - our protagonists - seem like a bunch of strangers waiting for the bus, and they are, after a fashion. We're introduced to Dr. Jerry Monohan and his girlfriend/intended fiancee Annette, his two daughters, sisters who couldn't be less alike - Molly, all sullen and moody and wearing black (and apparently on some kind of medication for unspecified "mental issues"), and Jessica, all perky and bitchy and spoiled and blonde. They're sniping at each other and at Annette. Rounding out our little group is Robin, a young Englishman to whom Jessica had taken a fancy about three days previous. They're on a trip through rural Ireland, a trip planned as a family-bonding vacation, but the daughters aren't having it. Dad wants to marry Annette, his daughters are vehement about her not being their mother and equally vehement about each others' flaws, Molly just wants to be left alone, Jessica wants to go someplace with soft beds and room service and not be anywhere near anyone but Robin, who's pretty obviously along for the ride in the hopes of helping to recolonize the United States via Jessica's pants. So we have this snarled tangle of relationships and hinted-at past recriminations and long-held grudges tramping through the Irish wilderness in hopes of sight-seeing opportunities.

Needless to say, things go from bad to worse when all of their yelling at each other gets them turned around, and by the time they resolve to just head back to town, they've missed the last bus for the day. Soon enough, they discover somebody's car, luggage intact, left by the side of the road. To their credit, everyone's a little creeped out by this. On the other hand, for us it has absolutely no mystery whatsoever because by this point we've been shown a flashback of the car's occupants being attacked by unseen assailants. Much like the "14 years ago" title, it answers a question we haven't even been given the opportunity to ask, and so what should be a feeling of "I don't like this" turns into "wait, what? Oh, okay." It's not mysterious, just confusing. So they take shelter in the car while Dad, and then Robin, go looking for a phone. And yes, you guessed it, they've all managed to wander into the vaguely defined "town" of the title (I get that rural communities aren't organized like urban ones, but for a movie titled Plague Town, there's very little sense of place - scenes occur in isolated patches of buildings with no apparent narrative or geographical connection to each other), and things in this town are Not Quite Right. I mean, we know this already, insofar as putting children down at birth was at one time a routine occurrence, and what's supposed to happen now is we're supposed to discover what that means.

And this is where Plague Town blows it - the audience's opportunity for discovery, understanding, and even emotional engagement with a mood is constantly undermined. Scenes cut away too soon, or linger longer than they should, leaving us confused and dispelling any tension that accumulates. Important exposition occurs in the background and around the edges, so it feels like we're slightly behind the movie itself, always getting there just a little too late and straining to make sense of things. This wouldn't necessarily be a bad approach if we were ever given the opportunity to piece things together for ourselves, but we aren't. Stuff just keeps happening and happening and it's hard to make sense of it all, if there is even sense to make. There's something to be said for dropping the viewers into the middle of someone else's nightmare and allowing it to defy explanation because the protagonists aren't given that luxury, but it loses something when the audience is never really given the chance to put any of the pieces together themselves.

It's one thing for the protagonists to be kept completely in the dark, but if you're not going to explain anything, then you'd better make the experience of being immersed in these situations really intense and upsetting and scary, give them real momentum. Momentum in this film is constantly being disrupted as the focus shifts between three or four viewpoints, and along with the narrative shifts come tonal shifts. It feels like the filmmakers were trying for black humor, but instead alternated moments of unrelenting violence with glib, goofy bits that just didn't fit and only ended up deflating whatever tension had built to that point. So we're left, at any given moment, not only not knowing what to think, but also not knowing what to feel. New information just keeps getting piled on and piled on without any way to really connect it clearly to anything else, things happen in isolation without connecting to the larger movie, so it feels sometimes like the filmmakers came up with a bunch of scenes, shot the scenes, and then forgot that the scenes need to tell a larger story.

It's too bad, because there are flashes of a much better movie here. There are some great, tense moments as the antagonists are stalking the protagonists, and there's an extended sequence between Robin, a woman, and the woman's granddaughter that is as deliriously intense as the family dinner scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Some of the violent scenes are oddly stilted in a way that robs them of any dramatic effectiveness (along with cheap makeup effects that don't hold up to close attention), but some are really unsparing and suggest a film that could have been much scarier if played with a completely straight face. The protagonists aren't just ciphers, either. It's not a character study, but they talk and act like real people for the most part. The arguing between Molly, Jessica, and Annette is especially, painfully, believable - they really talk like people who know each other just well enough to know where to stick the knives and have enough long-buried resentments to want to do so. Jerry is a man trying to bring his family back together, and Robin is just some dude who's gotten in way over his head. We don't know a ton about them, but we know enough to care about what happens to them.

