In fright night dramas, damsels in distress are a genre archetype. Typically young, beautiful, scantily clad and frustratingly naïve, their seemingly malfunctioning gut instinct is partially forgiven in and around the latter half of the film in lieu of witnessing their tenacious will to survive when pushed to the limits of running/escaping/fighting for their lives. They become strong, independent women as they face head on whatever terror is menacing them, be it alien, supernatural or human psychosis.
This, however, is not the plot trajectory of The Thing.
Out in theatres across North America this Friday, October 14th, first time feature film director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s prequel of the cult ’80s sci-fi horror film by genre legend John Carpenter is an enlightened departure from its predecessor.
The dash of nuance appears in the form of actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, superseding Kurt Russell’s R.J. MacReady character in the role of lead survivor and strategist. Last seen starring opposite Michael Cera as the charismatic dream girl in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Winstead plays Kate Lloyd, a young scientist joining a research expedition in Antarctica in the wake of an unearthly discovery. An independent thinker with strength of will to boot, Winstead’s character is atypical to the horror genre, which, as the actress shares, was a major reason for her initial attraction to the script. “To me, throwing a female into the mix is a big part of what sets this film apart from the Carpenter version,” says Winstead. “Of course on the surface it might not seem like much, but when you take into account how that affects every other character in the story, the dynamics become very interesting, and unique to this version.”
The lone women amongst a testosterone-ridden team led by Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), conflict between Lloyd and her superior over the handling of the team’s discovery of an alien craft makes it obvious that the young scientist has been chosen based on Halvorson’s previous belief that she would be easily controlled — an experience that the rising actress has become familiarized with herself over her career in Hollywood. “As a woman in the film business, I deal with the gender power struggle on a regular basis,” she says. “I could definitely relate to being put in that position and trying desperately to break out of it.”
Currently in pre-production for a new feature, the dramedy Smashed, co-starring Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad, her latest project happens to be a remake of another cherished classic, this time a loose interpretation of the Oscar-winning 1962 drama by Blake Edwards, Days of Wine and Roses, starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. In between promotion of The Thing and rehearsing for Smashed, Winstead takes a break to join FILLER on set for a shoot and a chat about the pressures of re-imagining the beloved Carpenter classic, filming in Canada and her take on the horror genre.
I imagine it must be difficult for any actor to star in a remake or prequel of a popular film, but especially so in the “horror” genre where the fans are so passionate about the genre and its cult classics. Did you feel the weight of fans’ expectations on your shoulders while working on The Thing?
As a fan of the Carpenter version myself, I was actually hesitant to take this on because I absolutely did not want to tarnish the legacy of that film in any way. So I completely understand how many fans feel. What drew me to this was the intelligence of the script and the role, as well as the passion of everyone involved. I really got the sense that the filmmakers wanted to respectful and make something great. And I feel that’s exactly what they’ve done. They made something that can appeal to fans of the ’82 film, but also bring something new and excited to a generation who may never have otherwise heard of it.
Your character, Kate Lloyd, is very different from those we know from Carpenter’s film — you might even say she’s unique to the horror genre itself, would you agree?
When I read the script, I was so please with the way the lead female role had been handled. She wasn’t a tough masculine tomboy, she wasn’t somebody’s love interest — she was an intelligent and strong, but in a very realistic way.
Must have invigorating to play that kind of role?
I was so happy to play an action heroine who didn’t have superpowers, who wasn’t perfect looking, who wasn’t in spandex or a ripped tank top — just a woman put in a dire situation trying to find the strength to make it to the next day. It was my hope to put a character on screen who was just a real woman, and one that both men and women could root for and respect.
The fictional threat in dramas such as The Thing can usually be traced back to a current “thing” or hot button topic triggering anxiety in the general population, what fear does The Thing’s play on?
A major issue that pervades the film is that of “trust”. The characters immediately want to separate themselves from anyone they deem to be infected and therefore create an environment completely dominated by fear and paranoia. The first interpretation of the material, The Thing from Another World is viewed by many as an allegory for the Cold War, but I think these issues are just as relevant in todays society. Trust is hard to come by, and many people are feeling afraid and not sure where to turn.
Lack of someone to trust can most definitely be a scary thing. When it comes to horror, what do you find more frightening: the suspense surrounding the unthinkable danger or seeing the actual monster, killer, alien themselves?
I am most definitely in the suspense camp. I’d rather be deeply unsettled by the way a director sets the tone, the feeling, the palpable fear of the people on screen, that usually frightens me more than anything gory. But I am a huge fan of creature effects. When they’re done well, they are a sight to behold and are an awesome part of the horror experience.
Which of these two types of fears does The Thing play off of more?
I’d say The Thing is a great balance of both. The first half of the film is a real slow burn. You feel this foreboding sense of dread as well as a building suspense for what’s coming. And then once the crap hits the fan— it doesn’t let go. There are some terrifying creature effects that are scary as hell.