Thirty Five Years Ago: John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)
-- MacReady (Kurt Russell), in John Carpenter's The Thing.
That description sounds like unwarranted hyperbole until you understand that the double-bill consisted of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Imagine -- just for a moment -- seeing those particular films back-to-back, one after the other, on the big screen.
Then consider the impact these two genre films have on our pop culture had over time. It's...staggering.
If you consider it, both productions share more in common than may appear obvious at first blush. Primarily, both Blade Runner and The Thing explore the existential angst of what it means to be human.
Indeed, Blade Runner and The Thing have emerged as two of the most beloved (and forward-looking…) films of the Age of Reagan. They've defined the direction of their respective genres too.
Suffice it to say, I had much to think about in the days and weeks (and months and years…) following that double feature matinee in the summer of '82. Today, I want to gaze at The Thing, the film that almost literally cost John Carpenter his career in Hollywood.
Why? Well, in the summer of Spielberg's E.T. -- in the days of the Moral Majority -- a great many critics found Carpenter’s trailblazing horror film…questionable.
I summarized the poisonous critical reception to The Thing in my book, The Films of John Carpenter (McFarland; 2000), but for context and history, I wanted to provide at least a handful of quotes here and now, so you might accurately glean a sense of the absolute vitriol spewed at this film and its helmsman.
Newsweek called The Thing an example of “the New Aesthetic – atrocity for atrocity’s sake.” (David Ansen; Newsweek: “Frozen Slime,” June 28, 1982).
And that’s just the tip of the bloody iceberg, to adopt an appropriate metaphor.
Yet today - thirty five years later in 2017 - John Carpenter’s The Thing is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece. It resides in the top 250 movies of all-time on the IMDB last time I checked, and I counted it as the best horror film of its decade in Horror Films of the 1980s (McFarland; 2007).
Of The Thing, The Village Voice’s Scott Foundas wrote in 2008: “this spatial masterpiece of desolate Arctic vistas at odds with close-quarters claustrophobia has...been hailed as a high totem of modern horror-making. There remains something deeply unnerving about Carpenter's ambiguity as to whether the movie's shape-shifting alien is distorting its hosts' personalities or merely revealing something of their primal selves.”
For me, The Thing stands the test of time as a great film for several reasons. It’s not only the film’s finely-honed sense of paranoia that makes it a remarkable achievement, but the glacial, icy feelings of personal “alienation” from society that the story and presentation seem to evoke so powerfully.
Furthermore, John Carpenter’s The Thing involves not just alienation from civilization. It also makes a very squeamish, very uneasy case for the frailty and fragility of the human form itself, Call it alienation of the flesh.
Additionally, it’s difficult not to interpret the “invasion” by the shape-shifting thing as an early harbinger of AIDS, a malady whispered about at the time of the film’s genesis as a “wasting disease” or “The Gay Plague," in the unfortunate terminology of the 1980's. In much more general form, the film succeeds in raising hackles over the universal fear of contagion, of disease…of the body subverted, co-opted, and deformed by an implacable and invisible intruder. If not AIDS, the invader could be cancer, another STD, even old age itself.
Finally, The Thing represents such a singular experience because of the titular monster. Never before in the history of the horror film had audiences witnessed such an elusive, transcendent entity: a life-form in constant evolution and motion, never pausing -- never stopping -- long enough for us to get a grasp of what it "was." Although Scott's Alien was undeniably brilliant and fascinating in its depiction of an alien life-cycle, that life-cycle still had, ultimately, a recognizable shape and a direction (egg, face hugger, chest burster, adult drone...). By contrast, Carpenter's "Thing" was always...becoming.
There also begin to arise a sense in late 70's-early 80's America that the person next door – your very neighbor -- could actually be a monster in disguise…a person that, despite all physical appearances to the contrary, could be harboring monstrous, murderous secrets (think David Lynch's Blue Velvet ).
In part, this uncertainty about the nature of "the next door neighbor" was a result of an unexpected reversal in population migration patterns. Whereas in earlier decades of the 20th century, people from small-towns had moved to the big cities (as part of industrialization…), in the early 1980's we saw “counter-urbanization:” a flight or escape from metropolitan population centers in favor of quieter, emptier areas, whether rural or suburban. This pattern was possible because of increased car production and affordability, and governmental incentives that made new home construction and home-ownership easier.
