Isolation, self-identity, and paranoia are all elements touched on in The Thing. And gore. Lots and lots of gore!
Comparing John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing to the original The Thing From Another World, is like comparing 1933’s King Kong to Kong: Skull Island. Both films may be about the same subject and basic premise, but they are worlds apart!
It’s very difficult to watch this trailer again for the first time. What I can say is that the trailer does seem to capture one of the themes of the film, being the Thing has the ability to masquerade as any of the 12 members of the outpost. It shows some of the action and brief shots of weirdness (which are really the Thing in its transitional forms). All in all, a good representation of the final product while not giving too much away!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
In 1982 Antarctica, a lone helicopter with two Norwegians chase a sled dog across the snow plains. They track it to U.S. Outpost #31, shooting at it with a rifle. The scientists and technicians of the outpost come out to see what is happening. The Norwegians accidentally blow up their chopper, and wound one of the men before being shot and killed by the chief of the station. The dog enters the base with the men.
Wondering what was up with these Norwegians, who were neither sick nor on drugs, station pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and the doctor, Copper (Richard Dysart), fly to the Norwegian base. They find it destroyed and still smoldering from a fire. The inside is exposed to freezing temps,and a radio operator is dead in his chair, his neck slit by his own hand. They also discover a large block of ice that something appears to have escaped from, and a mangled, deformed corpse that may have been human, lying outside.
Returning to their base with the odd corpse, Copper, Blair (Wilford Brimley) and Fuchs (Joel Polis) examine the body while the other men hang out in the rec room. Startled by the dog wandering around the base, Bennings (Peter Maloney) asks Clark (Richard Masur) to put it back in the kennel. When he does, the dog turns inside out, erupting in strange tendrils and fluids to attack the other dogs. Part of it morphs and escapes. Childs shows up with a flamethrower to burn the weird creature.
Reviewing some notes and video tapes brought back from the Norwegian base, the team realizes the Norwegians had found a crashed spaceship of some kind. MacReady, Norris (Charles Hallahan) and Palmer (David Clennon) check out the site, realizing that the ship might be 100,000 years old. Upon their return, Blair has realized that even a small piece of this Thing might be able to infect a host, replicating it perfectly. He sabotages the camp’s helicopter, radio and snowcat to prevent the alien from escaping. The team feels he has gone crazy and lock him in the toolshed.
Meanwhile, emotions run high, as the isolation, stress and potential threat wear on the various crewmen. A test is devised to discover who is still human, but the blood stores are compromised before it can be enacted. The base chief, Garry (Donald Moffat) resigns his leadership to MacReady. From there, things head downhill quickly with Fuchs killing himself to avoid infection, and Norris turning into a Thing and attacking Copper. In a tense stand down, where no one is sure who else may be infected, MacReady kills Clark when he attacks. Mac has another idea for a test involving a hot-wire and a sample of the remaining men’s blood.
Tying everyone up, MacReady tests a sample of their blood revealing Palmer as a Thing, who attacks and kills Windows (Thomas Waites) before being killed by MacReady. The remaining men, which include Garry, Childs (Keith David) and Nauls (TK Carter) discover that Blair has been infected, and was building an escape craft under the cabin he was confined to. They blow it up, but not before the Blair-Thing kills Garry and Nauls. As the camp burns, MacReady sits down with a bottle of whiskey. Childs is the only other survivor, but Mac can’t be sure he isn’t a Thing as well. “Well, what do we do,” asks Childs. MacReady responds, “why don’t we just wait here for a little while…see what happens?”
“I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human.” – MacReady
History in the Making
Upon release, The Thing shocked audience with its volume of gore and viscera. Never before had a film gone so far with the overt effects, but also films had not taken on this level of creature effects either. To date, An American Werewolf in London and The Howling (both from 1981) were two horror films applauded for their creature effects. The Thing surpases them both. Rob Bottin, who’s werewolves in The Howling paralleled Rick Baker’s work on American Werewolf, had the chance to create insane creature effects with little to no boundaries. His design work of strange metamorphoses and body-horror imagery (from a decapitated head sprouting spider-like legs or a chest cavity turning into a mouth) paved the way for greater and more extreme creature effects for the decade to come. Films like Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly (1986), Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987), or Peter Jackson’s parodic Dead Alive (1992) all featured quantum steps in practical creature effects that were pioneered by creators such as Bottin. Practical effects also have the benefit of being something for the actors to see and react to on-set, rather than the “invisible” elements of CGI effects as seen in the 2011 sequel/prequel as well as other films.
