Tag: Keith David

Nope (2022)

Nope (2022)

Be afraid of looking in Jordan Peele’s puzzling but less enlightening horror suspense film

Director: Jordan Peele

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya (Otis Jnr “OJ” Haywood), Keke Palmer (Em Haywood), Steven Yeun (Ricky “Jupe” Park), Brandon Perea (Angel Torres), Michael Wincott (Antlers Holst), Wrenn Schmidt (Amber Park), Keith David (Otis Haywood Snr), Donna Mills (Bonnie Clayton)

Spoiler warning: Peele loves to keep ALL the plot details on the QT – so I discuss more than he would want, but hopefully not enough to spoil the plot.

Jordan Peele’s previous horror films brilliantly married up genuine chills with acute social commentary. Plot details have often been kept under wraps – after all half the joy of watching Get Out or Us the first time is working out what the hell is going on. Nope continues this trend, but for the first time I feel this is to the film’s detriment. I actually think Nope would be improved if you know going into it that this was Peele’s dark twist on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (with added body horror). Instead, Nope plays its enigmatic cards so close to its chest that it ends up never having a hand free to punch you in the guts.

Pensive and guarded Otis Jnr (Daniel Kaluuya) – known, unfortunately, as OJ – and his exuberant wanna-be-star sister Em Haywood (Keke Palmer) are trying (with differing levels of enthusiasm) to keep their father’s Hollywood horse handling business alive after his freak death from a coin falling from the sky (everyone assumes it fell from a plane). The business is struggling, with OJ forced to frequently sell their horses to their neighbour, a former child star turned ranch theme-park owner, Ricky (Steven Yeun). Their lives are altered however when they discover a huge UFO living in a cloud near their ranch, sucking up horses (and other animals) and spitting out any inorganic remains. Seeing this as their path to fortune (and in Em’s case fame) they try and capture the UFO on film.

Nope is all about our compulsive need to look. Nothing draws our eyes like spectacle – and what could be a bigger spectacle than a huge saucer in the sky that eats people? It doesn’t matter if we know we shouldn’t, our eyes are drawn up (now imagine if Peele had been able to call the film Up!). We want to be part of the big event, whether that’s seeing the latest blockbuster at the big screen or rubber-necking at a roadside accident. Nope hammers this point home, when it becomes clear you are only at danger from the saucer when you look directly at it. Spectacle literally kills!

This is all an inversion of the mid-West America that starred at the skies in wonder in Close Encounters. There the Aliens capped the film with a glorious light show with awe and wonder from the humans watching. Here the appearance in the sky is a prelude to sucking you up, digesting you and vomiting out blood and bits of clothing a few hours later. Despite this, Ricky tries to make an entertainment show out of the creature (something he, of course, learns to regret), and OJ and Em find little reason to re-think their attempts to capture the animal on screen.

Peele’s film takes a few light shots at social media culture. Of course our heroes’ first instinct is to reach for their phones (they are looking for that “Oprah shot” that will guarantee fame and fortune). OJ at least is largely motivated by the cash influx his struggling business needs – Em wants the fame. But the film still attacks the shallow “main event-ness” of social media, where having the best and most impressive thing to show off (for a few seconds) is the be-all-and-end-all.

Peele remains too fond of these characters to judge them too harshly. But he has no worries about taking shots at the fame-and-money hungry Ricky, or a TMZ reporter who arrives at the worst possible moment and dies begging to be handed his camera so he can record the moment. Arguably Ricky would have made a more interesting lead: a man chewed up and spat out by the fame machine and angling for a second chance, who thinks he’s way smarter than he actually is.

The film opens with a chilling shot of what we eventually discover was the bloody aftermath of the disastrous final filming day of Ricky’s sitcom from his childhood-acting days, Gordy’s Home. Gordy was a chimp living with an adopted family: until the chimp actor snapped in bloody fury. It sets up a sense of danger, but the plot never quite marries it up with the main themes of Nope. Parallels are thinly drawn with Ricky’s attempt to commercialise this infamous tragedy, but it feels forced: the whole section plays like a chilling short story inserted into the main narrative. And the film never explores in detail the lesson from this bloody tragedy, that we underestimate the dangers animals can pose (despite the film being littered with creatures).

