The James Clayton Column: The Thing is just the thing for the festive season

Looking for an alternative Christmas movie? James explains why John Carpenter’s The Thing is the perfect festive flick…

I’m applying my Sherlock skills and seeing ripped Advent calendars, hearing festive pop muzak and getting telepathic messages from frightened turkeys. These signs all lead me to deduce that it’s December and, as such, I declare it okay to sit back and enjoy Christmas movies.

This is the permissive period when you can watch Home Alone flicks without it being ‘wrong’. Of course, watching Home Alone, It’s A Wonderful Life, The Muppet Christmas Carol or White Christmas, to name a few, at any other time of the year isn’t strictly verboten. However, I’d still hold that it’s a minor crime – like jaywalking – that raises questions about the offender’s personal character. In fact, it’s worse than reckless road crossing, because at least that has an edgy, living dangerously aspect to it and is an active form of pedestrian rebellion against The Man and all his evil social mores and highway laws.

Watching Christmassy flicks in July is a pretty lame protest against convention, and will probably only result in feelings of disappointment that you’re actually months away from the festive period and can’t imminently access the magic of Christmas at the McAllister family mansion, with its booby traps and big tree.

You’ll see a young, naff jumper-wearing Macaulay Culkin grinning and rumbling holiday period robbers, and will feel epic hurt, longing and a sense of loss for something you never really had and only get to pretend to have in December. Just don’t do it. For the sake of your own sanity and personal wellbeing, only watch Home Alone and similarly chirpy Christmas flicks after you’ve swallowed your first Advent calendar chocolate.

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Reflecting on these movies, I come to realise that they’re all incredibly unhealthy from a psychological perspective. Like the season they celebrate, they’re all aspiration, hype and tinsel-tinged anticlimacticism.  These films lie to us by promising a perfect season of harmony, happiness and love when the truth is poverty, ugly excess, unbearable relatives and a deep sense of winter ennui.

Macaulay Culkin has his Hollywoodified upper class all-American Christmas and everything comes good and pearly white wonderful in White Christmas and It’s A Wonderful Life, but that’s rarely the case in reality.

Mark my words: your turkey will be undercooked, your presents will disappointing (or even insulting) and one of your nearest and dearest will either die, accidently fatally wound a family pet or smash the TV, ensuring that you miss the Doctor Who special. Bah humbug. Christmas is horrible.

Altogether then, I say scrap seasonally-specific flicks and go for the ultimate winter movie – the chilling beast that quite deftly encapsulates all the dread and brutality of the yuletide period and powers on into perpetuity as a prime cut of classic horror cinema. That flick is The Thing, directed by John Carpenter and released to wreak glorious alien havoc in 1982.

The Thing 2011 – still in cinemas – directed by Dutchman Matthijs van Heijningen Jr and starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the flamethrower-toting lead will also do. The problem is that it’s not been released on DVD or Blu-ray yet, so you’d have to go a-piratin’ to inflict it on others in your household. That would be illegal, so instead let’s stick within the law as we look to lacerate Christmas convention and hang with John Carpenter for the present. The fresh prequel can spew magnificently visceral CGI splatter all over the holiday season next year if anyone’s still alive.

“But why is The Thing the perfect thing for December?” I hear you ask. I have good reasons, beyond the obvious fact that it’s a brilliant movie with a lot more to offer than Crimbo corn like Love Actually. Here’s why the 1982 sci-fi chiller is especially suitable for the season…

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It’s cold and covered in snow

The Thing is set in Antarctica, which guarantees a white Christmas played out on beautifully picturesque snowscapes struck by intermittent frosty blizzards. We’ve got powder and perishing subzero temperatures. Perfect.

It’s claustrophobic

At Christmas, you find yourself sharing close space with a select bunch of people and because of the circumstances: the weather outside is frightful, and you have social and familial obligations – you can’t escape. Your snowed-in home is just like Outpost 31 – a confined pressure cooker of tension that brings terrible intimacy with threatening monsters that want to assimilate you and thus won’t leave you to peace and privacy. You know you don’t want to spend the rest of winter tied to that f*cking couch.

It’s got party games

‘Tis the season for board games and silly pastime diversions to break that tension. The Thing echoes that, as all involved get into guessing games (‘Am I Human?’) and Hide and Seek’with an extra extraterrestrial twist. The festive gamer spirit is plain to see. as MacReady gives up computer chess (the computer is a “cheating bitch”, after all) and sets up some blood tests to decide who’s It.

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It decks the halls

A bland and drab residence gets a blast of colour and life in the bleak midwinter. It’s just instead of tinsel and Christmas cards, Outpost 31 gets tarted up with trails of blood, entrails and shapeshifting alien guck. If you wish, you can recreate certain scenes and spread the splatter when you’re stuffing the turkey.

It’s all about mimicry

Christmas is really just about impersonation, putting on a front and trying to fulfil some idealised idea pushed by adverts and pop culture. I see very little difference between a wannabe festive domestic goddess and an eager alien ululating inside a mansuit.

It’s very expressive and cathartically releases inner horror

All this pent-up stress, wrath and madness must be unloosed, and in the Thing itself I see a representation of our repressed inner monster writhing. Revelations and surprises are an essential part of the holiday, and the Thing’s outbursts provide them.

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It’s all about survival

Really, December is a war zone and an exercise in pushing people’s sanity, self-esteem and psychological resistance to all forms of excess and tinsel-wrapped abhorrence. The world of The Thing is one in which it’s every man for himself, fighting to live in defiance of merciless elements both Earthly and otherwordly, relying on his individual wits to make it through the winter without having been eaten alive by an enemy in familiar form.

I hope you do survive. Just repeatedly watch The Thing, grab a flamethrower and torch all your relatives instead of the Christmas pudding.

James’ previous column can be found here.

You can reach James on his Twitter feed here, see his film cartoons here and more sketches here, while his Thing Attack Advent Calendar sketches can be found here.

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