But these moments and strengths are few and far between, scattered throughout the movie, and what remains is so muddled, that it's hard to come away from watching the movie with a clear picture of what it was you just watched. The final scene tells us what happens to at least one of the protagonists, and then pulls away to reveal…a bunch of trees. For no apparent reason. They don't give us a sense of place, they aren't in any contrast to what we've just seen, they don't bring anything full circle. They're just a bunch of trees. And that's kind of the movie in a nutshell. You're trying to listen to someone tell a story, but they keep getting distracted, and they lose track, and they start telling another story instead or get ahead of themselves and just when you're waiting for them to get to the end, they sort of wander off as if they forgot they were telling a story at all.

IMDB entry
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Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Banshee Chapter: The Sum Of A Bunch Of Parts

For me, a big part of what interests me in horror is premise. A good premise can scare the shit out of you before you even read the story or watch the movie. I remember my father describing the basic premise of Edgar Allan Poe's The Cask of Amontillado to me as a 10-year-old child, and the idea scared me so much that it was years before I could bring myself to read the story. The opening title card to The Blair Witch Project gave me the same chill. A strong enough idea sets the stage for the story itself. It's not always necessary, but it can be attractive. And I have weaknesses for specific types of stories - secret histories, utterly unknowable forces from beyond space and time, and people investigating mysterious events among them. So when a story whose premise touches on all of those things, using real-world events as a touchstone comes along, I am there.

Unfortunately, The Banshee Chapter, in its inability to commit to a narrative approach or a coherent story, squanders an excellent premise.

It is nominally the story of journalist Anne Roland, who is looking into the mysterious disappearance of her college friend, struggling writer James Hirsch. James was writing a book about the aftermath of a series of clandestine government drug trials, and in the course of his research managed to obtain a sample of one of the drugs used. As foolish young people are wont to do, he has a friend of his videotape him while he tries the drug (a powerful hallucinogen), and it starts off as a pretty mild trip - James hears some weird sounds, okay fine - before things begin getting very weird. James sees mysterious figures watching him, approaching his house. The radio starts playing some sort of strange sequence of tones - tones his friend can hear as well. Then a figure flashes by the camera, and all is chaos.

Chaos that ends with a stuttering, noisy image of James, his face slack and deathly white, eyes totally black, mouth streaming with blood. And then he's gone.

What Anne discovers in the course of her research is that once upon a time, the U.S. government did a series of experiments with different hallucinogens in an effort to discover some kind of mind control drug they could use in interrogation and counterespionage. At least one of these substances had a curious effect - everyone who took it saw the same thing, and felt like something was watching them back. Something went terribly wrong, and the research was buried. It appears as though James got in touch with some people who had dug it back up again, and this leads Anne on a trip down the rabbit hole, as she becomes involved with some very strange people, and sees some very strange things, suggesting that something is watching us from just beyond our perception, perception that can be shifted by just the right alteration in brain chemistry. So we've got secret science, horrors from beyond reality, and people who live on the fringes of everyday life, changed by the terrible knowledge they have. This is the sort of premise that gets me on board right away. Unfortunately, the execution of this premise fails on multiple levels.

The problems begin with how the movie leaps from one narrative conceit to another - it opens with an establishing title card, and then cycles through actual archival footage, (obviously) faked archival footage, modern found-footage home recordings, all of which finally shifts to a conventional narrative style, all within the first three minutes of the movie. There's no central framing device - there's voiceover at the beginning from the protagonist as if this is all being told in retrospect, but given the events of the movie, that doesn't make sense. One character is introduced through 1970s-style retrospective footage, like we're watching a docudrama, even though we aren't. There's footage of old experiments scattered throughout the film to no apparent purpose, because it's established early on that Bad Shit Happened, and revealing what happened bit by bit doesn't actually add any new information to the overall story. Everything we see in these experiments is either supported by earlier scenes or doesn't add any specific information - just "whoo, this was some weird shit." Which we already know. There's one bit at the end that's supposed to be a surprise, I guess, but it's heavily foreshadowed, doesn't really add anything meaningful to the story, and isn't really a reversal or reveal of anything surprising. Scenes throughout the rest of the movie hop from being shot in a conventional omniscient style to being shot from a found-footage style using phone cameras for no apparent reason, sometimes shifting within a single scene. It draws from about three or four different styles of storytelling, but never establishes a rationale for doing so, and this distracts from engagement in the story instead of enhancing it. There's just too much going on cinematically,  so it feels less like a story and more like a bunch of scenes from two or three different movies spliced together on accident.

