“I Know I’m Human”: Celebrating 30 Years of John Carpenter’s The Thing
By Keri O’Shea
For cinema-goers way back in 1982, it was definitely the year of the alien. An alien, stranded on this planet, who approaches, observes and begins to mimic a group of humans…however I’m talking not about a horror, but about E.T., a film whose feelgood message and benign central entity captured the hearts (and dollars) of movie fans during the summer months. It was the year of the alien alright, but E.T. was about as far from the hostile critters who had previously come to represent all things Other in commie-paranoia sci-fi as it was possible to get. Perhaps people had just grown sick of the unrelenting metaphor of space aliens as symbols of insidious threat; maybe, when you consider that the Cold War had just kicked up a gear with the arrival of Reagan in office, people wanted a fluffy message of hope, not portents of doom. Or maybe people plain weren’t ready for The Thing, John Carpenter’s game-changing sci-fi horror, when it was released close on the heels of E.T. on June 25th, 1982. The Thing is, after all, a film with the nastiest extraterrestrial, the least hope, a film of isolation, breakdown and paranoia. Esteemed film critic Roger Ebert dismissed the film as “disappointing”, although begrudgingly granting it the accolade of being “a great barf-bag movie” – and, sadly, punters seemed to agree with him: the film bombed at the box office.
Sometimes, however, the best films take a while to find their audiences. Thankfully, The Thing appeared at the time when it had become possible to revisit movies via the magic of home video, and so, slowly, steadily, people found their way to it. In the intervening years since its release, its reputation has grown and grown. It hasn’t just garnered respect, it has become one of the most beloved genre films of all time, and – for this writer at least – it is the best film in my collection. Bar none. We may live in the age of CGI sophistry and multi million dollar budgets, but The Thing has never been surpassed. It retains the power to engage, scare and repulse.
As a kid, John Carpenter was (as you might expect) a big film fan, and there was a sci-fi movie which he really enjoyed by the name of The Thing From Another World (1951), an interesting adaptation of the novella ‘Who Goes There?’ by John Wood Campbell Jr. In later years, Carpenter got to read the novella itself: in so doing, he realised the scope of the story, and – as enjoyable as the 1951 movie was – could see a lot of potential to craft a film closer in spirit to ‘Who Goes There?’ The Thing From Another World does have some elements in common with the later film, but it’s also interesting to see what they do differently. For instance, amongst the group stationed at the North Pole in ’51 are two women, and not only that, but women are explicitly missed and mentioned from the get-go. The sense of camaraderie is more obvious, too, and although there’s something of a division between science and military on how to deal with their little visitor, there’s only a little of the in-fighting and group breakdown which characterises The Thing. There are military protocols to follow, rules and regulations which people by and large seem happy to observe. But the biggest difference is surely with the creature itself: back in ’51, we were presented with a super-intelligent strain of plant life, a creature made of vegetable matter rather uncharitably referred to by one of the party as a “super carrot”. It reproduces asexually, and requires humans simply as foodstuffs. It doesn’t want to be them; it wants to feed on them.
Roll forward thirty years to ’82, and to Carpenter’s movie. Shot partly at the (refrigerated) Universal Studios and partly in Canada, the sense of cold and desolation is greatly enhanced, the isolation more complete, the paranoia of the novella more faithfully reproduced. The only remotely female presence we have here is over and done with in the opening scenes, when MacReady dumps his glass of Jim Beam over the ‘cheating bitch’ of a chess programme. And, in this all-male environment, things are a tad problematic even before anything out of the ordinary happens. The sense of order and hierarchy isn’t so clear. The men aggravate each other, seem dissatisfied with their pastimes, and squabble. They can and do show a united front on several occasions, of course, but one of the many strengths of this film is that the men continually try to sound one another out. Their relationships simply aren’t straightforward. I’ve read criticism of this film which says that there are no real characters here, and I couldn’t disagree more. For me, the fact that the men don’t talk about their back stories and don’t give all of their motivations away makes them the more plausible. Although Garry says he’s known Bennings for a long time, we’ve no other reason to suppose that this is a group of friends. These are people who have been thrown together in a remote location, whatever work they’re meant to be doing seems in short supply, and they understandably have issues with that.