Instead, Peele settles for a stately reveal of his plot. It takes almost an hour for the film’s true purpose to become clear, but it lacks the acute and darkly funny social commentary that made his previous films so fascinating while they took their time showing you their hand. Interesting points are made about how black people are (literally) whitewashed out of Hollywood’s history (the Haywoods claim to be descended from the black jockey featured in the first ever moving film made in America). But it’s a political point that sits awkwardly in a satire (about something else!), and Peele overstretches the opening without making the central mystery compelling enough.

There are, however, fine performances from the actors, Kaluuya’s shuffling physique – slightly over-weight, the troubles of the world weighing him down – is matched with his charismatically sceptical looks. Keke Palmer is engaging and funny as his slap-dash sister, and the warm family bond between these two works really well. It never quite makes sense that someone as publicity-averse as OJ would really want to become a social media sensation, but you can let it go.

There is lots of good stuff in Nope – it’s beautifully filmed and assembled and once it lets you in on its plans, it has a strong final act. But its social commentary isn’t quite sharp or thought-provoking enough – people are shallow and love spectacle and social media, who knew – and neither the mystery or the plot are quite compelling enough. It’s told with imagination and Peele has a fascinating and unique voice: but Nope isn’t much more than a solid story well told.

Volcano (1997)

Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche are chemistry free in a film that is a disaster in more ways than one: Volcano

Director: Mick Jackson

Cast: Tommy Lee Jones (Mike Roark), Anne Heche (Dr Amy Barnes), Gaby Hoffmann (Kelly Roark), Don Cheadle (Emmit Reese), Jacqueline Kim (Dr Jaye Calder), Keith David (Lt Ed Fox), John Corbett (Norman Calder), John Carroll Lynch (Stan Olber)

In 1985 Mick Jackson directed a film for the BBC called Threads. A masterpiece of nuclear terror, it showed the horrifying impact of a full-scale nuclear attack on Britain. Off the back of its success, Jackson got a ticket to Hollywood and the big time. Oh dear lord. Be careful what you wish for. Could Jackson really direct something so brilliant as Threads on a shoestring, and then something as unspeakably bad as this on a massive budget?

Volcano already felt dated when it was released in 1997. Imagine how it feels now. It’s a feeble disaster film, of the type where the heroes are all square-jawed types who just need to stop focusing on their super important jobs and look after their kids, and the villains are all greedy businessmen. Anyway a volcano goes off under Los Angeles (don’t ask) so disaster zone manager Mike Roark (Tommy Lee Jones looking so bored he can barely be bothered to deliver the lines) has to save the city and his daughter. Mostly his daughter. Literally everything you could expect to happen, inevitably happens.

Volcano is almost unspeakably bad. I mean I watched it expecting it to be rubbish, but at least sort of fun rubbish. But this is just, y’know, a rubbishy rubbish. For ages. It’s almost half the runtime before the volcano really goes boom – and then you are reminded how dull watching lava pour very slowly forward can be. And it moves very slowly. Despite this it keeps creeping up on the cast as it from nowhere. None of whom, by the way, you would miss if they failed to turn up to a dinner party, let alone if they were incinerated by molten rock.

The heat of that molten rock, by the way, changes according to the requirements of the scene and the plot armour of the characters. At least two red shirts (and the red shirts are easy to spot) are vaporised solely from being in close proximity to it early on. Later, the key heroes are suspended a few feet above it, or even splashed by it, and feel no real effect other than some hot shoes and a few burns. 

Tommy Lee Jones is completely and utterly miscast in a role that he looks like he hated every minute of filming. Roark is your typical shouty man. He has family problems (needless to say these get fixed in the film) but his main quality seems to be his near creepy love for his daughter, a love that blinds him to all other events. Early in the disaster he abandons a fireman in a truck in order to carry his daughter away from lava (the fireman and the man who tries to save him instead die horribly). Later Roark tries to stop a vital explosion that could save the city because his daughter may be at risk having stupidly walked into the middle of the blast radius.