This piling-on extends to the actual story as well - you've got government drug studies (that really happened), a hallucinogen which provides its users with what feels like a window into an alien world (and is a real drug), and mysterious shortwave radio stations broadcasting cryptic combinations of numbers for no discernible reason (and really exist), but the whole thing lacks a central narrative thesis. Is it about the studies? Is it about this drug? Is it about these mysterious broadcasts? Is it about the mysterious disappearance of this one young man? It ends up being about the mysterious disappearance, but by the time it gets to that point we've already been told about the drug studies and the weird drug, as well as being told outright that the people who took this drug saw something horrifying and traumatizing, so there aren't really any surprises left. The mysterious broadcasts barely figure in at all, and feel shoehorned in as a result. The whole thing feels like it's supposed to be a "person investigating this mysterious thing goes deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole and things get weirder and weirder" story, but everything's pretty much laid out up front, so it's less a journey into the heart of darkness, and more just this person discovering a bunch of stuff we already know. It's not necessarily a problem that the audience has information the characters don't, but in this type of story, you really need the audience to find out stuff along with the characters for it to be effectively scary. There's little to no horror in discovery as a result - oh, sure, some of the details are kind of creepy, but they're revealed haphazardly, and at a point when everything's already sort of going to hell and we know bad shit is happening, so their impact is largely lost.

As if the general narrative incoherence isn't bad enough, the story itself lacks internal consistency. I don't like nitpicking over plot holes or inconsistencies, it feels less like actual criticism and more like a way to appear smarter than the filmmakers. However, if the holes are big enough to take me out of the story, to break my engagement in the moment, then that's a problem. Why does the drug also affect people who haven't taken it? Why is James' friend getting the hard sell from the cops when there's videotaped evidence exonerating him in his friends' disappearance? (And we know there's videotaped evidence because we've seen it.) Why did James' friend also disappear, and why doesn't anyone mention this fact until the end of the movie? Why doesn't Anne recognize "Friends From Colorado" as the title of a book when she's familiar with the author and his work (as she should be, as both she and James were writers)? Anne is supposed to be a journalist, but she has absolutely none of the skepticism or savvy you'd expect of one, and makes really bad decisions not just in all of the places people make bad decisions in horror movies, but also in places where we have every reason to believe that she knows better. It goes way beyond "why aren't these people behaving as perfectly rational actors" territory and into "wait, that actually doesn't make sense" territory, and that further disrupts immersion in the story. At the very beginning, James suggests that the frightening experiences some people have had after taking the drug informs the name of "the chapter" (hence the title), but it's never made clear to what he's referring - is it a chapter of his book? And what do banshees have to do with it? It's a small thing, but it's teased and then never paid off, which contributes to the overall lack of narrative focus.

This lack of believability isn't helped by the acting and dialogue either - people in this movie are exposition generators to a distracting extent. There's a character whose entire purpose in the story is to explain what numbers stations are - and nothing else. He shows up in one scene, tells Anne what numbers stations are, Anne quizzes him about his work for the NSA, he clams up, and he never shows up again. People don't talk to each other in this movie, they tell each other things, if that distinction makes sense. Anne even says stuff out loud when she's alone that nobody ever says out loud when they're alone because it is apparently necessary for us to know these things, and for whatever reason, they aren't communicated through action. The tendency to tell instead of show becomes so literal as to have a character describe the H.P. Lovecraft story From Beyond to another character, when the point of the film is to tell a very similar story. The filmmakers had so little confidence in or connection to their own material that they actually had one of their characters say in essence "hey, this is like this one scary story - scary, huh?" You make a story Lovecraftian by dealing with similar themes or imagery, not by name-dropping H.P. Lovecraft. You couldn't get more "telling" instead of "showing" if you tried.

There are some suitably spooky settings - the house of a Hunter S. Thompson-esque writer/drug casualty, abandoned stretches of McMansions, empty deserts, an old fallout shelter - but they largely go squandered because most of the movie ends up being the protagonist wandering through really dark places with a flashlight, pretty much so that when she turns to shine her light someplace, there can be something standing there that wasn't there before. Most of the horror in this movie ends up being jump scares - sudden appearances of things where there was nothing before, accompanied by some kind of musical sting. Used sparingly, they can be effective, but that's all there is here, used to the point of punctuation. Any given scene in this movie ends up being dialogue, foreshadowing, jump scare, cut to next scene. There's little atmosphere or mood, because we can't really see anything, and everything feels like setup for something icky to pop up out of nowhere. After the first couple of times, it gets tedious and irritating.

