Why I Love ‘John Carpenter’s The Thing’
Guillermo Del Toro once said that 1982’s The Thing was one of the most influential films in his life. When he left the theater he knew he wanted to be a director. To me this demonstrates the transcendent power of film, how movies can not only influence our choices, but completely alter the trajectory of our lives. In a weird way, we can attribute films such as Hellboy and the exquisite Pan’s Labyrinth to John Carpenter. It’s safe to say the movie community, especially fans of the horror genre, are extremely grateful. I know I am.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the plot, the film revolves around a group of scientific researchers stationed in a the Antarctic led by R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) . When two seemingly crazy Norwegian helicopter pilots chase an Alaskan Malamute into the station, one of the members Garry (Donald Moffat) is forced to kill the Norwegian. The team takes in the dog and before long they find that the Malamute is actually an alien, a being in disguise who can duplicate any organic life form it comes in contact with. Before long several team members are infected and the researchers descend into a realm of paranoia, suspicion, and fear, desperate to destroy the Thing and unsure of who is friend and who is foe.
John Carpenter’s The Thing debuted on June 25, 1982. The film received less than stellar reviews. Although lauded for its special effects, critics like Roger Ebert called it a “barf-bag movie” giving it 2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote of its “wretched excess” and Richard Schnicel of Time complained of its emotional vacuum and that the film was “an exercise in abstract art.” Unfortunately Carpenter’s film had the distinct misfortune of being released in what many critics say was the best summer movie year ever. Check out just a few films that hit theaters in the summer of ’82: Blade Runner, Conan The Barbarian, E.T., Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Rocky III, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Going up against maybe the best Star Trek film ever, one of the top fifty comedies of all time, and the film that catapulted Arnold Schwarzenegger to stardom, was a labor even Sisyphus could empathize with. But like Van Gough’s paintings, sometimes it takes awhile for a true work of art to be appreciated. In the years since it’s release the film has developed quite the cult following and is now considered one of the best horror/science fiction films of all-time.
In my opinion, John Carpenter’s The Thing is a perfect horror film and not just because of Wilford Brimley’s absent mustache. (Seriously, I challenge you to find ANY other movie where he doesn’t have a mustache.) First and foremost, Carpenter’s film utilizes a key element in many great horror films: playing on our primal fears. Isolation is an overriding factor that weighs greatly on the Antarctic team. Consider the realities: 1000 miles from nowhere, a massive blizzard on the way, no radio contact, prolonged darkness, and body-numbing cold. These are real concrete fears that people deal with on a daily basis. Throw in a malevolent alien and you crank up the fear factor to eleven. The isolation is almost claustrophobic in its pervasiveness. The group is literally trapped with no recourse for escape. I mean how terrifying can you get?
Another aspect that demonstrates The Thing‘s perfection is the fear of the unknown. The Thing is an alien in every sense of the word. It’s literally something none of the group can understand or even fully comprehend. Even worse is the fact that the Thing takes over various members of the group. So suddenly what was once known is now unknown. This generates fear, paranoia, and a heightened sense of unreality. This dovetails nicely into what I consider a subtle but ingenious fact about the characters: no one has a first name. If you look at all the characters they are ALL identified by their last name. The only exception is Russell’s MacReady who is the de facto leader of the group, and even then it’s just his first and middle initial R.J. It takes the personal element out of the equation.
Any horror movie worth it’s salt possesses a great score. Without eerie music that heightens the tension and fear, all the audience is left with is a series of grisly images. Ennio Morricone’s score is flawless in its simplicity. Subtle and restrained rather than bombastic and overpowering, it plays nicely into the slow burn of the film. The main reoccuring beat utilizes string instruments to mimic the sound of a human heartbeat. It’s so simple but incredibly effective. Additionally, Carpenter and Morricone instinctively knew when NOT to use music. Some of the scariest parts of the film occur when there is no music. Unlike so many modern horror films where the music leads you by the nose to the scary parts, the absence of music precedes the most terrifying scenes. Carpenter builds the tension as the film progresses and it wouldn’t have nearly as much impact without the benefit of Morricone’s score. It boggles the mind to think that Morricone’s score was nominated for a Razzie that year.
As I just mentioned Carpenter’s film utilizes a slow burn method that heightens the tension with each successive scene. However, that doesn’t make The Thing in any way a dull movie. On the contrary, there are several horrifying scenes that come out of nowhere. The result is an adrenaline rush that sometimes results in the evacuation of one’s bowels. Two scenes in particular stand out to me. The first was when Copper (Richard Dysart) tries to revive Norris (Charles Hallahan) with a defibrillator. His stomach turns into a mouth with razor-sharp teeth that bites Copper’s hands off. This is one of the few times in my life I literally screamed with terror. Even today at thirty-six that scene gets me every time. The second was later in the film when MacReady tests the groups’ blood to see if the blood will react to a hot wire. When MacReady gets to Palmer’s (David Clennon) blood it explodes out of the dish, Palmer transforms and kills Windows (Thomas G Waites). The screech from that blood exploding, like a squirrel being tortured, still haunts my dreams.
A signature mark of Carpenter’s films are their ambiguous endings. Escape from New York, Halloween, Hell even Ghosts of Mars leaves people guessing. In a society where everyone has to have things neatly tied like a Christmas bow, Carpenter was really ahead of his time. The Thing is no different. MacReady and Childs (Keith David) end up being the sole survivors with their encampment burning to the ground, the Thing presumably destroyed, and hypothermia eminent. The goal was ultimately about survival, but rather the survival of the human race rather than the small scientific group in Antarctica. Destroying the Thing was paramount. The Thing‘s final shot shows Childs and MacReady drinking whisky amidst the flames of the wrecked camp and cuts to black. Did they survive? Were they rescued? Probably not. But it’s a “Lady or the Tiger” situation and the audience is left to draw their own conclusions.
In addition to being my favorite horror film, John Carpenter’s The Thing stands out as maybe the best remake ever. Many don’t know Carpenter’s movie was a new take on the 1951 film The Thing From Another World, which even for the 1950s was pretty cheesy. Carpenter’s film is anything but. A classic of the horror genre and a film I will always love, The Thing remains a powerful and thrilling piece of cinema even over three decades after its release.