It doesn’t help that his daughter is the worst example of a dumb damsel-in-distress ever, frequently freezing up in the face of any danger and proving hopelessly incapable of showing any initiative. Never mind a volcano eruption, she’d be hopeless with toast burning. It’s as impossible to care for her as it is any other flipping character. To be honest I’d quite happily drop a pile of lava on all of them. That would at least be fitting with the film’s vomit inducing infantile liberalism – “Why look” (to paraphrase a wiser-than-his-years kid who has nearly got himself killed) “Everyone looks the same under volcanic ash”. Yup, whatever colour or creed everyone looks equally sad about being in this film.

Jackson directs this with a mixture of total lack of inspiration (not helped by some effects that looked painfully wonky even then), ludicrously overblown zoom shots (whenever something dangerous happens), and laughable camera work. It makes the whole film look and feel even more stupid than it does already. Will you care about anything that happens in the film? No you won’t. Will you laugh at it? Not quite enough to justify watching it.

Crash (2005)

Matt Dillon and Thandie Newton deal with racism in tedious best picture disaster Crash

Director: Paul Haggis

Cast: Sanda Bullock (Jean Cabot), Don Cheadle (Detective Graham Walters), Matt Dillon (Sgt John Ryan), Jennifer Esposito (Ria), Brendan Fraser (DA Rick Cabot), Terrence Howard (Cameron Thayer), Ludacris (Anthony), Thandie Newton (Christine Thayer), Michael Peña (Daniel Ruiz), Ryan Phillippe (Officer Tom Hansen), Larenz Tate (Peter), Shaun Toub (Farhad), Bahar Soomekh (Dorri), William Fichtner (Flanagan), Keith David (Lt Dixon), Bruce Kirby (‘Pop’ Ryan), Beverly Todd (Mrs Waters)

If you had to name the least popular Best Picture winner, there is a fair chance the name you’d come up with Crash. Crash was a surprise winner in 2005, beating out Ang Lee’s tender gay-cowboy classic Brokeback Mountain. Crash was a little independent movie, filmed in and around Los Angeles, that seemed to be tackling big themes – racism, humanity, fate, blah blah blah. To be fair, Paul Haggis’ film is giving it a go. But what you get is just hugely, well, average. It’s not a film that has aged well, and it’s not a film that has enough depth to it to overcome the general cynicism towards it.

The film follows a kaleidoscope of events in Los Angeles, each of which revolves around clashes between different races, with stories that are shown to interlink. So we have an ambitious DA (a miscast Brendan Fraser) and his wife (a pretty good Sandra Bullock) carjacked by two gangbangers (Ludacris and Larenz Tate). A TV director (Terrence Howard) and his wife (Thandie Newton) are pulled over then assaulted by a bigoted cop (Matt Dillon), despite the fears of his nervous liberal partner (Ryan Phillippe). A locksmith (Michael Peña) deals with racial suspicions from the DA’s wife, and from a Persian shop owner (Shaun Toub), who is himself the victim of racial abuse. A cop (Don Cheadle) and his partner (Jennifer Esposito) investigate two undercover cops who shot each other, monitored by the DA. And so it goes on.

Crash could be pretty much relabelled Racism Actually. In fact, it shares a lot of traits with Richard Curtis’ loosely assembled series of shaggy dog stories, feeling as they do like off-cuts and half assembled scraps of ideas from Haggis’ writing desk. But what he ends up wheeling out here is a manipulative, cliché-filled pile of earnest claptrap, in which basically a series of unpleasant characters behave unpleasantly towards each other. You can see why the ageing academy might have warmed to it – it’s a film that looks at racism, by exploring how, gosh darn it don’t you know “everybody is a little bit racist” sometimes. 

On top of that, Haggis’ film relies overwhelmingly on coincidence and the tired “we are all linked together” clichés. It wants to try and make big statements about the prejudices and victimisation that we all suffer in our different ways – but it delivers them in such a clumsy and manipulative way your nose ends bruised by the number of points hit on it. For starters, do people really throw around racial slurs as readily and immediately as the characters in this film do? Surely the real danger of racism is not the people who shout racist nicknames and get angry immediately – isn’t the real danger of racism its incipient nature, the quiet whispers behind closed doors or the barriers gently but firmly put in the way? 