And then, inexplicably, a dog arrives at the base…
The singular weirdness of this event is quite something. They’re literally in the middle of nowhere, seeing and speaking to no one else, and then this creature arrives – pursued by Norwegians, who are locked in their own language and unable to explain just what the fuck they’re doing. Why would someone go to all the trouble of chasing and shooting at a dumb animal, anyway? Richard Masur, who played the group’s dog-handler, Clark, referred to Jed, the wolf husky who featured in the film, as a “spooky dog”: being half-wolf according to Mastur, Jed never barked or growled but, if he became uneasy, would just…stare. The stare was a good sign to back off for a while. It’s put to good use during the film, and what it means changes between the very first viewing and subsequent ones. At first, you might or might not suspect the extent to which all is not as it seems. Repeat viewings allow you to add to your understanding of what’s going on, notice when the dog is watching the group, notice where he goes…so our sense of alarm is piqued by the time MacReady takes a team up to the Norwegian base to try and find out what happened, and we’re primed for worse things by the tangle of smoking limbs tantalisingly framing the bottom of the shot, when MacReady’s men find something inhuman there…
It’s about at this point in the film that my blood starts to curdle and doesn’t stop. The impact of the creature FX used in this film is just unprecedented, and it gets to me, every single time. After all, the premise of a creature with the ability to break down both mind and body, something it’s been doing through time and space, absolutely requires something special. It got just that, at the hands of artist Rob Bottin (with sterling support from Stan Winston, primarily in the kennel scene). But how do you design a creature which is everything it’s ever replicated? Bottin had no idea how to go from the storyboards to the effects themselves, and to do so took some serious pioneer spirit. This ingenuity has meant that the FX has, for me, stood the test of time. The way that the flesh looks as it transforms, or rips apart, or gets autopsied – all twisting, steaming and glistening (with the help of an industrial amount of KY Jelly, might I add) – is still a shock to observe. CGI is improving massively, but it still always looks too clean, too tidy, too…unreal. As fantastical as the Thing looks, it’s right there in the room with the men, and it’s a genuine threat. When Palmer says, ‘You’ve gotta be fucking kidding!’ as the detached head of what-was-once-Norris gets itself some legs and antennae, you believe in his shock and exasperation. You might even share in it. To achieve all of this, Bottin did things like experimenting with melted plastic and bubble gum for the neck-stretch and head separation of Thing-Norris, and using an industrial accident survivor who had lost his arms to substitute for Dr. Copper in the infamous defibrilation sequence (a sequence which took ten hours to set up). Bottin spent over a year living at Universal Studios with no time off to get the results we see, and was even hospitalised at the end of shooting. But, he’d more than fulfilled Carpenter’s edict that his creature be more than just ‘a guy in a suit’.
Truly good films have the resilience to leave questions unanswered, and The Thing has several factors which are open to debate and interpretation. In researching this article, I’ve stumbled across many of these, and the enthusiasm with which people are still putting their cases speaks volumes about the regard for the film which is still held. For my part, I wonder about the fallibility of the Thing. It gets detected because it fucks up from time to time – attempting to assimilate creatures which can bark and raise the alarm, or revealing what it is in front of the whole group. Evidently, the Norwegians detected it too. Why is it being so hasty? Does it have to be so quick to replicate for any other reason than just wanting to? Also, when it imitates a creature, does anything of the original remain within the Thing? Norris, after he has been infected, turns down the chance to head up the group; is this because the ‘real’ Norris has no idea he’s been replicated and doesn’t feel well enough to do it, or because only the Thing is in there by this stage, and wants to keep a low profile? There are all sorts of questions of consciousness to ponder, as well as more material issues. Where is Blair planning to take his homemade spaceship? And then, of course, there’s the ending of the movie. Wondering who, if anyone, is infected, and what could happen beyond the end credits, still really divides (and engages) fans.
Actually, an alternate ending was proposed by Carpenter. In this version, MacReady does get rescued; a blood test reveals that he is uninfected, and so the Thing has been vanquished, humanity saved. However, on reflection, Carpenter decided that to sanitise the film’s ending was to weaken it, and I’m inclined to agree. What we have with the original film ending is one of the most understated, poignant and – let’s face it – deeply ambiguous closing scenes in film history. We might suspect that both men are uninfected – MacReady because he has just torched the creature, Childs because he’s still wearing an earring, and the Thing seems unable to replicate inorganic matter – but issues remain. After all, the Norwegians had torched the Thing, and it revived. We’re shown rogue infected drops of blood earlier on in the movie, and we don’t see what happen to them. Our surviving characters are trapped between a rock and a hard place, then – even if uninfected, they have no means of escape and no way to keep warm. They will die. If they become infected, or if they already are infected somehow, the Thing can sleep in the cold until the rescue party arrives. Both men have known it’s the end of the line for them for some time, and so MacReady’s closing line is just gallows humour maybe, but perhaps he does think there’s something more to come. As for us, we never find out. The screen fades to black, and we’re denied full closure – but that denial has helped to keep the film alive, for thirty years so far. Perhaps, like MacReady, we’re still waiting to “see what happens”. Rolling the credits at that point was a brave thing to do, and absolutely the best thing to do.
Few horror or sci-fi movies of the last three decades enjoy a reputation as strong as The Thing does today. Its ruminations on identity, humanity and selfhood, all wrapped up in a grisly parcel of joy, make it one of the finest films ever to frighten and appal us. I hope you’ll join me in wishing The Thing a very happy 30th birthday, and recognising the huge debt we owe to John Carpenter, Rob Bottin and the rest of the team. This movie set the bar incredibly high, and in so doing it changed horror forever. For that, we’re truly grateful.