Shadowvision: John Carpenter’s “THE THING”
Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black-and-white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition.
There’s a very difficult decision to be made in recommending a film like John Carpenter’s THE THING in a monochromatic presentation. Any self-respecting horror fan holds the film in its current, perfect state to high esteem, yet it’s not the pedigree of the film itself that warrants the indecisiveness. Instead, the conflict arises from a question within the viewer: is the story itself more important than the work that helps tell the story?
Of course, the work from Rob Bottin and Stan Winston on THE THING is the gold standard for practical effects, injecting convincing life into the disgusting extraterrestrial creatures and elevating the film’s place in genre history. But it’s perhaps this very aspect of the film that mostly takes the hit when viewed in black-and-white, even if the intention of the effect remains the same, if not stronger. The finer aspects of such comprehensive FX are lost in a black-and-white viewing, but in essence, the creatures still exist and the fact that their details are somewhat obscured makes them even more terrifying, with a new layered of added mystery and casual realism.
THE THING isn’t too tricky to adjust for black-and-white, as the film prides itself on atmosphere and the evil within its shadows. A mid-leveled contrast should do the trick, with minor changes to brightness for good measure. Otherwise, Dean Cundey’s cinematography will do the rest of the work for you, with the sweeping whites of the Arctic and darkness of the camp presenting one of the best black-and-white visuals a modern film can ask for. Furthermore, Carpenter and Cundey’s framing lets many of the group shots feel more at home with the wide angles commonly used in THE THING’s sci-fi predecessors.
By any measure, black-and-white exudes more paranoia and hopelessness, as the landscape shots seem more inescapable and lifeless than one may notice when taken aback by its natural beauty. In fact, every measured action feels creepier, and to those who worship the film as a whole, the suspense of THE THING returns ever so slightly as the sequences crawl to their creepy apex. Furthermore, the muted colors of the film’s production design come to the monochromatic version’s advantage, as one isn’t necessarily missing out on any beautiful or complex art direction.
As previously noted, the biggest change comes from Bottin and Winston’s FX work. In black-and-white, Bottin and Winston’s FX are further shadowed, largely obscuring the monster and its internal mechanisms, creating a Lovecraftian image of tentacles and bodily transformations in the cover of darkness. During the films major SFX sequences, this somewhat benefits the story in the sense that the audience is just as perplexed by the creatures’ intentions as the cast and crew. When the monster reveals itself, its reign of horror is more surprising and barbaric in nature.
At the same time, in scenes such as Blair’s autopsy, the brilliant, oozing craftsmanship visible in color have disappeared, making the monster reminiscent of the cinematic creatures of horror’s early years. Whether it be the appearance of veins, or the subtle reconstruction of the organs, the creature design suffers from the translation. For those who feel the story is the weakest aspect of THE THING, this may be a dealbreaker. The stark visuals in several close-ups make the creature more believable and organic however, which aids the viewing experience as a whole when paired with the importance of telling the story.
Luckily, for those who like to experiment with black-and-white, the smaller aspects of the film match the old school aesthetics of John Carpenter and the classically-informed script from Bill Lancaster. The performances feel more naturalistic in their desperation and unrepentant fear when viewed in black-and-white, and the score from Ennio Morricone (aided by Alan Howarth and John Carpenter) feels more tonally appropriate without color. Lastly, the presence of fire is godlike. Released as a bright, white salvation against a dark, manipulative evil that looks to consume all, this raises questions in this viewer about the possible religious allegories that may have been overlooked in the past.
Ultimately THE THING is a great candidate, as long as you’re fully aware of what you may miss in the wondrous monster SFX. From the cinematography to the performances, the atmosphere-driven narrative lends itself to black-and-white, which reinvigorates the material by proxy. In either presentation, Carpenter delivers an undeniable genre classic. The color will always be preferred, but the black-and-white version almost feels like an alternate version in its own right, and arguably, a traditionally scarier one at that.
Recommended for Black and White Consumption: Yes.