This film turns racism into something loud, obvious and crass. And then it produces a film that does the same thing. The script is full of scenes which never feel real, – every conversation in the piece turns into a clumsy series of “we all hold prejudiced views” or “I’ve got more depths than you think” statements that always feel fake. Not once do the characters sound like real people. It’s the sort of clumsy, crappy, thuddingly worthy film-making that ostentatiously believes itself to be great film-making, when in fact it’s as average as cornflakes.

Even the more effective moments only work because they are so manipulative: the confrontation at gunpoint between the locksmith and shop owner, and the rescue of Thandie Newton from a burning car by Matt Dillon’s brutish cop. When they are happening, these moments are strangely gripping – but literally the instant they finish, you are struck by how Haggis has filmed them in such an operatic, balls-to-the-wall way you would have to work pretty hard not to be swept up in them. Effective manipulation is still manipulation – and manipulation really shouldn’t be this easy to spot. Certainly not within seconds of it happening.

But nearly all the characters are so simple and cookie-cutter that, despite the quality of the acting, you never connect with them. It doesn’t help that Haggis’ unsubtle screenplay is desperate to point up “surprise” personality twists – the “you think they are like this, but look: here they behaving totally differently. People are more complex than you think!” card is played so often it starts getting worn out. All of this serves to boil down to a trite message that when we try and get along with each other everything eventually might work its way out. Oh please, give me a break.

The acting, though, is actually pretty good. Sure Brenda Fraser is horribly miscast, and Don Cheadle is stuck with a terrifically boring cop who has to hold some of the narrative threads together, but there are plenty of decent performances. Sandra Bullock gets to show she has some solid dramatic chops, Thandie Newton is a pretty much a revelation as a seemingly shrewish wife, Terrence Howard mines a lot out of a clichéd middle-class black man going through a mid-life crisis. Ludacris and Lorenz Tate are excellent as the two gangbangers, although their dialogue and actions never feel real at all. Michael Peña is very endearing as just about the only outright likeable character. Dillon got a lot of praise (and an Oscar nomination) as the racist cop and he is fine (though dozens of actors could do what he does here), even though the character is thin as paper and relies on having the two of the best impact scenes.

Dillon’s character is a good example of the film’s moral shallowness. Perhaps it’s the #MeToo era, but do I think that Dillon’s clearly racist manner and his sexual assault on Newton’s character is cancelled out because he saves her from a fire and treats his dying Dad well? I mean, what is this sort of laziness? The film says “ah ha look viewer you thought he was a bad guy, but look at his depth”. So forget the sexual assault because he saved his victim’s life the next day. Wow. Don’t get me started on the contrived weighting of the scales the film puts together so that our opinion is shifted on Phillipe’s good cop. The film is full of this sort of clumsy, ham-fisted, chin stoking, liberal garbage that feels overwhelmingly patronising.

But then this is a film that doesn’t trust you to think. It is the ultimate middle-class, hand-wringing exercise in “oh if only we could fix the world through good things” nonsense. It shouts and shouts and shouts at you about racism, but never really tells you anything other than that bad-tempered, ignorant people will do bad-tempered ignorant things. It smugly says “of course we are better, but guess what viewer, this sort of thing does happen”. Only of course the script is so thin, the general film-making so thuddingly average and unsubtle, the story and morality so shallow, that its preachy hectoring only really serves to turn you off.  Anyone with a brain will get the message within the first 10 minutes. The film takes another hour and a half to catch up with you. The worst Best Picture winner ever? It’s gotta be up there.

Platoon (1986)

Charlie Sheen goes to war in Oliver Stone’s Oscar winning Vietnam film Platoon

Director: Oliver Stone

Cast: Charlie Sheen (Chris Taylor), Tom Berenger (Sgt Barnes), Willem Dafoe (Sgt Elias), Kevin Dillon (Bunny), Keith David (King), Forest Whitaker (Big Harold), Mark Moses (Lt Wolfe), John C. McGinley (Sgt O’Neill), Francesco Quinn (Rhah), Reggie Johnson (Junior), Johnny Depp (Lerner)

Vietnam has been a long-standing scar on the American psyche. For over 12 years, American soldiers were rolled into Vietnam to fight for something many of them were pretty unclear about. Vietnam was a bloody shadow boxing match for super powers to indirectly combat each other. American casualties were high, and the country that sees itself as championing justice and the free world ended the war with the blood of millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians on its hands. Is it any wonder the country still struggles to compute this?

