“You just can’t beat wild imagination.” – Bob Bottin
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It took decades for John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) to find an audience, on home video and cable. Blade Runner was released the same year and elicited a similarly lacklustre critical and audience response. Yet both went on to be two of the most highly regarded, influential, and beloved sci-fi horror movies, not merely genre but cinematic landmarks.
Nineteen-eighty-two was an unusually rich year for Hollywood; also released were Star Trek: Wrath of Khan, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 48 Hours, Sophie’s Choice, Gandhi, First Blood, Tootsie, Annie, Diner, Pink Floyd: The Wall and, of course, ET. It’s fair to say the competition was stiff. And the film was savaged critically, with particularly vicious reviews coming from Roger Ebert, and Vincent Canby in the New York Times. The Thing also came at an inopportune moment historically: the US was still in recession and nuclear annihilation was very much on people’s minds; there was a general desire for escapism and the golden age of the credit card was about to begin, when people would escape into things.
And annihilation is what the film is about. It opens with two Norwegian researchers chasing a dog across the snowscape of Antarctica (played by Stewart, British Columbia), trying to shoot it; Carpenter commented, “You see a helicopter and they’re chasing a dog and it looks like the end of the world to me.” Its weak box office performance can be put down partly to its nihilism: it offers no hope or consolation, not even the one that it can be dismissed, in the end, as hokum. It is a radically unsentimental film without even the genre canard about the hubris of mankind and science, for the horror of The Thing is metaphysical and cosmic.
Cinematically, too, the film was out of time. Five years earlier it wouldn’t have seemed so out of place. In the US, at least during the late 1960s and ’70s, there was a cinema of pessimism, of downbeat classics such as Midnight Cowboy (1969), Fat City (1972), Straight Time (1978), The Wild Bunch (1969), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), The Conversation (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Wanda (1970), and, perhaps the most misanthropic, paranoid movie ever made, Rosemary’s Baby (1968). These movies though, still had a bruised humanism at their core, but The Thing is resolutely anti-humanist, suggesting that humanity may be wiped out merely by chance, that we are pure contingency, a fleeting cosmic incident with, perhaps, the spread of a virus or an animal-to-human infection ending not with a bang, but with a dog’s whimper. When Alan Spencer of Starlog criticised the movie for being “devoid of warmth or humanity,” he was at the same time getting and missing the point.
The Thing is a loose remake of Howard Hawks’s and Christian Nyby’s The Thing from Outer Space (1951), but also cleaves more closely to the source material, John W Campbell’s 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” Carpenter has referenced Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. There’s something in there, too, of John Ford’s Rio Bravo (1959) and the kind of “stupid” films Carpenter says he preferred to watch to art house fare at film school, such as The Giant Claw (1957), featuring perhaps cinema’s most rubbish monster, The Invisible Invaders (1959). and From Hell it Came (1959).
Dog and pursuers both arrive at US Antarctic Outpost #31, a research station where twelve men are marooned for the winter. Both Norwegians die, one accidentally blowing himself up when about to chuck dynamite at the dog, and the other shot in the head by Garry (Donald Moffat), the camp policeman, in self-defence. Helicopter pilot Macready (Kurt Russell) and camp physician Copper (Richard Dysart) go to the Norwegian camp and find it abandoned, a charred ruin, and containing the corpse of a man who slit his own throat, cut throat still in hand, neck festooned with stalactites of frozen blood. They find something else: a mass of flesh and claws with two melded, screaming human heads that has been burned, which they take back to the station. It was grossly unfair for 1980s critics to claim that the horror in this movie relied on special effects, stunning as they are. Tension, fear, and foreboding are built up through scenes such as this, the lighting and framing of DP Dean Cundy and the music of Ennio Morricone, which shifts between the slightly crazed Bartokesque and a synth soundtrack actually very reminiscent of John Carpenter’s own music, dominated by a two-note systole-diastole that is the Thing’s theme. It is a film of great visual beauty, not just the grotesque beauty of the Thing and its metamorphoses, but of the station’s interior and the ice and snowscape surrounding it, the work of and the matte paintings of Albert Whitlock (The Birds, 1963, Earthquake, 1974) and Cundy’s icy and muted cinematography. Much of the film consists necessarily of a bunch of men standing around, but together Carpenter and Cundy make such scenes dynamic, moody, and painterly, a matter not just of lighting, framing, and mise en scene, but also one of casting and physiognomy.