And that's finally what's most disappointing to me about The Banshee Chapter, because all of the right parts are there. You've got horrifying science, bizarre drug experiences, and mysterious messages - all of which could be used to tell a story about the secret history of the world (and I am a total sucker for those sorts of stories). You have someone investigating a mystery that brings her into contact with increasingly stranger people and discovering increasingly more horrifying things (and I am a total sucker for those sorts of stories as well) and leads to the realization that there is something out there in the dark, just beyond the veil of reality, waiting for us (which is a very Lovecraftian idea, and yep, total sucker for those sorts of stories as well). This is the perfect premise for a slow-burn story of cosmic horror, where things don't feel quite right and feel even less right as the story goes on until the full weight of implication crashes in on the protagonist (and by extension us) and the true scope of how wrong everything is is revealed. It could be a trip down the rabbit hole into the strange subcultures still lurking in forgotten corners of the country, digging up ugly secrets which in turn hint at even worse lurking in the dark beyond. That it's all based on stuff that actually happened is just absolute cake. There's so much potential here, but the presentation is so slapdash in its cinematography, staging, plotting, and writing that much of what's naturally scary about the material is lost. Instead of a story about the strange secrets stashed in abandoned places, and the horrors to which they point, all we get is halfhearted nods to those things through scattershot exposition, in between the same old interchangeable boogeymen jumping out of the same old interchangeable dark.

IMDB entry
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Available from Amazon Instant Video
Unvailable from Netflix

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Seconds Apart: American Gothic Redux

So for a while I was on a streak of mostly low-budget, down-to-earth, character-focused movies, and almost like some kind of corrective, the next thing that catches my eye is pretty much the opposite of that. It’s stylized not quite to hell and back, but close, and the characters are less people with interior lives, and more products of the film’s conceit. They’re very much characters, but that’s okay. In Seconds Apart, we have a nice, albeit somewhat modest, example of how all of the stuff I've been trumpeting lately can be sacrificed for the sake of mood and feeling.

The movie opens on the sort of adolescent house party to which its attendees would probably refer as a “rager.” Lots of people everywhere, loud music, beer, jollity, that kind of thing.

(No, I didn't go to a lot of those when I was in high school, why do you ask?)

The camera moves pretty quickly to a group of strapping young men sitting around a table, playing quarters and discussing the pubic grooming preferences of what sounds like half of the young women at their school. Sure, it’s shorthand for “these guys are serious assholes and you shouldn't feel bad when they die, which they totally will”, but the transition from “lighthearted fun” to “shithead misogyny” is abrupt enough to make it genuinely off-putting. We leave these future leaders of America to follow another point of view into the party - this one seen through the greenish grain of a handheld video camera (but don’t worry, it’s not a found-footage film) and not received well by the other attendees. Whoever’s holding the camcorder, they’re getting flipped off and people are saying things like “what are you freaks doing here?” Uh-oh.

Soon enough, we’re back to the big men on campus, still drinking and objectifying, until one of them looks up and sees that our two narrative perspectives have converged, in the form of two young men, twins, holding a camcorder on them. Smash cut to darkness as the lights go out suddenly. When the lights come back on, there’s our bros, still talking about women like they’re things, but they’re oddly emotionless, mechanical, and quarters has been replaced by Russian roulette as their game of choice.

Needless to say, it doesn't end well, and we witness the final deaths as a recording that the twins made. A recording they’re watching with some amusement, right before Mom calls them down to dinner.

It all only takes a few minutes of screen time, but it’s a pretty effective statement of the film’s premise - there are these two brothers - Seth and Jonah, suitably Biblical - they’re twins, they’re creepy as fuck, and they make bad things happen by somehow influencing how others perceive the world. Although it's established pretty early on that they’re capable of terrible things through some supernatural means, the movie is ultimately less about their reign of terror and more about their downfall. Things begin to fall apart as the detective investigating the atrocity that opens the movie starts to take an interest in the brothers, while at the same time a new student named Eve meets one of the brothers and takes an interest in him. The attention of these two people drives a wedge between Seth and Jonah (the detective pegs Jonah as "the sensitive one", and Eve, perhaps responding to that, develops an attraction to Jonah as well), and sets a downward spiral in motion.

