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The Thing is…

September 1st, 2003

BY MICHELE GENDELMAN

When first asked to write about the movie that most influenced my life, I groaned. My cinephilia began on a small black-and-white Zenith with the Early Show every afternoon, Creature Feature on weekends, and Saturday matinees at the neighborhood popcorn palace. Add the film history classes in high school and college, graduate school in film and television studies, plus the last twenty years seeing no fewer than seven movies per week, and even a lowball estimate shoots the 10,000 mark. Pick one?!

Okay, The Thing from Another World. When I first saw it, in the late Fifties, I was a kindergartener in a grimy Garden State exurb of Gotham where my dad taught high school while pursuing his doctorate at NYU. We were just scraping by on hand-me-downs and mac-and-cheese dinners, but we were blessedly within broadcast range of the Metromedia network’s New York station and its magnificent library of old movies.

Among them was The Thing. I had, of course, seen other movies before, but this was the very first one I was able to call to mind after my initial viewing. Why this particular film? Well, I reckon ’cause it like to scared me half to death, to borrow the aesthetic lexicon of my Alabaman in-laws.

Released theatrically in 1951, The Thing is considered the first mainstream film to depict the arrival of an extra-terrestrial life form on Earth. But this eponymous alien is no warm and fuzzy E.T. tracking and snacking on Reese’s Pieces. The big ugly bastard wants to chow down on Homo sapiens while breeding an army of big ugly bastards to conquer the universe (in Narrative Studies this is referred to as the “Humans as K-rations” sub-genre of Science Fiction). The tale unfolds with an economy and array of suspense-building techniques that still leave me breathless. And scared. Each time I watch it I figure I do worse damage to my cardiac system than three decades of cigarettes did.

A synopsis: a crew of wisecracking flyboys stationed in Alaska is sent to a polar scientific research facility to investigate a UFO report. The crashed “flying saucer” is destroyed, but its humanoid occupant is thrown clear and frozen fast in a block of ice.
After bringing it to base camp, two factions arise: the scientists, led by a double-breasted-blazer-wearing physicist (apparently, double-breasted blazers were once de rigueur in the Arctic), who seek to “communicate with this superior being,” and the wary G.I.s, who insist upon keeping the eight-foot-tall creature on ice until HQ radios instructions.

But the creature — the Thing — is inadvertently thawed and, upon re-animation, seeks its favorite beverage, mammalian blood. It drains a sled dog, then bellies up for a double shot of preoccupied scientist. The Thing is also asexual (no wonder it’s hostile) and composed of vegetable matter. “Some sort of super-carrot,” muses one character.

While the Thing is locked outside in the deep freeze, the alpha scientist in the blazer determines to keep it alive at all cost, including the sacrifice of his fellow humans. Figurative and literal chills abound as the Thing cuts the electrical power to try and turn the Earthlings into bloodsicles. So, how do you kill a giant vegetable that bullets and cold can’t? “Boil it. Fry it. Stew it. Bake it,” offers the wisecracking gal of the team, a character whose admixture of guts, humor, brains, and perfectly pressed chinos provided the standard by which I’d later measure feminine sexual attractiveness.

Her plan works. They trap the Thing, incinerate it into something resembling my first attempt at ratatouille, and humanity is saved. But the audience is nevertheless cautioned to “Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking! Keep watching the skies!”

Watch the skies? I was barely able to watch the screen after hearing the music under the opening credits, punctuated by an eerie theremin “ooh-wooooh-ooh-ooh” that would be appropriated by every sci-fi film for the next thirty years. By the time the Thing thawed, I was peering out through the little slits between the fingers I’d clamped over my face, yet eagerly awaiting that next frisson of fright.

Myriad scholarly articles have pondered our lurid fascination with horror films. They all boil down to pretty much the same notion: scary movies allow the audience to subliminally negotiate the very real terrors of both human society and the physical world. It’s Dracula and the Blob standing in for drunk drivers, cancer, and earthquakes.

I believe this is true, but in my case the horror genre also provides a chance to experience something denied me throughout childhood. That doctorate my old man earned? It was in psychology, with a specialization in adjustive behavior and performance. Translation: safety expert. With skateboards, bicycles, and tree-climbing thus verboten, my only source for an adrenaline rush was scary movies.
The husband says my idea of a dream vacation is a week in Safety Land, where they strap you into rides that don’t move. But when it comes to my taste for Halloween-masked serial killers, chest-bursting aliens, and flesh-eating zombies, he admiringly refers to me as the “Evil Knievel of spectators.”

Go, rent The Thing. Eighty-nine minutes later you’ll be watching those with me. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Movie Issue, Gendelman | Link to this Entry

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