But the evils and eccentricities that some people (rightly or wrongly) associated with “big” cities also came home to roost in suburban America in this process of counter-urbanization. The Evils were named, in some instances, Ted Bundy, or John Wayne Gacy. On the surface: normal appearing. The truth: monsters in human shape.
John Carpenter’s The Thing is very deliberately crafted in this world of estrangement and alienation.
Specifically, the men of Outpost 31 carry with them the three tell-tale psychological signs or symptoms of alienation. These are: social isolation, the absence of norms; and, finally, a life lacking meaning.
Let's go down that list.
Furthermore, these men in self-imposed exile from society don’t seem to perform much by way of legitimate scientific research. We are never told about a single ongoing project being completed or processed, for example. The “work” life and 9:00 to 5:00 routine that we live and die by in the States is thus entirely absent in The Thing, replaced by something…else. Not only do these men not reproduce...they don't produce.
It’s a life of what some conservative critics might exaggeratedly term “liberal permissiveness.”
Instead of actually producing anything of use to the larger culture (in terms of scientific discoveries), the men of Outpost 31 (like Palmer…) incessantly smoke weed, play computer chess with mechanical partners, drink whiskey (MacReady), watch game show reruns on TV, including Let’s Make a Deal (Childs and Palmer), and spend abundant amounts of time lounging in the communal “rec room.” There, an arcade game console and a pool table achieve visual prominence in many compositions. In one scene, model-kit boxes -- another fun hobby (but not strictly a useful endeavor...) -- can be viewed on a book shelf.
Without a productive routine or overriding set of societal norms, the leisurely lives of these men lack any sort of larger meaning. Instead, it is a life of exaggerated petty grievances and arguments.
It is not until the arrival of the impostor – the chameleon - that the men are roused to that missing common purpose. They choose to fight back against the common enemy, but are already so alienated from one another (and from life itself...) that their efforts are largely unsuccessful. At one point, Blair states he doesn’t know whom to trust, and MacReady cynically suggests another traditional/conservative (but not terribly effective...) ameliorative: “Why don’t you trust in the Lord?”
Because the men of Outpost 31 don’t trust each other, their plans to defeat the Thing continually fail. Fuchs commits suicide rather than fight what he believes is a hopeless battle. Blair destroys all the vehicles and radio equipment rather than trust that his fellow man will do the right thing and help him stop the Thing there and then (before reaching society). Palmer refuses to search alongside Windows. MacReady maintains loose authority and leadership over the group only because he is equipped, alternately, with gun, flame-thrower, and dynamite. He leads the others by holding them at bay, and uses draconian force to keep them in line. He shoots Clark (Richard Masur) in the head, for instance, when Clark attempts a decapitation strike.
Scholar Jonathan Lake Crane writes that the Carpenter film is "exquisitely constructed to deny every attempt from the pathetic to the brilliant, on the part of its supposed protagonists, to master their world." (Terror and Everyday Life: Singular Moments in the History of the Horror Film, Sage Publications, 1994, page 137.).
Yet in this Carpenter version there is no brotherhood to speak of, only distrust and cynicism.
What Crane is talking about there is the inevitable end result, perhaps, of excessive alienation: powerlessness.
Carpenter’s careful selection of visuals gets at the leitmotif of alienation in some intriguing and artistic ways.
Often this is so because their human expressions are “cloaked” behind large goggles, shielded in parka hoods, or otherwise obscured. The larger point is certainly that we can't read what is in a person (or monster's...) heart from a facial expression.
As viewers, we seek out signs of common humanity among those who surround us, but are, many times in The Thing, denied a view of the eyes, the window to the soul. Thus, in some small way, we begin to understand the existential crisis of these alienated men. The Thing has arrived and deviously replaced some members of the circle, but because each denizen has lived a life of isolation, leisure and even “disrespect,” the intuiting of the humanity of those around us is impossible.