Before Platoon there had been films that had dealt with the Vietnamese experience. Apocalypse Now had embraced the druggy, morally confused insanity of the war. The Deer Hunter had effectively shown the traumatic impact the war had on regular blue-collar steel-workers. But Platoon was something different. This was the war on the ground, with privates and sergeants as the focus (many of them poor, working class and also black) – the lower rungs of American society flung into a war they don’t understand, in a country they can’t recognise, fighting an enemy they have no comprehension of. 

Platoon throws the audience into the visceral, cruel, terrifying horror of pointless conflict, with a feeling that the war will never end. Stone pulls off a difficult trick here: the film shows a horrifying picture of war and killing, but combines this with successfully showing the adrenalin rush that comes from conflict – and the excitement of visceral film-making. 

Oliver Stone had fought as a young man in a similar unit, after dropping out of college. Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) is effectively a surrogate figure for the director, with the film crafted from Stone’s own experiences and those of his fellow soldiers. The film is a simple, intense experience with a straightforward plot: Taylor is torn between two potential “father figures”. One, Sgt Barnes (Tom Berenger), is a supernaturally ferocious warrior and martinet whom the men hold in awe. The other, St Elias (Willem Dafoe), is an equally fierce fighter, but also a hippy, nearly saint-like protective figure. Which of these two will Taylor side with?

Well okay it’s not a massive surprise really is it? The strength of Oliver Stone’s film is its visceral, bloody, impressive intensity. You are thrown into the midst of a series of terrible battles, interspersed with bored soldiers bickering or taking pot. At no time is the viewer (or the soldiers) given any real idea about what is going on, what the aims of the war are, what is really happening in the battles. Stone plays the film totally from the soldier’s POV. Battles are a confused mess at night. The location of the enemy is frequently unclear. There are no indications of any tactics at all. There is barely any leadership – Mark Moses’ Lt Wolfe is an almost hilariously ineffective moral weakling, who follows the leads of his sergeants. The soldiers (or rather the two sergeants) essentially operate as lone wolves, doing what they think best for any particular circumstance.

The film pivots on a confused raid on a Vietnamese village, as the platoon descends on a village for no very clear reason – apart from seemingly being pissed off that one of their number has been killed in the night. Nominally they are searching for Vietcong fighters. But really it seems like an excuse to let off steam. Platoon must have hit hard in the 1980s, as it doesn’t flinch at all from watching American soldiers committing atrocities. Women are shot, teenagers are beaten to death, a fox hole containing what looks like a child is exploded after a brief warning. The soldiers are all terrified, thrusting guns into Vietnamese faces. Above all Sgt Barnes feels no guilt at all at executing villagers in order to pressure the elders into telling what he thinks they might know about the Vietcong (who equally are largely faceless figures of terror in the distance stalking the platoon).

Where the film is less strong is in its plotting and narrative ideas. These are straightforward in the extreme, with Barnes and Elias almost literally as opposing devil and angel on Taylor’s shoulders. The film is clearly weighted in favour of Elias’ hippie mentality, his desire to preserve innocent lives and his caring attitude to his men. Barnes is presented far more harshly – even though his brutality stems from his own deep-rooted desire to keep his men safe, and his belief that Vietnam is hell and you can’t pussyfoot your way around hell. 

Saying that, it’s hard to argue against Stone’s feelings that compromising your humanity is not worth it no matter the struggles to keep yourself and others alive. But these are (forgive me) rather obvious, even traditional points – and its part of the film being essentially a conventional morality tale with a breath-taking military setting laid over the top. The ideas in this film won’t really challenge you – and in fact the film itself is really more of an experience than something that rewards reflection.

Stone’s direction is extremely good – even though he at times falls too much into the trap of overblown, overly operatic visuals (Taylor’s final confrontation with Barnes in the forest falls heavily into this trap). Stone has never been accused of being the most subtle of directors, and there is no stone (sorry) left unturned here to get the message across. In fact Platoon frequently hits its points so hard and with such unsubtle force, that it actually leaves you very little to think about after its finished – the film does all the work for you, like an angry rant that goes into unbelievable depth of detail.

