There is a rare psychological condition known as Capgras delusion, where sufferers believe that friends and family have been replaced by doppelgängers. In the early 90’s, one woman was hospitalised due to:
…her belief that her husband had been replaced by another unrelated man. She refused to sleep with the impostor, locked her bedroom and door at night, asked her son for a gun, and finally fought with the police when attempts were made to hospitalise her… She easily recognised other family members and would misidentify her husband only.
It would be terrifying to be that woman, to sense that someone close is an impostor and no one knows but you. The fear that behind the familiar façade of a friend’s face is something horrific is a fertile premise that has been exploited by everyone from Don Siegel to Edgar Wright because it gets at one of our most primitive fears: who can we trust?
John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of the finest examples of the trope. The story of an isolated research team in Antarctica getting picked off by a shapeshifting alien, The Thing has the jittery energy of an over caffeinated conspiracy theorist. In the 34 years since its premiere, it’s followed the familiar trajectory of box office failure to cult classic much like many of Carpenter’s films. Carpenter, for his money, suspects that cinema-goers at the time didn’t like “the horrible inevitability of the movie”, and he might well have a point. If most horror films are like haunted house rides, The Thing is like having your feet stuck in cement as you watch a car accelerate towards you.
Among many of the film’s admirers is Quentin Tarantino, who said the film was a direct influence on Astor favorite The Hateful Eight. “The paranoia amongst the characters was so strong, trapped in that enclosure for so long, that it just bounced off all the walls until it had nowhere to go but out into the audience. That is what I was trying to achieve.” Because for all the horrifying scenes of decapitated heads growing spider legs and dogs splitting in two, the true monster of The Thing is the paranoia that tears the team apart. The camp’s mechanic Childs (Keith David) gets at the existential terror directly when he asks, “How do we know who’s human? If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know it was really me?”
Many horror movies capitalise on our innate fear of the unknown by having creatures skittering around in the shadows. When you see the creature in The Thing, it’s under harsh, direct fluorescent light. Because Carpenter knows that this moment isn’t the frightening one, it’s the scenes following, where the shapeshifter could be anyone. All of a sudden we’re studying every familiar face, looking to see if they’ve changed behind their eyes.
The Astor Theatre will be playing The Thing in a double bill with Videodrome, Monday 26th September