The film also features a downbeat and ambiguous ending. It’s not that horror or sci-fi films hadn’t had endings like this before, but The Thing is unique in its tone. Made during the early 80’s in arguably one of America’s most prosperous economies since the 1950s, it’s tone is mired in menace, paranoia, and the fear of losing self-identity. As the 80s celebrated capitalism and the fruits of the Baby Boomers “me” generation, The Thing reflected, as some have called it, a nihilistic ending, where no good occurs, and everyone loses. Since Brian DePalma’s Carrie, horror films had usually offered a final scare tag at the end of the movie. Whether it’s the main protagonist reaching back out of the grave, or an unforeseen foe jumping out from behind a tree – the end of the film usually settles the main conflict of this particular episode, with a final thrilling moment to point to a potential unresolved narrative (or as more often is the case – a sequel).
The Thing offers no such moment of relief. And it offers no final jump scare. It presents a hopeless case in which, in the best scenario, the remaining two humans freeze to death after having destroyed their entire base – and the monster inhabiting it. At worst, one of the two characters has been infected by the Thing and will shortly destroy the other, potentially hibernating until it’s rescued and taken back to civilization. Carpenter’s vision is bleak and potentially unsatisfying, especially for audiences that were enjoying the emotionally uplifting E.T. The Extraterrestrial, or the more satisfying scares and unambiguous frights of Poltergeist that summer in 1982.
Horror in science fiction isn’t new. Starting with the original The Thing From Another World in 1951, or Invasion of The Body Snatchers (1956), and The Blob (1958), science-fiction’s dealings with the strange and unknown has been a great breeding ground for horror. Modern sci-fi horror found its foothold in popular culture with 1979s Alien. Other films followed such as Altered States (1980), Saturn 3 (1980) or Scanners (1981). But none of them have had the impact, then or now, like The Thing.
The Thing solidified the fusion of horror and science-fiction in modern cinema. After Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), science-fiction was just another location to set horror films in. Or maybe horror was just another dimension for sci-fi films to explore. Either way, The Thing was in the middle of horror resurgence and a sci-fi boom and capitalized on both. The growth of late 70s and early 80s horror films such as Carrie (1976), Friday the 13th (1980), The Amityville Horror (1979), An American Werewolf in London (1981), not to mention Carpenter’s two previous horror film Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980) all set the stage for the terror captured in this remake of a 1951 classic. But the horror film that truly shares kinship with The Thing has got to be The Shining.
The Shining, I would argue, is equally as bleak as The Thing, but only for one man. Not for the human race. This is what sets horror apart from science-fiction. Horror films exist on a personal or individual level. A person, or a small group of people, is fighting for their life. Science-fiction has always looked at society or humanity as a whole. Both films deal with isolation and more importantly the loss of self-identity, which has been a common theme in sci-fi films, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to They Live, to The Matrix. However a “normal” psychological or fantastical horror film, cannot reach the levels of existential terror that a sci-fi horror film can, mostly due to the difference between the individual and the society.
Self-identification is a core human experience that few other species share. Scientists have found the ability in certain primates, elephants and even dolphins. When presented with a mirror these beings can intuit and understand that the being they observe is not someone else, but themselves. Carpenter’s The Thing does something that Hawks’ original did not, which is to threaten the status quo of these individuals identity.
The original Thing was a space alien that threatened a group of scientists at the North Pole. It was a brutish, Frankenstein’s monster type of creature, that threatened humanity by having the potential to spawn self-replicating progeny that could easily kill off humans by the sheer strength of its vegetable-like body. Carpenter’s Thing reverted to the creature in the original John W. Campbell Jr. short story called “Who Goes There?” That creature could replicate itself to look and act like any other character. Thus when presented with a mirror image of oneself, characters cannot be sure that it is them. This threat against the self-identity of the characters leads to two other strong themes in The Thing: paranoia and mistrust.
