Posted: 3/9/00

John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)
by Chad Byrnes

Originally greeted by limp box office, eighteen years later, this 'Thing' still stands up.


FM Home
now playing
coming soon
video/DVD
behind the scenes
wayne case
film noir
horror film
silent cinema
american cinematheque
television
letters
links
about fm

Critics have been known to denigrate talented filmmakers to the point of obscurity, thereby flushing some of their greatest films down the public toilet. These artists are merely victims of circumstance -- charged with crimes that exist only to protect the sensibilities of cowardly men. No, I'm not talking about the defendants of the Army-McCarthy Hearings. I'm talking about horror directors, man. John Carpenter's masterpiece, The Thing, came out in 1982, around the same time E.T. and Annie jerked millions of law-abiding citizens into a flood of tears. But the competition wasn't the only reason The Thing sank at the box office. It's also a hard-edged film that never tried to appease its audience. The film exists on its own merit, a great piece of art that never worried about how it would be received. But that's John Carpenter for you -- if his films have anything in common, it's their formidable sense of individuality and resentment of Hollywood's set of rules. Eventually, The Thing bombed and became one of the biggest sci-fi disappointments in history, not only financially, but critically as well -- an undeserved blast to a film that is now considered one of the greatest horror films in history. And even though it was buried under the ice in 1982, it reemerged like The Thing itself -- lurking, mysterious, hiding within darkness, only to peek its head out years later and present itself as a dominant menace in film. John Carpenter still asserts that it's his crowning achievement. Look at any horror magazine, website, or newspaper article and you'll notice The Thingis always on the top of the list, not too far under Rosemary's Baby and Alien. On top of proving itself as a great film, The Thing is also one of the most gruesome, creative, psychotic rides of all time.

The 1951 Howard Hawks original, The Thing from Another World, and John Carpenter's remake were both based on John W. Campbell's short story "Who Goes There?" But, believe it or not, bloody effects and all, it was Carpenter's version that stayed true to the source. Nevertheless, Howard Hawks is Carpenter's greatest influence, and the original film was one of his favorites (watch Halloween and pay close attention to what movie Jamie Lee Curtis and the kids are watching.) In the Hawks version, the creature is James Arness, wearing a carrot suit, walking around darkened corridors, killing people off, causing the cast to stick together and fight it as one. Carpenter's framework is more ambiguous and less traditional. His creature is extremely sophisticated, possessing the ability to inhabit any life form as it devours its host and imitates its every molecule. In other words, nobody can tell who is the "thing" and who isn't. Additionally, the creature is an apparatus of forms -- a conglomeration of beings it has consumed.

The opening sequence is an appetizer to the meaty main course: inverted biology, insanity and extreme paranoia. A helicopter full of frantic Norwegians chase down a husky through the icy badlands of the South Pole. They throw grenades and shoot at the mutt with a high-powered rifle. When the dog escapes into the confines of an American weather station, headed by MacReady (Kurt Russell) and his fellow catatonic scientists, the Norwegians follow and erratically shoot the place up in their desperate and obsessed hunt. McReady's men kill the Norwegians in self-defense and put the husky in their kennel. That's when all hell breaks loose. Have you ever seen a dog's face split in four cylinders and spew out sperm? I think not.

Besides being an interesting film, The Thing is also a true gore fest, a horror fan's wet-dream. But don't let that steer you thin-skinned wussies away -- the gore is masterful, beautiful (reminding one of H.R Giger's work in Alien) and methodically placed. Carpenter isn't about shock. He's about pushing his audience to the limit of their imagination. He knows that violence is a medium that works better in some projects than others. There wasn't a drop of blood spilled in Halloween, but that made the deaths more mysterious and brutal. On the same note, the gore actually works for this film. Why are these men so frightened? Why are they so irrational? Simply because they saw nature in its most grotesque form -- one victim's head actually slides off its body and crawls away like a spider. The reaction, "You gotta be fucking kidding me." If this film was devoid of gore, I honestly would say, "Calm down, guys, and kill this mutation." But when you see how it swallows humans and takes on their traits, in all its glorious nausea, you share the crew's fear. Also, the conception of the monster, itself is nothing short of genius. When we finally see it as a whole being, notice how its physique is simply a smorgasbord of the victims it's consumed -- a dog's tail, Richard Masur's face, and other forms it probably inhabited from other planets.

The most interesting aspect of the film is its avant-garde tone and subliminal sense of dread. Ennio Morricone's subtle, electronic score envelopes images of a bleak winter as harried men lose their minds and question their own existence. This is not your average horror film -- there aren't any predictable deaths or shallow heart to heart conversations. But there is a strange, almost metaphysical link between the brink of human sanity and this chameleon-like phenomenon. Watching the film is like staring into a distorted mirror. Everything's familiar, but an uncertainty exists under the surface. In the end, we see that the creature is an enigma, much like sanity itself. A scene that perfectly reflects this theory is when Kurt Russell ties down all the men, draws their blood and tests each sample. When he places a hot needle in each petri dish (to see who's human or not) it's like slow death, very unnerving. Each man in that room doesn't know if he's the creature or not, thereby fusing psychological fear and biological distortion as one raw emotion. The ending shows that Carpenter is trying to convey an intuition and psychological horror, rather than just a bunch of scares. The creature has been killed, the barracks have been burnt to the ground, and two characters who've been arch rivals throughout the ordeal are sitting outside in the freezing cold, slowly dying and sipping from a bottle of whiskey. Both men will freeze to death. But there is an overwhelming feeling that one (or both) of them is infected with the creature. The end, period. No definitive answers, safety nets or feel-good bullshit was ever heaped on and, until the very last second, the uneasy tempo never wavered to appease anyone.

No offense to the great Steven Spielberg, but he doesn't have the balls to make a movie like this. What separates unique storytellers from mainstream directors is in the way they approach their material. John Carpenter doesn't use Hollywood safety nets (cute children, larger than life heroes, tightly wound endings), but instead forces the darkness down our throats and ends his films unpredictably. This is a direct threat to Hollywood and the conventions of film in general -- especially in the early eighties when movies were at a pinnacle of blasé entertainment. But times have changed. Thin political statements, explosions and Burt Reynold's mustache just don't cut it anymore. The people need filmmakers to push the envelope, create atmospheres, paint auras and tear the shit out of their preconceived notions. That's right, people yearn for subliminal death. If The Thing came out tomorrow, it'd be hailed as revolutionary, dark, and original. It was simply at the crest of a spineless, unintelligent era of film.

Chad Byrnes works in the film and television industry in Hollywood.

Got a problem? Email Chad at filmmonthly@hotmail.com