Indeed, the “alienated” dramatis personae of The Thing have squandered and ignored their common humanity for too long, and now, when their lives are threatened, attempt lamely to re-assert it.
Again, you might think that a movie about a battle between emotional humanity and alien assimilation device would highlight the differences between species, but the important take away from The Thing is that the alien is pretty much undetectable in a world where we don’t know our neighbors, don’t understand our countrymen, and have “checked” out from the normal ebb and flow of society.
Is That a Man in There? Or Something Else? – Alienation of the Flesh
The Thing serves as the first movement in John Carpenter’s self-named “Apocalypse Trilogy” (followed by 1987’s Prince of Darkness and 1994’s In The Mouth of Madness), and most genre fans are familiar with the general outline of the story, either from the remarkable Campbell literary work, or the 1950s Howard Hawks version, The Thing from Another World (1951).
In short, John Carpenter’s The Thing lands us in freezing Antarctica during the winter of 1982. A strange incident occurs at American Outpost 31, when a Norwegian helicopter breaks the peace and silence of snow.
The foreign chopper pilot and his cohort seem to be relentlessly (and madly...) pursuing a dog, a malamute. The pilot attempts to kill the canine, but in the ensuing scuffle the helicopter is destroyed and an armed Norwegian is shot dead by Outpost 31’s macho commander, Garry (Moffat).
Curious about what could have possibly driven the Norwegian scientists to such heights of apparent insanity, Outpost 31's Doc Copper (Richard Dysart) and helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) travel to the foreign camp and find it utterly ruined, destroyed. Record tapes reveal that the Norwegians unearthed a flying saucer – and an alien – frozen in the ice for 100,000 years. They used Thermite charges to bring both to the surface. MacReady and Copper bring back the tapes, and also the inhuman, half-burned corpse of...something.
Before long, the men of Outpost 31 must grapple with the fact that an alien life form is loose in their camp. It is a chameleon who can perfectly imitate human beings right down to the minutest memories and speech patterns. Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) calculates that after 27,000 hours from first contact with the civilized world, the entire planet Earth will be infected by the extra-terrestrial shape shifter. MacReady and the others must now determine -- in short order -- who is a “thing” and who is a man, and arrange for a blood serum test to help them identify the interloper (or interlopers) hiding in their midst.
Nobody Trusts Anybody Now: Alienation from the World At Large
The political and societal turbulence of the 1970's (from Vietnam to Watergate to the Energy Crisis to Three Mile Island) gave rise in some cases to a deepening sense of personal, community and spiritual dissatisfaction in America of the late 1970's and early 1980's.
One might term this mood the “spirit of the times,” but whatever we call it, many Americans began to feel deep misgivings about the status quo, about an increasingly untrustworthy, shallow, unjust, and material culture. The nation’s confidence -- which had so memorably suffered a “crisis” in Carter’s America -- had eroded.
Punk/thrash music gave voice to this sense of discontentment in popular music throughout the 1980's; and horror films such as George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) and The Amityville Horror (1979) pinpointed sources of anxiety in the consumer culture and such seemingly-sturdy American cultural pillars as home-ownership and commerce.
In these visions, the faceless masses at the local shopping mall were actually slobbering zombies, and monthly mortgage payments could run you out of your too-expensive house faster than your average demonic possession.
The fear in The Thing is even more basic. The flesh betrays us.
That’s a core theme of John Carpenter’s The Thing. In fact, the director makes viewers feel acutely uncomfortable about the softness or weakness of the protective “flesh” that represents our “armor” from a painful and sharp outside world. To adopt a politically charged term, The Thing reveals that our flesh is…a porous border.
That point is hammered home via Carpenter’s canny use of insert or cut-in shots in The Thing. I suspect this may be the very reason the film was derided as being so overtly violent and bloody, but again, the critics didn’t ask themselves why; or question what Carpenter was attempting to accomplish with these unblinking close-ups of grotesque wounds and other “gore” shots. These compositions do serve a purpose, a very important one in the narrative.
In short order in The Thing we see: (in inserts/cutaways) a dead Norwegian with an eye blown out. We witness a perforated knee (belonging to Bennings) undergoing surgery as Copper stitches it up. The tender skin pulls and gives as the doctor sews it.