This downward spiral is chronicled in dramatic fashion. The film is set in places big on atmosphere -big, old houses, Catholic schools full of dark paneling and iconography, graveyards - and the world feels perpetually overcast, even when it’s sunny. The twins are exactly as creepy as you’d expect, doing everything together, sharing a bed, talking cryptically about "feeling it" and "the project", icy, remote and smug. They’re immersed in their own private world to a degree that reveals itself pretty carefully, though an observant viewer will probably twig to what's going on before it's revealed. To the film's credit, it doesn't rely on this reveal as a narrative linchpin, it just adds one more piece to the broader story. As their carefully constructed world crumbles around them, so does their facade as they respond in very different ways to the pressure they're experiencing, underlining the idea that events are separating them. Their parents are strange, too - mannered and oddly affectless, shifting from well-meaning but oblivious to downright unsettling the longer they're on screen, contributing to a mystery that keeps taking odd turns the longer the detective keeps digging - first into the secrets bound to be hidden in any private school, then into the twins’ past.

The end product is one that feels slightly dreamlike at times, not unlike Dead Silence or even the parts of Saw dealing with the retired detective. The dialogue is a little artificial-sounding, but not enough to be annoying - it's just as stylized as the world of the movie needs it to be to keep up the mood. The action is liberally broken up by dream sequences riffing both on what’s currently happening and some horrible event in the detective’s past, making for lots of jarring transitions between the real and unreal. This technique is also put to good effect in other contexts, revealing some of the twins’ past mind-games through shocking flashback, and even some dark wit as scenes of students mourning the deaths at the beginning of the movie cut suddenly to a painting of a sobbing Jesus. There are some serious compositional smarts on display here, if only in flashes.

The movie does a pretty good job of playing fair with the audience - it's not so tightly plotted that everything matters, but very little is gratuitous and much of what seems like affectation ends up serving a larger narrative purpose, and it all pretty much contributes to this overarching feeling of gloom, unease, and faint but pervasive wrongness, punctuated with sudden bursts of violence. What loose ends there are generally work better as loose ends, and it's to the movie's credit that it knows what needs explaining and what doesn't. It’s also not afraid to keep things from being too pat - although the detective is very much the good guy, he’s pretty damaged and other cops don’t take him seriously, and the twins, as monstrous as they are, show glimpses of humanity that suggest less “cackling supervillains” and more “children given the equivalent of a loaded gun.” Almost Carrie by way of Columbine. It never quite does as much with its compositional intelligence and ambiguity as it could - it’s not as smart as it could be, but it’s smarter than I expected it to be.

This same falling-a-little-short means that the film ends a little weaker than I'd like, relying a little too much on cliches associated with confrontation between supernaturally powerful characters and cops with tragic pasts, so it doesn't go out with the bang it could. As movies about enmeshed twins who have a woman come between them go, it's not as disturbing in its imagery or psychologically harrowing as David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (which is one motherfucker of a movie - I saw it in the theaters and was so disturbed by it I haven't been able to revisit it since), but it tells a nicely unsettling story about two creepy boys who can make anyone see what they want them to see, and what happens when they can't extend that same influence to each other anymore.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix (Available on Netflix DVD)

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Thing: Not Of This Earth

According to the weather, there's a lot of snow headed to where I am and the temperature is in the single digits. The first thing that pops into my head in response to this news is "hey, I've never written about The Thing, and I should really do that." I should do that because it's one of my favorite scary movies, and left a big impression on a much younger me when I first watched it.

It all began when I was in seventh grade, and had to dissect various animals in my life sciences class. We did the usual frog and fetal pig, and I was surprisingly unaffected by these, mostly because the internal organs were all recognizable from anatomical diagrams - hearts looked like hearts, lungs looked like lungs, brains looked like brains. But then we got to the starfish. The starfish, once opened, didn't look like anything I'd ever seen before. There weren't so much recognizable organs as…goop. Pink goop, orange goop, gray goop. Weird frilled and fluted structures, obviously living tissue, biological in nature, but not like anything I'd ever seen before. Utterly alien. That's when I started getting grossed out, because I lacked any frame of reference for what I was seeing. Its purpose was familiar, but its structure wasn't, not at all. That same sense of revulsion at something that is both familiar and completely alien powers The Thing, and combined with profound isolation and paranoia, it makes for a singular experience.

