John Carpenter was a master of the paranoia film
From Halloween to the mostly forgotten Lovecraftian horror In the Mouth of Madness, Carpenter's movies explore the descent of minds into fear.
It's easy to write Carpenter off as a low-budget hack-n-slash B-movie director.
But that's superficial.
His movies all touch on one recurring theme:
What if everything we believe is wrong?
The three films in his Apocalypse Trilogy each touch this question in a different way.
In the Mouth of Madness shows a man's descent into madness as he searches for a reclusive author. Or maybe it's the world going mad while he's the only sane one left.
Is there even a difference?
Prince of Darkness asks the viewer to consider whether creation itself might be evil. The answer it gives is most unsettling.
And then there's The Thing.
You'll never be so terrified by a movie with Kurt Russell and Wilford Brimley
Your Host bumbled into a showing of The Thing late one lonely night back in the 90s when it aired on the USA Network.
All was well and good until that scene. The one with the dogs. You know the one.
I didn't sleep for a week after that.
The practical gore effects in this film are off the charts. To this day, near on 40 years later, the monster still hits you in the gut.
But the gratuitous gore and body-horror is just the tip of this terrifying iceberg.
The real terror isn't what you see
Once the doomed crew of this remote Antarctic outpost discover what they're facing, the real fear kicks in.
Who can we trust?
Who is still human?
This monster is unlike anything else you've ever seen. It's not a 10 foot tall insect with teeth.
It doesn't have its own body.
It takes YOUR body.
We discover that the creature is more like a sophisticated virus or bacteria. It infests the cells of other living organisms and copies them.
It's so good at this that it can imitate the intelligent behaviors of human beings without missing a step.
We don't know who is having an identity crisis until the monster flips out under duress.
The gore is awful.
Not knowing if the person you're talking to is still a person is chilling.
But worst of all?
If the monster was already walking around in your skin...
Would you have any idea?
We're all infected
Early on, one of the scientists figures out what they're dealing with. His computer model estimates that the terror from space could eat all life on Earth in about 27,000 hours.
That's 1125 days, a little over three years to doomsday.
Though the world would be a nasty place long before that deadline.
But let's think totally hypothetically. What would it be like if we found ourselves in an environment of total paranoia. In the grip of a relentless campaign of fear against an invisible micro-organism. Unable to tell who is still themselves and who is sick. Cut off from any outside help.
That would wear on your mind, wouldn't it?
You'd start to mistrust everyone. You might beg for something, anything, to make it all stop.
You'd give up a lot of "normality" in return for the feelings of safety and certainty.
Just the feelings, mind you. Not even the reality.
Carpenter's The Thing is such a masterstroke because it reveals this ugly side of human psychology with such a nuance and sensitivity that the man comes off as a psychic.
The monster is almost incidental. Certainly it's a uniquely terrifying kind of monsters. But the details are beside the point.
You can evoke the psychological response of mass terror with any kind of invisible horror.
Carpenter's horror films tap into this phenomenon. That's why they work so well even in spite of the "campy" B-movie surface features.
And the real upshot?
The Thing shows us how powerless we are in the face of a real threat... and we only make matters worse when we give in to the fear
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