Director: John Carpenter
By Roderick Heath
I can remember when loving John Carpenter’s The Thing was still a rather lonely business. Carpenter’s remake was largely dismissed and derided upon release, chiefly for its gore, but also for its defiantly, disturbingly corporeal take on what had been a considered a very clean-cut alien invader fantasy when filmed by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby in 1951. But the intensity and intelligence of the film’s revision of the original to speak to a new era slowly gained traction, to the point now where it’s widely considered Carpenter’s best film. In the 32 years since its release, it’s become a significant cult film and rite of passage for young fans of fantastic cinema, as well as something rare in motion picture history. Standing with the likes of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), The Thing proved that remakes could, in apt and imaginative hands, be taken seriously in their own right, not eclipsing a predecessor, but rather providing it with a potently evolved progeny.
Moreover, Carpenter’s take had claims to precedence over the original film as a more conceptually faithful adaptation of former Astounding Magazine editor John W. Campbell’s feted 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster, Burt Lancaster’s son, took Campbell’s original notion of a shape-shifting alien and made it their version’s reason for being, whilst maintaining the essential, classic set-up of a remote polar base under siege by a thing from another world. The result is as tough, harsh, and near-abstract in its elisions and uncertainty as any big-budget film ever made.
For Carpenter, The Thing was a troubled achievement. The young film student who, with some UCLA pals, had pieced together Dark Star (1974) with duct tape and hobby glue became the hugely successful hero of low-budget independent film with Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1979), and Escape From New York (1981). Armed with millions of Universal Studios’ dollars, he made a film that has become both a fixed pole of excellence in his oeuvre, but was also the culmination of a seemingly inexorable career rise that was halted by the film’s weak financial performance and constantly frustrated thereafter.
The Thing was the first film for which Carpenter had not written either the script or the score, both provided instead by Lancaster and Ennio Morricone, respectively, and with defining contributions to the film made by special-effects wizards Rob Bottin and Dick Smith. And yet the film is marked on all levels by Carpenter’s innate sensibility: the salty, plebeian mood of its characters, the sense of isolation and besiegement by forces beyond human control, the sustained mood of eerie dislocation, the portrait of a flailing and threatened community. The unnerving electronic throb of Morricone’s scoring mimics and augments Carpenter’s familiar effects in music perfectly, spelling out lingering dread even as the viewer comprehends a stunning snow-crusted vista. Lancaster had previously penned The Bad News Bears (1976), and whilst The Thing proved to be his last screenplay, his dialogue is almost endlessly quotable, swiftly painting character and milieu. A brief prologue of a spaceship tearing out of the void and crashing into Earth’s atmosphere segues into Carpenter’s only direct nod to the original film, recreating the indelible image of the title seeming to burn or rip through a black field.
The concision of the original film’s metaphors for the paranoid new frontiers of the Cold War give way to something very different, an insidious process of breakdown and infiltration: whilst still “alien,” the Thing here is not a convenient Other, but a force lurking within familiar bodies, warping, perverting, and disassembling the given reality of the humans who contend with it. The conflict of cold science and hot militarism in the original has been reorganised and largely inverted in meaning: here, the scientist as in the original endangers the team, but with the very different purpose of protecting the rest of the world, whilst thinking about larger pictures than the mere frame of personal survival. Carpenter only offers a brief picture of his Antarctic explorers before chaos visits their midst, because that’s all he needs to paint the group and individual dynamics: the clashing temperaments, the huddled group and the self-exiled cowboy R. J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), black and white, rebels, bohemians, and company men—all echoes back to Dark Star and its portrait of men sent out on an absurd, isolating mission that has broken down not merely patterns of prescribed behaviour, but also individual personalities. Here there’s a subtle distinction between the hard-hat workers there to keep the machines running and the scientist nerds, but this soon dissipates in the face of individual responses to threat, as all characters are revealed, in their varying ways, to be both helpless in the face of such adversity but also often sneakily resilient. Leadership roles are eventually reassigned according to temperament and responsive ability rather than societally imposed standards.