It's the story of twelve men posted at a research station in Antarctica. They've got the prickly familiarity of people made to spend far more time with each other than they'd prefer. Imagine the relationship you have with your coworkers, only your job is also your home and theirs, and there's nothing else to do. So you shoot pool, watch videotaped episodes of game shows for the third or fourth time, smoke weed, do what you have to, whatever it is, to keep from losing your shit. Basically, you've got twelve men who are antisocial enough that living in the Antarctic is an option, all crammed into an intensely social situation. It's already a powder keg, and then a dog comes running into camp, chased by a couple of very angry, very scared Norwegians in a helicopter, who are trying their damnedest to kill the dog, even if that means taking out other people as well. It ends badly, with the helicopter exploding and the surviving man getting a bullet through the head in self-defense. The dog is unharmed, and downright friendly.

Needless to say, this is the most exciting thing to happen around camp in months, and it galvanizes the men into action. They plan an expedition to the Norwegian camp to try and find out what the fuck, assuming that it's a case of men going stir-crazy from being stuck in one of the most isolated places on the planet for too long. It could just as easily be these men, chasing their dogs out into the snow with rifles and grenades, finally unhinged by the endless expanse of nowhere. When they get there, the camp is a smoking ruin, full of carnage. Buildings destroyed and dead bodies everywhere. The only clues remaining are a map, a videotape, and a block of ice out of which something large has been extracted…

…and one badly burned body that doesn't appear to be entirely human.

As near as anyone can tell, the Norwegian camp discovered something in the ice and dug it out, and once this is established, things start getting weird. There's the matter of exactly what it was they discovered and the nature of the bizarre, half-human remains discovered at the camp. And what was up with the dog, anyway? They get their answers in the worst possible way when the dog, kenneled with the research stations' own dogs, explodes into petals of fanged flesh and writhing tentacles, pulling the other dogs into itself as it unfolds in a riot of limbs, stalks, and half-formed heads and mouths. The dog isn't a dog, though it can look like one if it needs to, just as the bizarre body on the examining table in the infirmary is both human and inhuman. The Norwegians appeared to have unearthed an ancient alien spacecraft, and with it an organism capable of infecting, assimilating, and mimicking other forms of life.

Just how long was that dog allowed to run loose around camp, anyway?

Now you have twelve men who can barely stand each other under the best of circumstances, stuck in the middle of a raging snowstorm in one of the most isolated places on Earth, and any one of them could be an invasive alien organism. They respond pretty much as you'd expect people in this situation would - by completely losing their shit and turning on each other. That sense of paranoia and seething distrust, set up so well before the other shoe drops, becomes a constant, nervous hum throughout the rest of the film. But what I think really makes The Thing horrifying, instead of just a production of Twelve Angry Men set in subzero temperatures, is the titular creature. It's truly alien - there's no way for the men to communicate with it, let alone reason with it. It has agency and intelligence - it can cover its tracks, it can engage in misdirection, but its agenda is unclear. There's no way to second-guess it because its thoughts (if it even has thoughts) are totally unknowable.

Most importantly, it is truly alien - its biology isn't at all like ours. It has the features of a virus or a parasite, but it's also a singular entity. It doesn't so much infect or colonize people as overwrite them with its own information. Not only is its biology completely different from ours, its relationship to its biology is as well - it doesn't really seem to have a body as we understand it - every cell is an autonomous agent, every part a whole. The result is profoundly repulsive because it casually violates every understanding we have of what it means to have a body. When someone is revealed as no longer being human, the transformations they undergo are those of a creature that has absolutely no comprehension of what our body is for - heads sprout legs and scuttle away like spiders or split into gaping, fanged mouths. In its least disguised forms it is an incomprehensible, wet, red, writhing mass of heads, claws, arms, mouths, eyes, and tentacles, obviously organic but in utter defiance of any sense of form and function we have. In its most basic ways, we know it's supposed to be a living creature, but in equally basic ways, it doesn't make any sense, and its this inability to parse it that makes it disgusting, disturbing…that makes it alien. Just like my youthful examination of the starfish - I knew it was a living creature, but it didn't make any sense to me, and that was much more revolting than the body of something that made sense. Like many of the best stories about alien life in any medium, The Thing has the courage to go beyond the easy idea of "like us, but different" to embrace the idea of "not like us at all in any way, shape, or form", and that's what makes it powerful. Set the incomprehensible loose among the distrustful in the middle of nowhere, and what you get is a nightmare.

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