Thirty years of horror: The Thing (1982)

Tom: The Thing was the pinnacle of horror special effects before CG came along. Even if your latter days eyes can’t see past the latex and syrup, there’s no denying the imagination that went into these effects. I’ve seen things in The Thing that I have never seen before or since, except for when they’re aping The Thing. Never were the words “you have got to be fucking kidding” so appropriate.

After the jump, John Carpenter is not kidding.

Tom: Remember when scientists were scientists and not actors playing scientists? That’s one of the things I love about The Thing. These totally seem like the kinds of dudes who’d be holed up in some base in the Antarctic, bearded and irritable because they’ve had to put up with each other’s shit for so long.

Chris: The movie that really leaps to mind when I watched this again was Deliverance. It’s guys being guys out on the frontier. Whether you’re a guy or whether you’ve been in that situation before or not, it’s a recognizably authentic feeling here. And while a writer can capture the verbalized annoyance of a group of guys who’ve been perturbed by one another in a situation like this, it’s Carpenter’s direction here — along with some solid acting — that nails the details to sell it all. The characters in The Thing react off one another’s reactions and nonverbal cues throughout the movie in an intimate, familial feedback loop.

Tom: For instance, when someone notes that Blair killed the dogs, Clark’s reaction is exactly what you’d expect from his character. Or when Childs volunteers to take charge of the gun. Or the antagonism between Windows and Palmer. Or how Blair briefly raises and then quietly nurses his suspicions about a human conversion. Also, the dog is really really good. The Academy should have added an award for best performance by a leading animal that year.

Chris: One of my favorite scenes is when MacReady and Copper go to investigate the Norwegian base. At one point, the chopper pilot calls to the doctor from another room. Copper comes in to find MacReady standing next to an ice block barrier of sorts. Neither character speaks. They still both communicate volumes to one another–and to the audience. With a movie and director both not known for subtlety, I thought this was incredibly measured and effective.

Tom: It’s surprising that John Carpenter eventually wrote Starman, which is about a woman’s grief. He’s such a quintessentially “man’s” director, where even one of his most frequent actresses was surprisingly mannish (say what you will about Adrienne Barbeau’s figure, but you can’t deny she was Vazquez before James Cameron ever wrote Vazquez). The Thing is such a dude movie. This movie wouldn’t be made today without casting a woman in it, which would change the chemistry drastically. Witness the godawful 2011 CG-powered remake, in which a woman — a girl, really — takes charge of a bunch of burly Norwegian dudes and the male ingenue has a dainty earring (which is eventually his undoing). But the original Thing is just unshaven dudes, being dudes, dealing with their dudeness, which happens to involves an alien in their midst, but that won’t stop them from being dudes with their guns and their gruffness and their “you’re not the boss of me” protestations. The tagline was never “humanity is the warmest place to hide”. The Thing is about men being men, clinging petulantly to their identities.

Chris: I didn’t watch this movie until maybe a decade after it came out. I’d been put off by reviews that described it as senselessly gory or second-rate rehashes of themes on better display in a film that invites comparison, Alien. I don’t think either of these criticisms holds up, frankly.

For one thing, I’m not sure this is as gory a movie as reviews at the time characterized it. Yes, there’s blood and entrails and organs. There’s a gooey, sticky wetness to the monster and its transformations and its attacks that is undeniably kind of icky…but to me it seems like this is all comic book ick. All of it feels monstrous and alien. I found the face of the Norwegian rifle dude to be as difficult to look at as any of the more celebrated creature kills on the crew.

This really doesn’t cover the same territory as Alien, either. While there’s some mistrust among the crew in Ridley Scott’s film, much of that seems to be focused towards a single character. In The Thing, the social contract breaks down completely on the base. No one trusts anyone else. The movie becomes just as much about that mistrust and the violence these men are willing to inflict upon one another as it does the monster.

Tom: I think it’s a fair comparison in that it’s a character-based pressure cooker movie about blue collar joes (and janes, in the case of Alien). The idea of a tightly contained setting is crucial, as is the alien-ness of what would otherwise be a ghost in a haunted house movie. And both Alien and The Thing present startlingly unique alien ecologies that tap into the dread that we’re not just meat for a predator, but living hosts. I agree that it’s unfair to hold up The Thing as a re-hash, but in many ways, these are the same movie.

Chris: I think I love the ending as well. It’s beautifully consistent with everything else in the film to this point. MacReady and Childs talk to one another, but the words don’t seem nearly important to either of them as the way they’re said, or the way an eyebrow goes up. It’s a beautifully existential moment of peace. Both guys realize, finally, they can trust the other man…not that it will do either of them much good.

Tom: I always wondered if one of them has been turned and knows that one day a rescue team will come along, recover the men’s remains, and eventually thaw enough Thing meat to take over the world. I see it as a pretty hopeless ending. Basically, they’re going to sit there and pull off the bottle until they die. The Thing is patient enough to wait hundreds of thousands of years, so what’s a few months more?

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)