Carpenter’s innate respect for individualism is clearly at play here, but also placed in telling conflict with other urges—herd instinct and mutual responsibility. The camp’s inhabitants are all men, isolated in the first week of winter, to keep watch upon the Antarctic ice seemingly for the sake of it: commander Garry (Donald Moffat), helicopter pilot MacReady, blasé radio operator Windows (Thomas G. Waites), camp cook Nauls (T. K. Carter), dog handler Clark (Richard Masur), physician Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), biologists Blair (Wilford Brimley) and Fuchs (Joel Polis), geologist Norris (Charles Hallahan), meteorologist Bennings (Peter Maloney), and mechanics Palmer (David Clennon) and Childs (Keith David). Vignettes of personal adaptation and maladaptation accumulate, from MacReady getting pissy with his computer’s chess programme and tipping a drink into it for revenge, to Nauls torturing Bennings by playing Stevie Wonder through the night, and Palmer and Childs getting high whilst watching VHS copies of old “Wheel of Fortune” episodes. This collective of men is already threatening at first appearance to break into distracted, preoccupied islets of coping with their isolation and the hell that is other people. But then they are shocked back into reality by new circumstances. The narrative is propelled by the threat of the loss of individuality, as members of the team are assimilated down to the finest detail, for the purpose of perfect chameleonic disguise. Yet the innate certainty of some of the characters, like MacReady, that they’re still human provides the closest thing to certainty in the often opaque narrative.
The film’s pitiless logic distinguishes it, and moreover, the very narrative is about that logic, from the moment the husky dog that is actually the Thing’s last vessel reaches the U.S. National Science Institute Base 4, relying on the inability of the humans to recognise it as a threat so that they kill the last person who might’ve stopped the monster—the apparently mad Norwegian who’s chased it in a helicopter from his own devastated base. One of the cleverest revisions of both short story and original film was this narrative remove, having the Thing discovered not by the characters at the centre of the tale but by their predecessors, in a chain of bleakly self-replicating events that mimic the Thing’s method of reproducing itself. The circumstances of its discovery, its thawing, and just what it originally looked like are all left to the imagination. There’s no causative immediacy for the American team, then, only an outlandish proliferation of mysteries and instabilities, the horror of a situation where, by the time they become properly aware of just what’s going on, they might be powerless to halt.
The confrontation with otherworldly forces finally comes when animal-loving Clark locks away the foreign dog in a kennel with the camp’s own, only for the arrival to split apart and reveal itself as a spidery mass of tissue that begins absorbing and replicating the other animals in a grotesque display of corporeal invasion and perversion. “I don’t know what it is,” Clark says to his campmates when they come running, “But it’s weird and pissed and off, whatever it is.” This is about the limit of what we come to learn about the Thing, apart from its relentless drive to survive in what fashion it can now that it’s found a new host world. Carpenter turned stomachs with his willingness to show the Thing going about some of its business, a rare segue into outright revulsion for the director. And yet it also came with the thrill of seeing something genuinely original and nightmarishly convincing, as well as viscerally intriguing in trying to capture just how a very different life form might behave, something most scifi cinema shies away from. This also sets up some of the best shocks in cinema history, like the infamous moment when the belly of a man apparently dying of heart failure suddenly opens like a massive pair of monstrous jaws, and the eruption of a dish full of blood that signals the crewman least you least suspect of being infected is, in fact, the Thing.
One of the greatest qualities of The Thing, however, is its embrace of ambiguity in the situation not merely to excite the audience with mystery but as a dramatic end—and not in that schematic manner of more gimmicky films. In spite of the endless attempts of fanboys to parse the film’s deliberate obscurities and unsolved mysteries, Carpenter’s filmmaking maintains teasing force. Characters disappear, their fates unclear, and one, famously, turns up again to leave the finale tingling with unanswerable angst. One of the disappointing aspects of Carpenter’s later work is his decreasing patience with setting up and deploying his effects, a surrender to adolescent glee in jokey violence and dime-store horrors, where the hallmark of his early work was the relentless control he wielded over camera and mood, that reached a height here. Camera movements analyse empty space in a manner reminiscent of Mario Bava, with some of Carpenter’s most memorable shots here depicting nothing, only wandering the halls of the station, suggesting unseen presences. Sometimes the camera takes on points of view in peering into corners and picking out patches of horror lit by torches with a sense of elision that gives a constant feeling of never quite seeing all.
