About The Thing/Body Horror

I’ve had John Carpenter on my mind a lot lately, maybe because he’s returning to the Halloween universe he created nearly 30 year ago to produce another Halloween film that will star Jamie Lee Curtis and ignore all of the sequels that followed the original film.  It will be just Jamie and Michael, reunited at last, no bizarre stories about Michael Myers’ bloodline, or his cult, or those awful Rob Zombie remakes that tried to give a backstory that we didn’t need.

Michael Myers is so effective in that first film because he literally could be anyone, and Haddonfield could be any tree-lined suburbia. There is one brief scene in the original film where Michael takes off his mask, after Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee) stabs him with a clothes hanger. When he unmasks, he looks rather…normal.  The boogeyman isn’t some supernatural entity, and the only thing thing that’s uncanny about him is the fact he gets up after Laurie Strode thinks she’s defeated him, and he gets up a second time after Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) shoots him off a balcony.

As much as I love Halloween and will always have a soft spot for Laurie Strode and Michael Myers, I’ve been more intrigued lately by Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing. On a few levels, I find it to be a more interesting film. It has stunning, guttural visual effects that still hold up, for one, but lately, I’ve been more intrigued by the idea of body horror. Few films represent that better than The Thing and the idea that the monster could be inside everyone and will spread from person to person, host to host. On a deeper level, the film was a perfect metaphor for the AIDs epidemic in the 1980s,  and today, in a very divided America, the sweeping paranoia/don’t trust thy neighbor arc  feel even more relevant.  For anyone that ever felt different, off, or an outsider, The Thing is the perfect body horror film. Anyone that appears slightly unusual is tied to the chair, blood tested, and blowtorched if the monster is inside of them.

A few years ago, there was  remake of The Thing that I didn’t bother to see. For me, Carpenter’s remake of the 1950s The Thing from Outerspace holds up too well, especially the non-CGI effects, the pulsating soundtrack, and the acting. If the new Halloween is indeed going to  follow the original film and no sequels, then there is more story to tell. I don’t think that is true about The Thing, despite its ambiguous ending.

In a tribute to the film, here is a poem I wrote about the body horror idea that  Rockvale Review recently published. I also have an essay coming out about the film in 2018 in the anthology My Body, My Words (Big Table Publishing). Not all of Carpenter’s films have aged well, but The Thing certainly has.

RIP, Romero

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As a kid, I used to watch horror movies with my dad, typically on Friday evenings, rented from Blockbuster. One of his favorites was Night of the Living Dead, and I credit that initial viewing experience for getting me into horror. There was so much about the movie that I loved and still love, especially the opening, when Barbara (Judith O’Dea) stumbles around the graveyard and encounters the film’s first zombie. Of course, there is also that famous “They’re coming to get you, Barbara” line, one of the most classic quotes in any horror movie. After seeing that movie as a boy, I was hooked.

Romero’s work resonated with me a lot more when I grew older. Upon first viewing, I didn’t realize the significance of Romero choosing a black male lead, Duane Jones, for Night of the Living Dead in the late 1960s, or the significance of that final shot, when Ben is shot in the head by redneck vigilantes and then his body is burned. In college, I hung a poster on my dorm room wall of the young zombie girl who killed her parents in the film. Imagine a movie with that type of scene hitting in the 1960s!

I didn’t see Dawn of the Dead until college, but I was struck by its campiness and cartoonishness (the blue zombie make-up and bright red blood) coupled with the not-so-subtle commentary on consumerism. However, my favorite installments in Romero’s zombie legacy may be Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead. The zombies are a lot scarier, smarter, and angrier, for one, but the social commentary pushes deeper and really makes us think about ways in which human beings are worse than the monster/other. Day of the Dead raises the question  whether or not human beings would be able to survive an apocalypse-like scenario without killing each other or resorting to militarism or fascism, and Land of the Dead railed against the 1 percenters before Occupy Wall Streeters ever pitched tens in Zuccotti Park. It was one of the perfect films for the Bush age, shortly before the economic crash and bailout. Diary of the Dead is worth watching, too, and I only wish that we could witness a final installment in Romero’s zombie canon, especially in the Trump-age.

Romero is part of an important wave of American horror movie filmmakers from the 1960s and 1970s, the likes of which also included Wes Craven, Tobe Hopper, John Carpenter, among others, who realized, as Mary Shelley did while penning Frankenstein, that horror is a wonderful vehicle for exploring social commentary. As I noted in another blog post, horror is undergoing a wonderful revival now, and it is mostly thanks to independent filmmakers and indie studios like A24. However, if it wasn’t for films like Night of the Living Dead, shot in Western, PA. on a shoestring budget, with no household names, the horror films generating buzz today probably wouldn’t have been possible. Night of the Living Dead, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and other small-budget films from that time caused studios to take risks and made them realize there is an audience out there for smart, boundary-pushing horror movies.

I’ll forever be grateful to my dad for getting me into horror, specifically through Romero’s work. A few months ago, Gravel published a poem I wrote about Night of the Living Dead. In honor of the filmmaker, I’ll share it again. Check it out here.