What they have found is the corpse of a protean creature that imitates other life forms perfectly – currently the dog – killing, digesting, and absorbing them, transforming anything it takes over into a copy of itself. It reproduces itself by imitation, like an ideology in its initial “voluntary” phase. This raises philosophical and political questions of what the difference might be between a real thing and an exact replica of that thing, degrees of authenticity, conformity, social mimesis, and the reality of free will. There is something of the locked room whodunit about the movie; the paranoia mounts as they begin to turn on each other, each suspecting the other of being “infected,” of not being human. It turns out that each character in turn dunnit, as they are absorbed, becoming the Thing and killing each other one by one, each in turn incinerated by the camp’s flamethrowers.
The Thing is the essence of blind instinct, with no other motive than proliferation and survival, something at the same time inhuman, but also disturbingly human, that is when humans are pushed into the most extreme situations. We first encounter Macready playing chess on his computer. When the computer wins, he pours his JB onto the hard drive, calling it a “cheatin’ bitch”: the booze, the temper, the antagonism to the machine, the non-human underscoring fallible humanity. To find out who is infected, each of the men has a hot needle put in a petri dish of their blood, as each cell of the Thing is an independent, discrete being, and will try to flee the heat.
Macready torches the station, to try and prevent the Thing from freezing, going into cryogenic stasis again, and awaiting a rescue party, and the resultant mushroom cloud and post-apocalyptic look of the aftermath increases the film’s apocalyptic tenor. The film closes with Macready and site mechanic Childs (Keith David) sat sharing a bottle of whisky, waiting to freeze to death. The film offers no closure; one or neither of them could be the Thing (in which case both will die), the very human gesture of sharing a drink offers perhaps residual hope. Earlier senior biologist Blair (Wilford Brimley), before he went mad and then became the truly horrific and enormous Blair-Garry-Nauls-Thing, created a computer model showing that if the Thing survived, the whole world would be assimilated in three years. (One of the film’s drollest scenes and one of consummate acting is Blair asking to be let out of the toolshed the other men have locked him in following his violent ravings, doing his best to sound reasonable with the noose he’s fashioned for himself hanging from the ceiling beside him.)
Vincent Canby’s review said that “the film is entertaining if one’s needs are met by such sights as those of a head walking around on spider’s legs.” Well, it certainly meets mine and it turned out it meets those of many others. The surrealists would have loved it – a face breaking open for a flower of flesh and dogs’ tongues and teeth emerging from it is at least as beautiful as “the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.”
The hybrid, metamorphosing-assimilating creatures themselves, the clawed, tentacle-faced dog-men, spider-men, men-men, the toothed abdomen and so-on have none of the two-dimensionality of CGI. It all looks real. The gore is mucilaginous rather than sanguinary, and largely the work of FX maestro Bob Botti, whose work Carpenter had seen on The Howling (1981). His methods were analog, and there was something serendipitous and make-and-do about them. He used perfect wax replicas of heads and bodies, hand puppets with animatronic heads, wax bones, Jell-O limbs, plastic veins filled with blood, and a queasy look of viscosity and dripping slime was achieved with mayonnaise and huge quantities of KY Jelly. For the scene where Copper applies a defibrillator to Norris’s (Charles Hallahan) chest, which opens as a toothed cavity and bites Copper ‘s arms off, Bottin used an armless man wearing a mask of Copper’s face as a prop. Perhaps the main source of horror in the movie is this glistening of slimy viscera and shiny hydrogels, the autopsical lunging into innards, into what is and should remain hidden, but which has a captivating, grotesque beauty. If the film is about distrust and the unknowablity of the other, it is also about the distrust of the body, and the body as grotesque, unknowable, and fatal other. These scenes make us think of our helplessness against the body’s many metamorphoses, whether through illness, aging, or disease, and of our biological closeness to all other species, though the film paradoxically offers the terrifying possibility that we are ultimately alone and that each person is a species unto themselves. The creature is extra-terrestrial, yet what terrifies is its evocation of the primordial and atavistic, of our slimy origins as well as the nightmare of undifferentiated sameness, a time before emotion and thought. Ultimately, the Thing is about the contingency of humanity, in both senses of the word.