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Black Lamb

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Another Thing is…

September 1st, 2003

BY DOUG RENNIE

Word was it was scary. Damned scary. Air Force unit hear the North Pole thaws out a Shaq-sized alien, the advance scout for a race of intelligent vegetable-hominoids bent on turning the earth into a fast-food joint. Our blood, their grub.

But I didn’t know this when I stood outside Peabody Elementary School looking toward downtown Santa Barbara in 1952, pulling coins and lint from the pockets of my Lee Huskers. My mental map of horror films traced only the familiar terrain of Thirties classics: the lumbering monster in Frankenstein, the unintentional high camp of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, the curiously bobbing hat atop the Invisible Man — farcical monsters that elicited only squeaks of faux fright and excited fidgeting.

But this new film from Howard Hawks, The Thing from Another World, would change all that. “Coldly terrifying,” said the newspaper ad. But hey, I’d cut my teeth on the soon-to-be-outlawed-by-Congress EC horror comics.

Bring. It. On.

I hid my books behind a shrub, trekked to town for the noon matinee, plunked my quarter down and entered the Fox Arlington, one of those baroque temples consecrated to “motion pictures” in the late 1920s — that afternoon, a massive mausoleum, dark and silent, sprinkled with a dozen patrons. I snuck into one of the loges, a cushioned throne with four-foot back and high arms that swallowed me up. Then I waited.

The eeriest music I’d ever heard filled the theater, a shrill, shimmering, unearthly sound. A weather station crew picks up strange radar signals, follows them to the source, and finds a gigantic alien craft (circular, of course) buried beneath the ice, its passenger flash-frozen a few feet beneath the surface. To resurrect the visitor or, failing that, to study him, they cut out the block of ice containing the alien and take it back to the station, an isolated speck on an endless white carpet.

You could see the creature. Sort of. It was huge, but its features, seen through the almost opaque ice, were barely distinguishable. Which, somehow, made them creepier. That was the trouble with the damned movie: you never actually saw anything clearly, or for more than a millisecond, until the final fifteen minutes — but I didn’t know that until years later.
“Those eyes. They way the stare through the ice. Like it sees us,” shudders a crew member assigned to watch the block. He sits, trying to work at a field desk. But again and again, he looks over his shoulder. At the block. At those eyes he can almost see. Staring at him.

“No, no, no,” I meeped in a tiny voice as the sentry, unable to stand it any longer, places a blanket (an electric blanket, for God’s sake!) over the ice cocoon. The eerie music returns, feeding the burgeoning dread. Water drips, then pours onto the floor. Now the blanket is no longer flat but irregular, tracing the not-quite-human form it covers. Beneath the blanket, something big and alive rises slowly up from the block. Long fingers with rhino-horned knuckles and nails like claws slide by the hem.

Quick-cut to the sentry’s back; his shoulders hunch as a shadow crosses the desktop. A quick turn, a face twisted in utter terror, a few wild pistol shots at… what???

I never see it!

Real horror, I discovered at that precise moment, lies not in the wide-eyed vampire, fangs red with blood, or the mad slasher, chainsaw in hand, slicing and dicing his way through sorority row. It lies instead in the unseen, the thinly-veiled suggestion of something too terrifying to contemplate, let alone see. The twisted silhouette of Nosferatu, the fuzzy, membrane-crusted human look-alikes in Invasion of the Body Snatchers — and the looming shadow of The Thing. Wispy outlines and flashbulb-fast images that occupy the DMZ between the in-your-face graphic and the wholly imagined — a netherworld that a ten-year-old’s imagination is all too adroit at coloring in.

Now The Thing is on the loose, crafty, unimaginably nasty, immensely powerful, seemingly indestructible. I see only here-now-gone glimpses of its hideous, smooth-featured face and dead black eyes, all in a context of baying dogs, howling winds, and white-outs. And always that godawful music.

The creature’s severed hand, ripped off by a husky and now lying on a laboratory table, suddenly springs to life, contracting and relaxing as it’s IV’d with… plasma. My tiny testicles shrivel as if plunged into ice water. My eyes grow into bulging white circles. I know why it’s here — and what it wants. The screen swallows me, pulling me in, lifting me by my feet and dipping me in fear.

Deeper and deeper I burrowed, seeking sanctuary. So shaken I couldn’t eat my Milk Duds. I closed my eyes, plugged my ears. But I could not purge from my mind that awful music or that hideous, featureless face. The Thing — The Thing I never really saw — had done what Boris and Bela could not: bludgeoned me into submission. Head down, I ran up the aisle and into the lobby, trembling and taking huge bites of air.

With my remaining dime, I called my incredulous mother (“You’re where?”) and begged her to please, please come get me. She did. She scolded. She smiled. She understood.
“Go to your room and do your homework,” she said, and headed for the kitchen. It was early afternoon, but even in the daylight, I couldn’t stay there. I lugged my books to the dining room, where I could see Mom slicing carrots, and managed a few fleeting moments of concentration — when I wasn’t looking over my shoulder.

Years later, a mature adult, I finally saw The Thing through to the end. At last, I came face-to-face with the “lost” scenes, including the still-throat-tightening final face-off when the humans outwit the malignant tuber (played by James Arness in his pre-Marshall-Dillon days) and imaginatively pop it into nothingness.

But even then I scrunched down, ass hanging over the front edge of the seat, for most of the last hour. •

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

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