Later (and also in close inserts) we see fingers sliced open with silver scalpels and then the wounded digits squeezed and pressed so tightly that blood spurts out (copiously...) into small containers.
We also see human skin stretched (in Naul’s death scene…), burned (in the case of Fuchs), and ripped apart (in the case of Windows). We witness our very blood appear in various forms too; frozen in icicles (after a Norwegian’s suicide attempt in the cold), burned and singed under hot copper wire (in the serum test), and discarded as though spilled, spoiled milk in Doc Copper’s sabotaged refrigerator. But this is not atrocity for atrocity's sake: it's a catalog of the flesh's...pliable and soft nature.
Carpenter doesn’t spare audiences a detailed, blunt-faced autopsy scene either. We watch Blair conduct a clinical examination of the dead “thing,” extracting and tagging various internal organs in the process. The scene culminates with a slow-motion shot of Blair hanging his head in disgust – as though he is suppressing the urge to vomit – before we fade slowly to black.
One at a time, we might question these individual moments as gratuitous or unnecessary. Taken together, however, these moments represent a directorial tactic: a full-scale attack on mainstream sensibilities; an uncomfortable forced realization that we are inherently fragile creatures operating inside fragile, easily damaged bodies.
Many horror movies thrive on exploiting fears, but only the most transgressive and honest of them assert so plainly the weakness of our human vessels, the nearness of mortality, and our real proximity to destruction.
And this is under normal “earthly” circumstances.
What the Thing does to human bodies is…savage. A human chest becomes a giant fanged maw and snaps off Copper’s arms. In the same scene, Norris’s head stretches (like stringy mozzarella cheese) from a burning corpse, then miraculously sprouts ridged spider legs and bulbous eye-chutes. Then it skitters away from a threat, a literal phoenix re-born from the flames.
We also see the innocent face of a beautiful dog peel apart into several fleshy, flower petals. We witness eyes open up -- awake -- inside lumpy fat pockets. We see human faces lodged inside the skin, alive, moving and aware. Again, the flesh that we cherish is perverted to serve something...alien. Inimical. It is overwhelming to face this enemy because there's no sense of movie decorum about it: it's a blunt, almost documentary-style presentation of bodies shattered and mutilated before our eyes in something akin to real-time. Because the special effects are so good, we don't sense trickery or phoniness.
On and on the horror of the flesh goes, and the result is inescapable: we recognize just how vulnerable we really are to an invader from within; from disease. The “alien” in The Thing is extra-terrestrial on the literal level, but symbolic of something else entirely. On a metaphorical level, these disturbing visuals of our flesh subverted and twisted remind us of real-life microscopic invaders; of a fear of infection, of disease, of sickness.
Author and scholar Eduard Guerrero (in “AIDS as Monster in Science Fiction and Horror Cinema”) suggested that The Thing’s progression through Outpost 31 was a metaphor for the new and mysterious AIDS epidemic unfolding in America in the early 1980's.
Specifically, he noted that “the monster’s mode of operation clearly parallels the AIDS virus’ geometric spread” and that the “great fear” driving the Carpenter film was that of “not being able to detect those who have been penetrated and replicated” by the titular monster. (Guerrero, Eduard. Journal of Popular Film and Television, Volume # 18, Fall, 1990, pages 87 -93.)
Guerrero also wrote that certain aspects of The Thing served as a metaphor for the so-called homosexual life-style, making note of the same-sex characters living a lifestyle of “liberal permissiveness” and “lack of norms." I’m not sure entirely how I feel about this analysis, but it certainly tracks with elements the movie. And it is indeed critical to note the importance of the “blood test” in The Thing's gestalt; the very test that in real life detects Hepatitis, AIDS and other illnesses.
Yet another transmission method for AIDS involves intravenous drug use and shared needles. Accordingly, John Carpenter’s The Thing also features several close-ups of syringes lancing human skin…another resonant image of the 1980's and another uncomfortable image of flesh subverted. Even the Thing’s style-of-attack -- “ripping through clothes” (especially underwear) -- seems to connote some form of sexual aggression or sexual transmission. Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness made the AIDS metaphor even more explicit: with an “Evil” force (Satan himself…) passed between partners by -- well, there's no polite way to say it -- ejaculated fluid.