But the acting has a very healthy commitment to it. Sheen shows why he was an actor of promise before he became a self-destructing punchline. Dafoe is very good as the serene Elias – a man’s man, but one comfortable in his own skin, with a strange campness about him, whose courage extends to doing the right thing no matter what. Tom Berenger is hugely impressive as the cold-edged Barnes, who has had to stamp out his humanity to survive. The rest of the characters split into two rival camps following these different soldiers, and there are some fine performances here from some now far more recognisable actors.

Platoon was garlanded with Oscars, partly because it talked about the American experience in Vietnam in a manner (and from a perspective) that had not been addressed before. It is an important historical landmark of a film, even if it is possibly not a great film. A simple, at times less than subtle anti-war film dressed up as a war film, it will immerse you in the conflict and the horror – but I’m not sure it will give you as much to think about as it thinks it does.

The Thing (1982)

The men of an Antarctic base encounter a deadly force from space in The Thing

Director: John Carpenter

Cast: Kurt Russell (MacReady), Wilford Brimley (Blair), TK Carter (Nauls), David Clennon (Palmer), Keith David (Childs), Richard Dysart (Dr. Copper), Charles Hallahan (Norris), Peter Maloney (Bennings), Richard Masur (Clark), Donald Moffat (Garry), Joel Polis (Fuchs), Thomas Waites (Windows)

In a curious coincidence, The Thing was released on the same day as Blade Runner. Both have since gone on to become landmark science fiction films, hugely influential to future film makers. Both have scenes that linger in the memory, and have ambiguous endings fans have discussed for decades. Both were also disastrous box office bombs and with negative critical reactions.

The Thing is a creeping masterpiece of sci-fi, body horror and paranoia. On an Antarctic base, an American research team rescues a dog being pursued by two Norwegians from a base close-by (the two Norwegians are both killed, one accidentally, one shot dead after firing at the Americans). Investigating the Norwegian base to see what happened, they find it destroyed and a series of grisly corpses, including one with two faces. Soon it becomes clear the Norwegians fell victim to an alien who has the power to perfectly copy and replace living organisms. The Americans realise they are trapped on the camp, with no idea who them may now be a “Thing” rather than human.

John Carpenter’s creepy, atmospheric horror film is an endlessly gripping thriller that rewards constant rewatching. Its shot with an unnerving simplicity of movement, with the focus getting tighter and tighter. We start with an unsettling helicopter shot taking in the panorama of Antarctica but, before long, the action is confined to single rooms in the American camp, with our leads shouting suspiciously at each other. The whole film is underplayed by an eerie Ennio Morricone score that really gets under your skin with its haunting electronic strains. It’s a classic by any definition of the word, and it never, ever gets old or tired: I’ve seen it a dozen times, and each time new small moments grab me, shots enchant me – and it never fails to be tense, unnerving and scary.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding” a character states at one point. It’s pretty easy to imagine that this was the reaction of the critics at the time, at the onslaught of body horror. The Thing’s process of absorption is not only disgusting (usually involving flesh and skin peeling back to reveal all sorts of crazy shit), but its defence mechanisms involve similar depths of insane grossness. By the time our heroes are incinerating replacements with a ruthless lack of concern, we’ve already seen chests turn into massive tooth jaws, a dog Thing peel its own face off, and a head of a Thing separate itself from a burning body, grow spider legs and scuttle away. You’ve got to be fucking kidding indeed.

The Thing is pretty much a landmark in prosthetic work (you’ve never seen anything like this before). And the body horror still packs a major punch – I couldn’t eat my sticky bun while the Dog Thing ripped itself apart in the middle of a kennel early on (those poor other dogs by the way…). Some of the most effective stuff is actually the smaller scale moments – there is a great moment where a Thing grabs another character by the face and hand and face merge together. It has a truly yucky feeling to it. It’s all so carefully constructed and inventive that it haunts and fascinates. But if it was just a parade of gross images and nightmare fuel it wouldn’t have lasted. What makes it work is that it has a cracking story and a great set of characters. 

