John Carpenter’s The Thing is probably the scariest film I’ve ever seen in my life. A few years ago, our power went out for about a week during the winter, and while I was fumbling around in the dark to reach our bathroom on one of those nights, I just couldn’t stop imagining that the monster from this film might be lurking around the corners of my home. The fact that this film continues to make my imagination run wild like that – even today, after seeing the damn thing at least 100 times over the course of 20 years – is singularly impressive. Almost all of my favorite films are horror films, but most of them don’t really scare me anymore; The Thing, however, still gives me nightmares, and seeing it multiple times hasn’t dulled my senses to it in any way.
The original 1982 poster for the film
The history of this film begins with a science fiction author named John W. Campbell, Jr., who wrote a short story in the 1930s called “Who Goes There?” It’s about a team of scientists working in Antarctica who discover a spaceship buried beneath the ice. They manage to dig out the ship’s alien pilot and bring it back to their base, thinking it’s just a frozen fossil. But once the creature thaws out, it comes back to life and starts terrorizing the men like nobody’s business. It turns out that the Thing (as this hostile invader eventually comes to be called) has a unique ability: after digesting a living creature, it can then manipulate the cells of its body to shapeshift into that creature at will. The men at the research facility soon discover that this applies to human beings as well, and they descend into paranoia as they accuse one another of being the Thing. Eventually, a guy named MacReady takes charge of the situation and figures out a way to determine who’s who.
It’s worth noting that “Who Goes There?” bears certain similarities to an earlier novella by H. P. Lovecraft called “At the Mountains of Madness”. Both stories are about scientists uncovering malevolent aliens from beneath the ice in Antarctica, and both have their characters spiraling into madness and paranoia. In 1951, the great filmmaker Howard Hawks decided to make a film adaptation of the story called The Thing From Another World. This was the first of what would later be called the “atomic horror” subgenre, in which humanity is threatened by hostile alien invaders and/or giant radioactive animals. For whatever reason, the setting for the story was switched to the North Pole rather than Antarctica, and the shapeshifting alien was rewritten as a Frankenstein-like monster that’s made of vegetable matter (and which feeds on human blood).
Despite the drastic changes that were made to the story, The Thing From Another World is one of the greatest sci-fi/horror films ever made. Some of its best qualities include the fact that it has (1) lovable and humorous main characters who work extremely well together as a team, (2) suspenseful scenes that still hold up by today’s standards, (3) some really intense machine gun-paced dialogue, and (4) a strong female character (which was a common trait in Howard Hawks’ films, and which was extremely unusual for the time). The Thing went on to influence a wide variety of filmmakers, including John Carpenter, who loved it so much that he even has his characters watching it on TV in Halloween (1978). So it was that when Universal Pictures acquired the rights to produce a remake of the film in the early 1980s, there was quite a bit of resistance to this idea among horror buffs. (Universal was no doubt seeking to ride the coattails of Ridley Scott’s 1979 blockbuster, Alien.) But somehow, the opportunity to direct this remake was given to John Carpenter, and while most people despised the end result at first, it soon became a classic in its own right.
I believe that remakes are generally a horrible idea and that they should be avoided at all costs. It would be one thing if filmmakers only remade films that weren’t all that great, but which had a lot of potential. For example, I can see how a B-grade turkey like Ulli Lommel’s The Devonsville Terror (1983) could be remade into a really good A-list horror film. (It has a great premise; it just fails to tell its story very well.) Something like that could actually benefit from being remade, but that’s just not how things work in the movie industry. Film companies want to remake undisputed classics that are statistically guaranteed to make lots of money by virtue of name recognition alone. (No matter how good a remake of The Devonsville Terror might actually turn out, a shitty remake of Psycho is guaranteed to make more money just because people are already familiar with its name.) Hence why remakes are usually so shitty; they’re usually made for purely mercenary reasons. The number of remakes that are more or less equal to the films on which they’re based is very small indeed.
They do exist, however, and John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of them. Part of what makes this film work is the fact that the original 1951 version deviated from its source material so much. While it’s still about an alien terrorizing people in a place where there’s plenty of snow, Hawks’ renditions of the monster and the human protagonists are totally different. (There isn’t even a character named “MacReady” in the Howard Hawks version.) So when John Carpenter came along to direct the remake, he decided to make it a more faithful adaptation of the original Campbell story. Many remakes either (1) copy their earlier counterparts exactly (e.g., the 2006 version of The Omen) or (2) deviate from their source material so much that they might as well be called something else (e.g., the 2007 Rob Zombie version of Halloween). But Carpenter’s The Thing manages to escape this trap; as a result of the Campbell story’s unique history, the 1982 film is able to both resemble and deviate from the original just enough (and without seeming pointless or mercenary).
Just one of the Thing’s many gooey, spidery forms…
Another reason why Carpenter’s film works so well is also part of why it flopped in theaters. This movie boasts some of the most convincing creature effects you’ll ever see; in fact, they’re a little too convincing. It’s hard to believe the monster is really just a bunch of puppets, but creature effects wizard Rob Bottin did such a good job creating them that they still look superior to most CGI creatures that are (over)used in films today. Keep in mind that Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was released only a few weeks before The Thing was, and audiences just weren’t expecting to see a creature that looked this authentically frightening, disgusting or real. It literally had people screaming out of the theaters, and while you might expect them to keep coming back for more, people actually got mad about it. John Carpenter was accused of being a raving psychopath, and he was almost blackballed from the movie industry for good after that.
