John Carpenter's The Thing at 30

Feature Ryan Lambie 26 Jun 2012 - 06:55

John Carpenter’s sci-fi horror The Thing celebrated its 30th birthday yesterday. Ryan salutes a disturbing genre classic…

Mention the words “Hollywood summer movie”, and it’s likely that such films as Jaws, Independence Day, Star Wars or Transformers will immediately spring to mind. The term automatically conjures up mental images of explosions, stunts and good-looking actors.

How strange, then, that John Carpenter’s oppressive, disturbing movie The Thing was chosen by its studio, Universal, to be one of its major summer releases in 1982. Here was a movie with nihilistic themes, graphic gore, a downbeat ending, all set in a desolate frozen wasteland.

Curious though the timing of The Thing was, it remains an extraordinary film; certainly the best of John Carpenter’s career, and among the best in a year packed full of classics, including Blade Runner (curiously, released on the same day as The Thing in the US), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Poltergeist.

Although The Thing was ostensibly a remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby film, The Thing From Another World, The Thing is a markedly different movie from the one which preceded it. Although its plot is the same – a group of scientists working in the Antarctic encounter an alien being thawed from the ice – its tone, pace and shape-shifting monster are all far more faithful to the novella which originally inspired it, John W Campbell Jr’s Who Goes There?

The Hawks/Nyby Thing was a comparatively breezy sci-fi monster movie in the 50s tradition. It featured a square jawed hero, a love interest, and a shambling humanoid monster played by the hulking James Arness. Although a classic in its own right, The Thing 1951 lacked the paranoia of its literary source, in which the alien could take on the form anyone it encountered.

In the hands of screenwriter Bill (son of Burt) Lancaster, The Thing became darker and far nastier, and closer in mood to 1979’s Alien. It introduced a disparate group of men who, even before the alien shows up, are already tired, irritable and borderline neurotic.

There’s MacReady (Kurt Russell), a helicopter pilot who appears to thoroughly dislike his colleagues, and spends most of his time drinking and playing computer chess alone in his room. Palmer (David Clennon) enjoys smoking pot and watching old game shows on videotape. Clark (Richard Masur) appears to enjoy the company of his group of dogs than other people.

The relations between the twelve characters stuck in the frozen US Outpost 31 are put under yet greater strain when the titular Thing arrives on the scene, immaculately disguised as an Alaskan Malamute. It isn’t long, however, before the monster within reveals itself. And as MacReady is forced to become the unwilling leader of the increasingly fearful group, it becomes clear that the creature could have taken on the likeness of any of their number.

The Thing was the first studio-financed picture for John Carpenter, who’d already enjoyed huge success with such great films as Dark Star, Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween and The Fog. The Thing would be his most expensive and complex project yet; with a budget of $15 million, it was a far cry from his genre-defining hit, Halloween, which he’d shot with little more than $320,000. The Thing would require complicated practical and stop motion effects, large refrigerated sets and location shoots in freezing temperatures.

Nevertheless, Carpenter assembled a group of artists and filmmakers who were more than up to the task of bringing Lancaster’s script to life. Ennio Morricone composed a murmuring, ominous score which hewed closely to the soundtracks Carpenter had composed by himself for his earlier movies. Dean Cundey, the cinematographer who’d worked with Carpenter since Halloween, made full use of The Thing’s expanded budget to provide some of the best work of his career. 

Then there was the young effects designer Rob Bottin, whose demented imagination would be given full reign in The Thing. Working himself to the brink of exhaustion, he spent day after day in his workshop, planning and creating the various horrible forms the film’s creature would take. From Bottin’s brow sprang strange, flower-like mouths composed of dogs’ tongues; human limbs, torsos and faces twisted together in fleshy agony; a sentient tentacle of blood which could leap from a Petri-dish like a crimson jack-in-the-box.

Bottin’s creativity reached its peak in The Thing’s most celebrated and shocking scene, which begins with Norris (Charles Hallahan) suffering from a heart attack. As doctor Copper (Richard Dysart) applies a defibrillator to Norris’ chest, the victim’s entire torso bursts open, revealing a set of jagged teeth which bite off the doctor’s arms. Barely giving the audience time to register what’s happened, Norris’ head detaches from his body, sprouts spider-like legs, and scuttles towards the nearest exit. 

It’s a scene where practical effects, pacing, lighting and great direction conspire to create one of the greatest sequences in horror history. Like Alien’s chestburster sequence, it’s both ghoulish and curiously amusing.

Brilliant though Bottin’s effects are, it’s the pacing of the story and its atmosphere which makes The Thing so timelessly effective. Those moments of horror would be nothing without an effective build-up and decent acting, and it’s on these fronts that The Thing succeeds equally well. The ensemble cast, from Keith David’s hot-tempered Childs to Wilford Brimley’s enigmatic doctor Blair are uniformly excellent, and Kurt Russell’s perfect as MacReady, a character running out of scotch and unsure whom to trust.

There’s also an icy sort of philosophy running through Lancaster’s script – something akin to a HP Lovecraft’s At The Mountains Of Madness (from which Campbell took inspiration for Who Goes There?), with its characters existing in a cold, indifferent universe of disease-like aliens and certain doom. When the film concludes with the line, “Why don't we just wait here for a little while... see what happens...”, it’s impossible not to shiver along with the surviving characters just a little.

Unfortunately, most mainstream critics failed to see beyond the graphic gore and special effects, or appreciate the brilliant direction and craft lurking beneath. Perhaps unprepared for something quite so unremittingly harsh in the wake of the decidedly more cuddly E.T., released two weeks earlier, reviewers moaned about its excesses. The New York Times uncharitably dubbed it “the quintessential moron movie of the 80s.” 

The movie didn’t do terribly at the box office, but The Thing wasn’t a big hit, either – in the summer of 1982, audiences appeared to have little appetite for a movie that whisked them off to an Antarctic apocalypse. But as gushing articles like this one prove, time has been extremely kind to The Thing. The film’s undergone something of a critical rehabilitation, too, as its cult status has grown, reflected in the numerous comics, belated videogame, toys, and last year’s slavishly faithful prequel of the same name.

So what is it about The Thing, now 30 years old, that makes it worth the attention of modern audiences? Well, as we’ve already established, it’s visually and sonically fantastic, with its measured pacing and practical effects holding up surprisingly well. But the main reason The Thing is still so brilliant is because the sense of paranoia inspired by its central monster is so well handled.

The monster in The Thing reminds us of something philosophers have been writing and thinking about for centuries – that other people are essentially unknowable. Like the Pod People in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, the Thing’s victims look and behave passably like normal people. It’s only when the beast is cornered that it reveals itself – begging the question, do the Thing’s victims know they’re an alien, since the creature seems capable of assimilating memories as well as physical shapes? And if this is the case, how would I know whether I'd been taken over by the Thing or not?

These disquieting thoughts are all lurking beneath the surface of The Thing, while its shape-shifting monster, all gooey intestines, teeth and bones, disturbs us on a more visceral, knee-jerk level, as the creature presents us with a disgusting parody of our own bodies.

From 1923 to the 60s, Universal churned out a procession of classic horror movies, including The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Frankenstein and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Although sorely under-appreciated at the time, The Thing arguably deserves to be added to that same list of iconic films. 

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