Individuals in isolated environments have been shown to develop irritability and restlessness due to the lack of outside contact. Sometimes called “cabin fever,” this emotional level can lead to intense feelings in the person. So, even without a shape-shifting monster hunting them, the scientists and workers at Outpost #31 still had the potential emotional fallout from being isolated in the Antarctic. Now add into that a creature that can assume to be anyone at any time, and the levels of paranoia and mistrust skyrocket. Any audience member can surely identify with these issues. Many of us were probably having the same reactions sitting in our seats as the characters on screen did. Which character is currently the Thing?
The best example in the film is Clark, who is the dog handler. Once the audience realizes that the dog that comes into camp is a version of the Thing, and seeing Clark’s close proximity to the dog, the immediate reaction is to assume that he too has been taken over. Blair has this reaction shortly after the dog-Thing is killed. Later Garry and MacReady find Clark’s behavior too odd to put him in charge. Eventually MacReady shoots Clark for trying to attack him. This is when everyone realizes he’s actually human, and was not infected. Carpenter does a great job of putting the audience into a role and seeing how easily it is to blame an ‘other.’ Clark may not be human, and therefore he’s a threat to their group. The creation of labeling people as ‘other’ is something that is commonly used with marginalized groups. Identify members as something less than human, as an ‘other,’ and then it becomes easier to treat them as less than human. It’s just in the case of The Thing, it really wasn’t human!
The Science in The Fiction
In some ways the Thing acts like a virus within a host. It infiltrates, it absorbs and mimics and continues on doing so. The film shows the biologist Blair running through a rudimentary computer simulation showing how a cell from the Thing attacks and takes over a healthy cell. It’s like a mini class in cellular biology, paralleling the way cancer cells react with healthy tissue. This modern version is also understandable in the genetic make-up of the alien. In 1951 it somehow made more sense to the audience to present that creature as a walking vegetable. But for modern audiences, a biological chimera seems to provide enough that is alien to make it weird and scary, with enough elements that make sense so that it seems “realistic.”
Really what the movie is about is the psychological sciences. It features scenes that look at the interpersonal relationships of multiple characters and the complex social hierarchy that is achieved, and disrupted, by the Thing. The previously discussed mistrust and paranoia are fueled by the psychological needs for each characters safety in the presence of the foreign.
Interestingly, while characters are fighting for their individuality, for the ability to survive, so too is the Thing. Its only serving it’s primary instinct to survive. It doesn’t kill characters unnecessarily (Fuchs was originally going to be stabbed to death by a shovel, until the filmmakers realized this went against the nature of the Thing). As MacReady points out, unlike humans who have one unified consciousness, and our blood is just tissue, the Thing is collective of individual elements. A hive mind, or colony like many groups of insects or certain flora. In the end, the creature is not as alien as it seems, thus linking the audience to the terror in a much more grounded way.
The Final Frontier
As fans of this film may find it hard to believe, The Thing was not a successful film on its initial release. Fighting against larger blockbusters like E.T. and Poltergeist, and seen as overly violent and gory film, it wasn’t until it’s home video release that it began gaining the cult following it has today. As with many great works of art, it wasn’t appreciated in its original offering. What Carpenter had created was a film that was decades ahead of its time. The thematic elements are much more suited to a 21st Century life than the orgy of commerce that was 1982. Today it’s become an example of a great horror film that continues to endure, when other, more popular films of its generation have faded away. It’s even screened annually to mark the start of winter at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station.
Another benchmark of the popularity of the film is a series of four comic book mini-series produced by Dark Horse Comics in the early 90s. They purchased the licence, along with a number of other sci-fi properties like Terminator, Predator and Aliens to make comic books from. And then of course there was the 2011 sequel, also confusingly called The Thing. It was not a sequel per se, or a remake, but a prequel telling the story of the ill-fated Norwegian expedition that found the spacecraft. There was even a comic tie-in for that film called “The Northman Nightmare,” set 100 years before the events of the film where some Norsemen encounter the creature.
There are volumes more that can be written about this film, from the beautiful cinematography, to the haunting monotonous score by Ennio Morricone (and an uncredited John Carpenter). This post has only scratched the surface. Just remember that The Thing is an important film in the annals of film not only from a technical standpoint, but also for its hybrid use of genre elements and themes. Many other films may try to copy The Thing, to assume it’s shape and style, but just like the alien in this film, they are only copies.
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.