Glimpses of things hellish are brief and stunning, like when Windows enters a storeroom where moments before Bennings had been working, and is confronted first by gruesome traces of blood and slime, and then looking over to where Bennings is in the grip of the monster, now a caricature of a human form swathed in tentacles. Carpenter sets this scene up with a deliberate nod to a similar scene in The Fog, which itself remixed another moment in Halloween. Whereas in Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, the threat was an Other clearly defined in nature but rendered close to abstract in concentrating on the reactions of his heroes to threat, here the film’s story offers the most perfect metaphorical reduction of Carpenter’s interest in this theme (barring perhaps the more comic, but equally sharp hypnotism of They Live, 1988) in that Other is now Us. Carpenter might have taken some licence from the flesh-twisting and rupturing of David Cronenberg and Alien (1979), but an equally close ancestor could be Salvador Dali’s “Landscape with Soft Beans,” with its famous image of a two-headed rock man trying to rip himself apart, often referred to as a premonition of the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, civil war is what The Thing portrays, a disintegrating body politic, making the film at one with Precinct 13 and Escape From New York. But the microcosm serves Carpenter better than many of his more sprawling takes on the theme.
The care taken with lighting, shooting, and acting that the big budget allowed Carpenter undoubtedly helped bring all this to a fine edge, though his early films had no lack of such craft. The narrative and the characters accept a situation where the precise limitations of threat dissolve and leave only taunting vagaries about the degree to which any of them cannot only be sure they can kill a Thing that can reproduce to the smallest molecule, but be sure of being human themselves and of surviving. The tension between individual and group reflexes of survival is beautifully studied in contemplating the Thing and the Humans, where for each, the temptation to go it alone is exposing. Faced with the necessity of group action, MacReady comes in from the cold, but finds himself almost killed in a roundelay of mistrust and power plays in which who the best man to lead against the monster becomes a genuinely vexed question. Where earlier Palmer had mocked official leader Garry in pondering “when El Capitan was gonna get to use his pop gun,” Garry hands over that pop gun when he comes under suspicion of sabotaging a potential test for identifying the Thing. MacReady’s reaction to his computer beating him at chess seems almost bratty and childish, but is quietly rhymed later when Blair watches his own computer mapping out the Thing’s replication pattern, calculating that the entire Earth could be infected by it in 25,000 hours. Blair obeys the computer logic and reaches for his gun; MacReady rebels and leads. MacReady’s observations of the Thing during one of its rampages realises that the alien is just like the group of humans fighting it, composed of unruly components that react blindly when threatened. This realization gives him a tool to uncover it.
The Thing is a grinning death’s head of a film, coolly, relentlessly sarcastic and laced with cruel swerves of fate, from the opening scene where the Norwegian, played by producer Larry J. Franco, accidentally blows up his fellow survivor with a grenade meant for the infected dog and then getting shot after his warnings in his uncomprehended language are taken for lunatic ramblings. A similarly contradictory mania grips Blair, the camp’s biggest brain and the one everyone looks to for answers, who devolves into a ranting, axe-wielding madman is because he’s the first to comprehend the extent of the danger. Deciding that the entire camp must be quarantined, he smashes up MacReady’s helicopter and Windows’ radio, robbing both men of purpose, in effect, and then spurring them to opposite reactions. Windows makes a play for individual defence, running to get himself a gun but only precipitating a leadership crisis as Garry is implicated by circumstance, whilst MacReady takes up the mantle as “somebody more even-tempered” than the aggressively querulous Childs.
MacReady, in Campbell’s story a gnarled, elemental hunk likened to a bronze statue, is here a spiky, faintly asocial cowboy who possesses the right mixture of chilly readiness and native intelligence to take an effective stand against both the monster and his own crewmates. He’s the ideal hero for the circumstances, though Carpenter and Russell would later collaborate to disassemble his perfection for laughs in Big Trouble in Little China (1986). First contact, historically laced with devastating plagues—here, between man and alien—is no different as virtually from the moment the dog arrives at the station, the men are doomed. This is not to say their fight is worthless, as MacReady, the most genuine survivor amongst the crew recognises: just as Blair does half the job of closing off the men’s chances for escape, so the rest of them close off the Thing’s chances.
Dean Cundey’s widescreen photography aids inestimably in creating contrasts early on between hermetic exteriors and microcosmic interiors, shooting David Lean vistas in the unerringly crisp ratio, opening the film proper with a view of an ice-fringed cliff wall and the helicopter that appears as a tiny dot, like Omar Sharif’s appearance in the desert in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Like Lawrence, such expanse becomes a prison. But the frames are often oblique. Scenes shift with dreamy dissolves. High-flying helicopter shots offer primal expanses that contain essential nothingness. Life is only possible within the fragile human abodes, which become temporal traps.
