Saturday, September 20, 2014
THE THING THAT COULDN'T DIE (1958)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological, metaphysical*
Despite the risible title of THE THING THAT WOULDN'T DIE, it's the sort of film that rewards the genre-oriented film fanatics, the ones who will watch a dozen common dogs just to find the one member of the pack who looks like an interesting crossbreed. THING, even though it's hampered by a low budget and average-at-best performances, manages to cross two major concerns of human beings-- religion and sex-- and come up with a better-than-average occult thriller.
In the same year prose-SF writer Jerome Bixby scored a similar low-budget thriller with CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN. THING's writer was also noted for his work in prose SF, and while a couple of David Duncan's other film-scripts are noteworthy-- THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD,
MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS-- I regard THING as Duncan's standout film-script.
The film opens on a California ranch, where young leading lady Jessica (Carolyn Kearney) is demonstrating her talent for water-witching. In attendance are Jessica's aunt Flavia, who runs the ranch/bed-and-breakfast with the help of two hands, conniving Boyd and slow-thinking Mike. Also in attendance are Hank and Linda, two of the ranch's three guests, all of whom have vacationed at the ranch previously.
In the midst of Jessica's demonstration, the third guest-- young, handsome Gordon Hawthorne-- comes riding up on a horse-- a nice touch, since the action makes him look more patrician. His attitude toward water-witching is both skeptical and condescending, and Jessica is visibly stung by his negative opinion. In her anger she lets her water-wand guide where it will-- and it leads her toward a gnarled old tree. Almost immediately Jessica regrets having given in to her impulse, and tells the watchers not to dig near the tree after all. Flavia, a greedy woman, gets the idea in her head that Jessica has stumbled across buried treasure, saying something to the effect of, "What else do people ever bury, except gold?" Jessica reviles the entire group for not listening to her, swearing that she hopes the tree falls on them. With the help of a sudden, demonic-sounding wind, a tree-branch falls, slightly injurinig Linda, though no one in the group believes that Jessica's curse is responsible.
An ancient chest-- later revealed to be 400 years old-- is unearthed. Flavia wants to break it open right away. Gordon plays on her greed, informing her that the chest itself might be valuable to a museum. Jessica, for her part, refuses to stay in the house with the mysterious chest, even when Gordon tells her she's acting "like a child." It will soon come out that Gordon has a very specific reason for critiquing Jessica's psychic premonitions: as a skeptic he considers all such metaphysical beliefs nonsense, and he wants Jessica to "grow up" and to grow out of such childish beliefs so that he will be accessible to him as a wife. To her credit, Jessica never doubts her own natural gifts, and finally does persuade him by directing him to find a lost item. In finding the lost item, Gordon also finds an ancient fleur-de-lys amulet which he places on Jessica's neck. The amulet functions as an ersatz "engagement ring"-- later she tells him, "you put it on, you're the only one who can take it off"-- and also as protection against the bane in the box.
While Jessica and Gordon are reaching their rapprochement, Flavia's crooked ranch-hands plot to make off with the treasure in the box. The latter-day Lenny-and-George come to regret this action, for in the box is the decapitated head of an immortal sorcerer, Gideon Drew. Four hundred years ago, Drew came to the New World on the ship of Sir Francis Drake (presumably during Drake's circumnavigation the globe in the 1570s). The still living head of Drew takes mental control of "Lenny" and uses him to kill "George." Later, Drew takes control of Linda as well, and finally, of Jessica-- all with the end of having these mortal pawns link together his head with the rest of his immortal body, buried elsewhere in the area.
Drew is a great idea, but one undone by the limited budget. Despite a well modulated performance by Robin Hughes, most of the scenes of the wizard-head dominating this or that pawn are more funny than fear-inspiring. Drew's indirect influence is a different matter. In keeping with the sorcerer's satanic affiliations, he corrupts others by his mere presence. After he's caused the deaths of both Boyd and Mike, Drew separates Linda from her boyfriend Hank. Hank, hurt by her rejection, tries to put the moves on Jessica. Jessica, at one point divested of her protective charm by practical-minded Gordon, also falls under Drew's sway, and makes a partial shift from "virgin" toward "whore." That is to say, she starts behaving in an un-virginal way. She allows Hank to paint her in a compromising situation, though she has enough mental strength to reject his attempt to sleep with her. In another scene she begins dressing more provocatively and kisses Gordon passionately. In the end, though, once Gordon is finally forced to believe in witchcraft and sorcery, he's allowed the privilege of putting down the evil sorcerer for good, though he must use the charm that Jessica unearthed. The movie closes on his words while he places the amulet back on Jessica: "let this protect us both."
Will Cowan's direction is generally competent but pedestrian, even in the film's strongest scenes, those depicting the uneasy romance of Gordon and Jessica. It's likely that behind Gordon's scorn of Jessica's witchy power lies a general fear that women may have instinctive ties to the dark side of the supernatural world, and that even for an unbeliever, only the sanctity of marriage can keep women from becoming the brides of Satan. For Gideon Drew is first and foremost a pocket-sized Satan, whose power lies in persuading a virgin to bring together the parts of his divided body. Strangely, moments before the eleventh-hour reversal, Drew is lusting not for Jessica, but for the privilege of slaying the good-hearted Gordon. Or perhaps lust isn't quite the right word, but Duncan's script makes clear that Drew scorns the corruptible Flavia, Linda and Hank as hardly worth killing, perhaps because they've figuratively signed over the souls to him.
In a Hollywood jam-packed with remakes of films that didn't need remaking, it could be interesting to see THE THING THAT COULDN'T DIE given a new lease on life.