The anxiety and paranoia of The Thing involves what I termed the “fragility” or “frailty” of the flesh in The Films of John Carpenter.
Although it is not politically correct to admit it, we still often shun the sick, the diseased. President Reagan never made a public speech about AIDS until 1987, and we all remember those crazy stories from the 1980's about people contracting AIDS from sitting down on public restroom toilets. Carpenter himself had touched on the topic of societal response to disease in The Fog, but there the subject was Leprosy, and how the overriding “fear of the sick” gave Antonio Bay’s co-conspirators the cover they needed to exploit the leper, Blake.
If movies reflect the times of their creation, then The Thing -- in selecting a disease-based Bogeyman -- certainly reflects the atmosphere of paranoia and dread about a new and unknown disease on the rise in the 1980's.
The Thing succeeds in no small part because it exploits this universal fear ruthlessly. We all dread getting sick; we all fear contagion. And if we don’t know our neighbors, how do we know they aren’t sick? If contact can come by touch…shouldn’t we lock our doors?
It’s a matter of vanity too; not merely a health concern. Sickness leads to death, but sickness also steals beauty and robs one of physical perfection. And lord knows the 1980's represents the era of films such as Perfect (1983), the Jane Fonda aerobics trend, and songs such as Olivia Newton John’s “Physical.” (1981). These were paeans to the glory of physical beautiful, not "inner" beauty.
It Could Have Imitated a Million Life Forms on a Million Planets: Man is the Warmest Place to Hide.
As much as Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World remains admired -- and rightly so -- that superb 1950's film simply can’t hold a candle to John Carpenter’s remake in terms of the visualization of the monster.
James Arness played a big-headed humanoid -- a “walking-carrot” -- in the original.
Things in the 1982 film are much more…complex. We witness the alien invader in dozens, perhaps literally hundreds of different incarnation, each new and frightening, each “morphing” before our very eyes into another unimaginable, Lovecraftian-style horror.
These amazing effects were accomplished on set by Rob Bottin, and there was no digital tinkering or CGI involved whatsoever. That fact alone should earn the film a high degree of admiration. And having watched John Carpenter’s The Thing again this week, I can state unequivocally that the practical effects hold up far better than those of most CGI epics (think An American Werewolf in Paris .
The “monster” effects in The Thing are revolutionary, gorgeous and horrifying, but unlike computer generated images, they still appear real, even to the trained eye. I believe this is because -- as objects created and manipulated in the real world -- they carry weight; they obey gravity, and they appear to have substance. In David Cronenberg’s The Fly remake of 1986, Jeff Goldblum observed that computers don’t understand flesh, and to a large extent, I maintain that is also true of CGI today. I enjoyed Wonder Woman (2017) as much as the next red blooded American this summer, but some of the CGI work was so bad that it took me right out of the narrative.
The organic, mutable nature of the alien “flesh” in The Thing somehow reads as true or authentic, even today (perhaps even more so today, since younger audiences may be unaccustomed to the “old fashioned” approach to horror effects). It's not just that the creature's always-changing nature is revolutionary, it's that the depiction of that shape-shifting threat is revolutionary too.
The effects are even more effective because of the careful way Carpenter directs his actors and stages the scenes with the beast. Simply put, these moments are…utter pandemonium.
In an otherwise restrained, almost buttoned-down film, the “attack” scenes stand-out as absolute masterpieces of chaos. Things go wrong on a regular basis. Innocent bystanders get burned, macho men shriek in horror, and the alien does everything in its power to survive. Twisting, stretching, ripping, pulling at the flesh in ways that no audience prior to 1982 could have conceived.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” one character exclaims, as the Thing -- now a spidery-mutation -- unceremoniously tip-toes past a group of humans with their attention diverted elsewhere.
Ironically, the person making that very human exhortation (Palmer) was already a thing at that point.