Carpenter collects a terrific group of actors, headlined by Kurt Russell. Russell’s MacReady is the perfect lead for this sort of film, a grizzled maverick slacker who reveals (when the shit hits the fan) the natural charisma of the born leader, the only man there able to make the hard calls. He even has a perfect little introduction scene, playing chess with a computer (whose voice makes it the only female character in the film incidentally). Having narrowly lost the game against a tactically more cunning opponent, he pours his drink into its workings, effectively destroying the game board. That gives you a pretty accurate idea of where the film is going. The whole film is Macready’s struggle against an opponent who is cunning, brilliant and (almost literally) faceless – is it any wonder he decides that destruction could be the only way to win? 

The rest of the cast give a lot of depth to their otherwise trope-based characters. In particular, Dysart, Brimley, David, Hallahan, Moffat and Masur stand out for creating unique feeling characters, each of them feeding into the growing paranoia that infects the camp. Because that’s what makes this film last: it’s a brilliant study of paranoia, suspicion and a group of macho men (to varying degrees) squabbling aggressively with each other in a confined space. Carpenter really captures this sense of twisted group dynamics – establishing plenty of tensions and personality flaws and clashes even before the horror begins. It feels like a real cold war movie: interlopers in our midst, but we don’t know who they are. It’s a slow burn that really pays off when the action explodes in the second half of the movie. 

And that pay-off is compelling. A particularly masterful sequence involves a series of blood tests (now a hoary old stable of these things, but at the time something really new). MacReady essentially ties up all the other remaining characters (living and dead) and sticks a scolding hot wire into a blood sample from each man. The idea being the blood of any Thing will react aggressively to the “attack”. Carpenter really lets this scene build slowly – not least because MacReady is holding all the men at dynamite and gun point. The slow build-up reveals a few innocent men, each untied to help Macready. Then just as MacReady (and the audience) begin to relax – someone fails the test and the scene jumps into body horror chaos. Completing the tests after that is a near wordless sequence of jump cuts from test to test, with the number of untied men slowly growing. It’s brilliantly done: slow – quick – slow. Perfect tension drama. It’s the centrepiece of the whole damn movie.

The other thing Carpenter really understands is that set-ups like this are perfect discussion fodder for fans. Just as we love to debate whether Deckard is a replicant or not, there are plenty of similar points in this film. Most of this revolves around Blair, the first to work out the danger the Thing will cause if it reaches civilisation: when does he become infected? How many of his actions are human, how many Thing? At one point MacReady visits him (isolated in a hut) and finds him sitting calmly asking to come back in. Creepily beside him, an unused noose hangs from the roof: it’s not commented on in the scene at all, but it speaks volumes for possible interpretations. This sort of stuff throws itself open to a debate for the ages – the film enigmatically provides enough clues without definitive answers. It does this for a number of events – deaths go unexplained, materials are destroyed and we never find out by whom. The film is full of shady events, of key moments happening off camera, of mysteries going as unanswered for the characters as they do for the audience. Ripe for you to add your own interpretation.

The final scene of the film continues this: the surviving characters sit in the burning wreckage of their base. For all they know, either or neither of them may, or may not, be Things. But it hardly matters: the cold is coming in and we (and they) know anyone left in these conditions will be frozen in a matter of hours. So you get this brilliantly low-key, weary but charged exchange:

Survivor #1: Maybe we shouldn’t.

Survivor #2: If you’re worried about me…

Survivor #1: If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think we’re in much shape to do anything about it.

Survivor #2: Well, what do we do?

Survivor #1: Why don’t we just… wait here for a little while… see what happens?

So – the question stands? Who is a Thing and who isn’t? It’s a perfect, unsettling, final frame discussion point – and one that has kept feeding debate for years.

The Thing is a nasty, grimy, tense, unsettling, gruesome, gory, yucky, scary, paranoia-inducing masterpiece. It’s easily the best thing John Carpenter ever made (its failure at the box office seemed to break the director’s spirit, as nothing he did ever again reached this). As a slow-burn, cold war flavoured conspiracy and suspicion story it’s out of the top drawer – it captures perfectly the psychosis and fear that can be brought on by trapped isolation. It’s crammed with perfectly formed scenes. It has a terrific, nearly nihilistic feel to it – even the most competent of the men (MacReady) is way out of his depth here. Our alien nemesis is a master of psychology and tactics. So is the film.