The Thing was also attacked for focusing too much on special effects wizardry and not enough on its characters. Admittedly, the characters in this film are rather thin, but I actually consider this to be one of the film’s strengths. It suggests that despite having lived and worked together for quite a while, these men know practically nothing about each other. They’re alienated from the rest of the world by by the fact that they’re in Antarctica, but they’re also alienated from each other. I think this aspect of the film is also a statement about humanity in general. Since the Thing can imitate any life form perfectly, neither the characters nor the audience can tell who is who. But this idea is made even more horrific by the notion that these characters never really knew or cared that much about each other in the first place. The Thing doesn’t have to work very hard to turn them against each other; they’re already in a position to fear and loathe each other when the film begins. If our humanity is all that separates us from the Thing, that wall of separation must be awful thin.
Another thing (no pun intended) is that John Carpenter has always preferred to show us who his characters are rather than tell us, and the actors – all of whom are distinguished masters of their craft – give us all kinds of visual clues as to who their characters are. We can tell from Richard Masur’s performance, for instance, that Clark is generally more comfortable with his dogs than he is with the other men, and that he’s a real animal lover. When he learns that one or more of the other men have died, he shows little emotion; but when he learns that one or more of the dogs have been killed, he becomes upset and rushes to find them and mourn for them. We can also tell from Donald Moffat’s performance that Garry resents being the leader of the group; whenever he has to take charge, he always has a very reluctant look on his face. It’s obvious that none of the other men take his authority very seriously, and when it becomes clear that he’s ill-equipped to handle the crisis that soon envelops them, he willingly relinquishes that authority without any trouble.
It does seem strange that people would have hated The Thing for its gruesome effects, especially considering that “body horror” was such a craze in the 1980s. I think the real reason people hated this film at first is because it’s just so goddamn bleak. Even the goriest slasher movies from this period usually had some kind of comic relief in them; but aside from a few light touches of humor here and there, The Thing offers us no such relief. And while audiences generally prefer happy endings, they can usually handle bad or scary endings so long as they’re clear-cut (i.e., the evil can either win or be defeated, but it must clearly be one or the other). The Thing throws this rule right out the window, for not only is its ending completely ambiguous (leaving us uncertain as to how the story really ends), but the question of “Who won?” just doesn’t seem very important by that point.
Apophis in the flesh
The soundtrack for this film is also brilliant. John Carpenter is legendary for scoring most of his films himself, but for this venture, he recruited the aid of Italian composer Ennio Morricone (who’s most well-known for scoring 1967’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). The finished film includes about 90% of Morricone’s music, while the remaining 10% consists of Carpenter’s trademark electronic drones. The end result is one of the most effective scores I’ve ever heard in my life. (Actually, the music makes me imagine that I’m sitting in the snow in the middle of the night with a gaping, bloody hole in my stomach; I’m also hearing strange, hellish noises all around me, and I’m praying to all the Gods that I’ll die from blood loss or frostbite rather than being eaten alive.) We actually play the Thing soundtrack fairly often during our LV-426 rituals, for we feel it’s perfect background music for joining Seth-Typhon in battle against
Apophis in the barren wastes of chaos.
Speaking of Big Red, it’s probably no surprise at this point that The Thing is considered a sacred Typhonian movie here in the LV-426 Tradition. We feel its message of human alienation and paranoia is a great example of isfet, or of the breaking down of Ma’at between humans. And considering that this breakdown has clearly already started before the film even begins, we see the Thing itself as
Apophis incarnate, coming to punish those who’ve forsaken Ma’at. The only character in the film who tries to rebuild Ma’at is MacReady (Kurt Russell), whom we see as this film’s avatar of Typhon. While the other men freak out and even try to kill each other in the monster’s wake, MacReady is the only one who keeps his cool and who maintains a clear sense of his true identity (just as Seth is the only being that can withstand Apophis’ hypnotic gaze, which normally sends other beings into a confused stupor). Big Red can even be found in the movie’s setting, for believe it or not, Antarctica is actually what’s called a “cold desert”. (“Deserts” are technically defined as places where there’s little to no precipitation, and where there’s insufficient vegetation to support a human population. This can be caused by extreme cold as well as by extreme heat.)
There are many other things I could say about this film, but if I tried to explain everything about it, you’d probably be reading this post for the rest of time (instead of just seeing the movie for yourself). Suffice it to say that The Thing is my personal choice for the absolute scariest film ever made, and that it scares me for a number of different reasons. It plays on my psychological fears of alienation, paranoia, and losing my identity; yet it also plays on my more visceral fear of being physically violated and eaten by something. The film’s antagonist makes me think of what would happen if nightmares were actually physical things that could be surgically removed from our brains and kept in cages (until they escaped, of course). And as far as I’m concerned, something like this hostile organism could actually exist somewhere out there in the depths of space. Ghosts and demons can be banished away with magic, and psycho killers can be lit on fire and blown to bits…But an actual flesh-and-blood creature like the Thing would probably be completely unstoppable. So if you want to watch something this Halloween that will make you feel like something slimy’s crawling up your leg (and into all your bodily orifices), I dare you to watch The Thing.
Seth-Typhon takes the form of Kurt Russell