John Carpenter’s THE THING has long been a favorite of both horror and science fiction fans for its perfect mood, taut pacing, and its faithful adaptation of John Campbell’s unforgettable short story, “Who Goes There?” First written in 1938, the tale lacks the Cold War paranoia of the Body Snatcher films, and touches an existential, primal childhood fear of the unknown. Are people what they seem?
The opening credits, with the dissonant, haunting score thrumming in the background as a helicopter follows a sled dog over the endless, snowy expanse of the Antarctic wasteland, is how most of us remember the story beginning, but first, we see our lonely planet in the darkness of space. But it is not alone; an object circles, then crashes and burns into the atmosphere. A tiny flaming speck, like an insect or even a virus to the massive planet, but we know how dangerous those tiny things can be. Every scene sets a paranoid, chilling mood that eases us into willfully suspending our disbelief for the fantastic tale to come, of an invasion on a cellular level. The dangerous speck of a spaceship is replaced by that of a grey dog fleeing across the snow, looking back over its shoulder eerily at its pursuers, in a way a dog never would. A man with a rifle is shooting at it frantically, panicked beyond reason.
The dog heads toward a research station, where we meet our only companions for the rest of the story, without introduction. They seem pretty laid back except for the one man in uniform, Garry, who represents the only presence of authority in this remote outpost at McMurdo station, and he is disrespected by his peers, treated almost as a joke. They seem more like fierce independents: bikers, mountain men, cowboys, MIT computer nerds, rather than scientists. In fact, we never even find out what they’re doing out there, except escaping the shackles of civilization. The dog runs into their camp as they come out to investigate the approaching helicopter, and their visitors immediately wound one of them, trying to kill the dog. They shout in a foreign language, and their aberrant behavior- who would want to kill a dog that isn’t attacking anyone?- is taken for cabin fever, and they die before any explanation can be given.
I don’t intend to synopsize the film, or do a shot by shot study of it, for that has been done. There are entire websites devoted to it, such as Outpost 31 or these reviews by people who’ve actually lived in Antarctica. I’m more interested in what makes the film so effective, and popular enough to spawn a prequel 30 years later. And yes, my expectations are quite low for that film, even if it ends with two Norwegians, the last alive, chasing a dog across the snow in a helicopter. Hollywood no longer takes risks like having an all male cast, unless the film is Oscar bait. While it has no basis in fact- women served in Antarctica since the ’60s- it makes for a tight screenplay that can safely ignore romantic subplots. Unless you think Blair and Doc Copper were a secret couple. Maybe that’s what Doc’s nose ring signified? That’s a nice little touch that we notice again now that big screen TVs and HD transfers are commonplace, that Doc has a nose ring, very uncommon in the ’80s, showing him to be a bit of an odd character like his compatriots.
The story isn’t perfect; do we ever learn who sabotaged the blood supply? Like that famous murder in THE BIG SLEEP, where even author Raymond Chandler was hard pressed to explain who did it? Some things are best left unexplained. I don’t want to know where the aliens from ALIEN come from; I didn’t want to know about Hannibal Lecter’s childhood, much less Michael Myers’. The unknown is an important function of horror, and coupled with the isolation of the Antarctic continent, the paranoia of the hidden menace, and the fear of a death that ends with your identity truly stolen, THE THING offers up a panoply of terrors from the beginning. The creature itself, a mockery of the living form, doesn’t just steal your face or your corpse; it turns your organs into modern art sculpture and uses them as weapons. We see a flower of dog tongues that H.P. Lovecraft enthusiasts love to point out, because it resembles the Elder Things from his novella “At the Mountains of Madness,” and Carpenter is definitely a fan of his work. Not until a year later with David Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME would body horror stand on its own; here at least you’re dead and being mimicked. Cold comfort.
|“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
Another risk taken is the infamous ambiguous ending, which thankfully never spawned a film sequel. There was a comic book mini-series called The Thing from Another World that took off with the ultimate fan betrayal by making Kurt Russell’s MacReady be the infected one. I never want to know if Childs or MacReady are real, or a thing, to use Mac’s words. It is unnecessary for the story, and it robs us of that unease in the pit of our stomachs when the film’s unsettling soundtrack rises up again for the end credit roll. We know Mac and Childs are slugging whiskey, watching the camp burn, and the two men- or the man and the thing- will be frozen statues staring each other down when the rescue team comes after the long winter. The script by Bill Lancaster- whose only other credit is another fave of mine, THE BAD NEWS BEARS (full review)- is so sparse that Carpenter’s direction seems to fade into the background, as if it’s a documentary. The reveals often occur in the back of the frame, like the famous spider-thing head that tries to sneak off on its own. The rest is close, accentuating the cramped quarters of the compound or the loneliness of the outpost, with nothing but mountains for miles and miles around.
|My favorite scene.
It was a brave thing for Carpenter to tackle this one after getting panned for THE FOG; he could’ve done another slasher, or another post-apocalyptic hit like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but he once again chose to go in a new direction. Horror, science fiction, but something we’d never seen before. And one we are likely to never see again, with the advent of computer generated effects. Pioneers Rob Bottin and Stan Winston used every effects trick in the book, even stop motion, to create the Thing, and its visceral design is effective even today. On occasion you can see its slip showing; something done in reverse perhaps, but all you need to watch is Doc Copper getting his hands amputated and his “patient’s” head tearing itself off to be impressed at the horror effects, which are arguably the best of the traditional model work you’ll ever see. Carpenter took this level of detail down to the title sequence, paying homage to the 1951 Howard Hawks film THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, which due to budgetary concerns changed the original mimic creature into a plant-based, bloodsucking lifeform that brought its own set of challenges.
I don’t think of this film as a remake, but another adaptation of the story, one truer to the simple question it asks: what if something could mimic us perfectly, down to our personalities; would that really be us? Taken over cell by cell, betrayed by our own DNA, would we know we were a “Thing” until it decided to strike our friends, or defend itself? The film never answers these questions, but does ask them. Amazingly enough when compared to its life on video, THE THING was both a commercial and critical failure upon release, panned by viewers and critics alike for its brutal gore and bleak ending. Being 11 years old at the time, I never had a chance to see it in theaters, but it was one of the first things I taped off HBO, and watched until it shredded. Along with ALIEN, this was one of the formative films of my early years, and skinless, bizarre dog-like creatures are what populate my nightmares. IMDb trivia states that this is Carpenter’s favorite of his own films, and I have to agree.
This post was written for the John Carpenter blogathon this week at RADIATOR HEAVEN. Make sure to go there and check out J.D.’s posts there. I always learn something new, even about films I’ve seen a dozen times.
© 2010 Tommy Salami