I remember that exact line reading -- and that moment -- in the movie theater experience in Los Angeles. The audience burst to life, laughing, screaming...thoroughly involved. That dialogue of disbelief perfectly mirrored the effect of the scene on the matinee crowd. We were astonished, agape, horrified...nervous. Nobody, and I mean nobody had ever seen anything like this before. Not even in Alien.
Behind only the picturesque The Fog, perhaps, The Thing boasts Carpenter’s finest visual evocation of place and space. His 1982 film feels claustrophobic and cloistered due to Carpenter’s relentlessly tight framing. Often times, he stages whooshing, racing shots through narrow hallways from a first person, P.O.V. perspective so it feels like we’re running through the cluttered, tight corridors ourselves.
Other times, he offers shiver-provoking montages of “empty” rooms (much as he did in the finale of Halloween ). The purpose is the same in both instances: to chart the space where the powerful nemesis is absent. We know the Bogeyman (Myers or the Thing…) is about somewhere, but Carpenter takes us on a tour of all the places where he isn’t in a successful effort to generate suspense and build anticipation.
I began this review by comparing, at least a little bit, Blade Runner and The Thing. In the end, what separates the humans from the Replicants of Scott’s film is simply life-span. The Androids live for four years instead of seventy or so. By the end of Blade Runner, however, even that rule may need revision.
In The Thing, we can't distinguish between man and thing even to that minimal degree. Ambiguity reigns and we never truly gain insight into how a “replicated” or “imitated” human is different (or inferior...) from the genetic source material.
For instance, the Thing imitates Norris so perfectly that the imitation suffers from the same coronary condition as the original human being. The Thing…has a heart attack. It’s clear too that the monster boasts the ability to absorb the memories and speech patterns of the host organism, since it is able to successfully hide inside Norris, Palmer, and others for a rather considerable length of time. This raises an important question. If a “replicated” person is so accurate an imitation -- down to memories and a heart problem -- how exactly is it different from us?
The only answer we have for sure is that the Thing is characterized by a more developed sense of survival. Every piece of it – every cell – seems bred for survival. When we bleed, it’s just “tissue” as MacReady notes smartly. When a Thing bleeds…it’s every particle, every cell, for itself.
But there’s still so much we don’t know. When the Thing imitates more than one person at the same time, for instance, it doesn’t appear to communicate or team up with other infected "things;" with kindred. Palmer and Norris, by my reckoning, are both “Things” at the same time…but they don’t appear to collaborate or help one another.
Again, hiding is the monster’s primary mode of operation, even when there are other "allies"/monsters about that it could seek assistance from. Honestly, the Thing doesn’t seem to care for its fellow “thing” any more than the men of Outpost 31 care for one another.
The existential question is this: if the Thing imitates us, down to the most minute physical similarities and mental quirks…is it…in fact…us?
Only 'us" with super-cells that will resist death? If that’s the only difference, is there, perhaps, a claim to be made that The Thing somehow perfects the imperfect human being?
I mean, a Thing as human can change shape and escape from any physical threat…and it can regenerate itself from one tiny particle. But at the same time, it still possess all our weaknesses, both physical and by inference, emotional.
So..can a thing...love? Is an imitation of love the same thing as love?
It’s important to note that the Thing doesn’t want to take over the Earth in the hoary, conventional ID4 sense. It doesn’t have an agenda for invasion (like, for example, the Daleks…). It merely wants to hide, and in doing so, survive. It will take over every human on Earth to accomplish that aim, but not as an aggressive imperialist invader seeking territory…but as a fearful creature finding a pathway to survival.
Perhaps an anti-social world can only be dominated by an anti-social alien.
I suppose what I’m getting at is this philosophical question: what is the substantive, existential difference between a “thing” and a "person?" Both are flesh and blood. Both have human memories and human failings. And both want to survive. Carpenter’s film asks that question as much as does Blade Runner.
The Thing ultimately provides no answers, and -- as in the best works of art -- we are left to seek them for ourselves. This too infuriated many an audience back in the day. Viewers wanted closure, answers, and a sense of victory over the "monster." What Carpenter gave them instead was an ambiguous meditation on the frigid state of humanity in 1982.
Who won? Who was still human? Did it even matter anymore?
In the final analysis, how do we know we aren’t already living in a world composed of “things?”