Beautifully unusual as exposition and tension-building, too, is the way backstory is drip-fed. MacReady and Copper venture out to the Norwegian camp in the hope of saving lives, instead finding a ghostly ruin littered with signs of violence, a huge, suggestively shaped block of ice that something has clearly broken out of, and piles of incinerated corpses that seem to have been warped together like the most perverse visions of surrealist art. Video footage purloined from the Norwegians gives clues to what they found, and Carpenter wittily reproduces the iconic shot from the original film of the men marking out the shape of a buried and frozen flying saucer, albeit once removed, glimpsed like the original film as a fuzzy relic on a black-and-white screen.
The actual spaceship, which MacReady, Norris, and Palmer seek out, proves to have been partly incinerated by the Norwegian attempt to extract it, and to have been frozen in the ice for 100,000 years, a nasty birthday present from the universe for whoever found it. That’s become a rather common motif of scifi cinema since this film, and perhaps marks out the long shadow of Nigel Kneale on Carpenter’s work with its obsession with primeval atavism, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) equal mark on the genre as a whole in looking to a distant past as key to present calamity. In any event, Carpenter’s precise use of quiet and space to create his nerve-jangling mood segues into scenes where all hell memorably breaks loose, particularly in the aforementioned sequence in which Norris is revealed to be a Thing by Copper’s cardiac shocks. The shocks stir the beast within to snap off the doctor’s arms before distorting and ripping apart, an id-beast with Copper’s face dangling from the ceiling whilst Norris’ head detaches, grows legs like a spider, and crawls away, stirring Palmer’s immortal motto, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding!” And, of course, the sustained tension of the scene in which MacReady puts his idea into practice whilst holding the crew at gunpoint—or, rather, flamethrower-point—by poking petri dishes filled with each man’s blood, having realised the Thing’s peculiar nature means that every part of it is, in essence, a separate entity, and the blood of a Thing ought to react. MacReady resorts to such measures after he falls under suspicion of being a Thing himself, locked out in the blizzard by Nauls and forced to shoot Clark when he tries to ambush MacReady with a scalpel.
The sequence that follows is a marvel not just of unerring construction, but also of dramatic byplay, as the specific characters react to each twist, from Childs taunting MacReady over Clark’s proving to be human after mocking the test as a crock of shit, to Nauls’ queasy expression as his test comes around and then his intense, hawkish look once he’s freed and holds the flamethrower himself, and Garry’s veneer of patience giving way to a hilarious final eruption of anger. In between, the startling revelation that Palmer, the classic least likely suspect, is a Thing, transmogrifying gruesomely, with skull splitting into toothsome halves that crunch on Windows and stumbling out into the polar dark whilst burning like a roman candle. At the point where victory seems possible for the men, however, new calamity forces them to contemplate extinction, as they venture out to test Blair, but find him vanished and a half-built alien spaceship under the tool hut, hinting that Blair’s been assimilated and their survival mission has literally been undermined. The simultaneous, mysterious venture of Blair into the snowy dark and the breakdown of the camp’s engine signal that the Thing now wants to refreeze and wait for a rescue party, demanding that MacReady, Garry, and Nauls burn their little world down to flush out the Thing at the inevitable cost of their own lives.
Arguably the film gives in to a less sophisticated brand of monster movie shtick in its climax, as the complete Thing, an obscene hodgepodge of assimilated animal and human parts, erupts from the floor to attack MacReady and release King Kong’s old roar. MacReady tosses dynamite at it with regulation action-hero pith and a sub-Bond kiss-off line. And yet the foreboding and disorientating effects extend right to the end, too, in the glimpse of more cringe-inducing corporeal invasion as the Blair-Thing assaults Garry, fingers sliding under the skin of his face and fusing solidly with it, whilst Nauls vanishes. Most memorable of all is the very coda, which embraces bleak, yet humorously deadpan stoicism of a brand that feels all too apt in the land of Scott and Shackleton. Childs and MacReady, on the edge of death and with one or both of them an alien by now, sit by their burning world, doing what a couple of working stiffs do when there’s nothing more to do—drink J&B. MacReady’s last line, “Why don’t we just…wait here for a little while…see what happens?”, ends the tale on the most low-key, yet utterly perfect note of exhausted acquiescence, MacReady’s tiny, appended laugh signaling he sees the cosmic joke in it all.