Wednesday, October 26, 2011

who goes there? - the power of paranoia: a guest post by jerome murphy

Our favorite weird hothouse flower H.P Lovecraft - in all his florid Poesque overwroughtness, with a prose style like wrought-iron curlicued gates - got it right: "“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” With this solid premise, he built dream-castles on rock.

But where the concept really resonates, is in everyday life - where the unknown is not between human and alien, but between Self and Other. A most frightening truth is this: all others are alien. At some level, no one can fully know or trust anyone else. This is why Halloween masks scared me as a kid - they embody this basic insecurity of our experience. Children are still learning how much they can trust parents and teachers, where the boundaries are. Yeah - for me Halloween masks threw a match right on that gasoline.

"Who's there?"- the immortal opening of Hamlet, the prototypical paranoia play. There is a ghost who may or may not be Hamlet's real father, a mother he cannot trust, a play-acting uncle, a play-within-a-play; Hamlet himself pretending madness and innocence (or is he) - and you see? everyone winds up dead.

And so, the Lovecraftian "Who Goes There," a 1930s pulp sci-fi story by John Campbell Jr, has proved endlessly durable, almost adaptable as The Body Snatchers. The shared concept of the alien who mimics the everyday Other handily embodied Cold War-era paranoia, and in later adaptations, our distrust of the military-industrial complex; then fears of infection in the HIV era. Politically, physically, sexually, you can never tell what's inside your neighbor just by looking at them. The strength of The Thing, versus Body Snatchers, was the isolation factor: the characters had to do battle with this basic insecurity in a remote, confined space.

The latest adaptation, a slickly reverse-engineered prequel based on the doomed Norwegian team referenced in Carpenter's version, is itself a shapeshifting blob in the process of digesting earlier influences - particularly Ridley Scott's AlienThe influences are showing clearly in the films transparent digestive tract, kicking and screaming. You've got a no-nonsense female protagonist, a wrecked spaceship, a claustrophobically isolated crew, and flamethrowing. No, really - lots and lots of flamethrowing. You will be hungry for s'mores by the end of this movie.

What this Thing, with its elegantly chilly setting and distended CGI budget fails to tap into, is the power of paranoia. It sits on top of a rich reserve of paranoid storytelling, from Hamlet on down, without striking any oil. The creatures' appearances are not supposed to terrify in and of themselves (and they don't); what terrifies is the swift, sudden revelation of who is not to be trusted.

Enough plot holes for fishnet fetishwear - where do the vehicles come from after being disabled, why is the ship able to work again, how is clothing replicated by the thing - don't matter if you can tap into the elemental power of paranoia, as John Carpenter did. Carpenter's flick made enough gestures (hastily, yes) toward distinct personalities that we had characters we thought we knew. On which pivots the whole enterprise. You had Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley and Keith David on one Arctic team, and you didn't want any of them to be Thinged.

The Thing can only replicate organic matter, but there needs to be organic matter in the first place. Where's the wisecracking ("but it's a dry heat!") from Aliens or any of the necessary touches of eccentricity to show us we're dealing with real live people?

In this gleaming Coors Lite can, few of the interchangeable Norwegians seem human to begin with, so who cares who's the Thing? Oh, that was Lars? Go ahead and torch him, he won't be missed. Yeah, there's the arrogant hubristic professor type. Yeah, there's a token black guy, whose personality is -  the token black guy.

To be fair, like the team members with their fumbling flashlights, the scriptwriters vaguely grasp the resonance of this theme. A clever touch like a radio playing Men At Work's "Who Can It Be Now" signals their awareness. They simply miscalculate how pivotal an element it is to this story's effectiveness.

Attention, horror filmmakers: you're showing too much. More masking. Let our minds interact with the unknowns. That's why Rosemary's Baby works. Why Body Snatchers works. Why flashy CGI is less effective than long hallways, howling wind and subtly suggestive soundtracks, and close ups of faces which may hide something unspeakable. You don't need to assault our senses with orchestral surround-sound. Don't let the monsters wear out their welcome. It's all enough to send you back to Lovecraft and his subtly suggestive tales of masked shapeshifters ("The Thing On the Doorstep," "The Whisperer in Darkness"). Or to the many successful horror flicks which successfully play on the insecurity between the known vs unknown Other, like Carpenter's own They Live, in which the aliens are all around us, wearing attractive human faces. What a nightmare to be one of the few who can see through the exteriors!

Indeed, this is the fundamental, underlying power behind the phrase trick or treat. Which is which?

Or, as a scared child once realized: who needs Halloween, when faces are masks already? The best horror flicks are those that recognize that when it comes to human societies, Halloween is all year round.

-Jerome Murphy


  1. The power of suggestion. An art form long forgotten due to the fact that anyone can create a monster on their laptops using the latest Mac animation and CGI software while sitting on their sofas watching Dancing With The Stars. What an enjoyable post JM. Please do more!

  2. Side note - I wish I could "THING" Kim Kardashian's bank account...SIGH

  3. Ain't that the truth! LOL at someone designing a monster on their laptop while watching Dancing with the Stars - sounds like an ideal weekday evening.