Having just seen Halloween (1978) last night, it was immediately clear to me that Howard Hawks’ film The thing from Another World held great importance to Carpenter as a young man. In Halloween, as part of their holiday ritual the children plop down on the couch watching consecutive horror films offered by their local television network. The burning title of The Thing appears onscreen, and almost immediately the children are seduced by wonder and mystery. While only an assumption, it seems clear to me that this was meant to be a tribute to Carpenter’s own childhood, as he himself was cast under the spell of numerous classic horror films.
The Thing (1982) begins cryptically as a space craft drifts through space, as it moves out of the shot, a burning title replicating Hawk’s version engulfs the screen. From this point on, the film would not leave the confines of a remote antartic location where human understanding is pushed to the very brink.
While not directly based on H.P. Lovecraft’s novella, At the Mountains of Madness, the similarities between his story and that of John W. Campbell Jr. are astonishing. Both feature scientists exploring the north pole, in both of them bodies of strange creatures are found below the ice, and the fate of those who find them are similarly fatal. Lovecraft’s own oeuvre is focused on the boundaries of the universe and the capabilities of the human mind to comprehend cultures and beings far beyond limits of earth. He slowly builds up a world filled with factual evidence and rational thought that is eventually shattered, often by madness, by a discovery or revelation that defies any kind of earthly explanation. Carpenter’s film certainly touches on this, but takes, comparitively a very radical approach. His scientists are never reliable, they’re goofy, lazy and “quirky”. Unlike Lovecraft who slaved to create reliable narrators, whom the audience would trust to tell the truth, he presents a cast of rather oaffish, although clearly intelligent characters. Perhaps the strongest improvement on this now classic narrative form is going beyond the destruction of the mind, to include pushing the very limits of the human form. Not having seen Hawks’ film, I can only assume by it’s early 1950s release that it wasn’t a quarter as graphic or violent as this film, and I doubt it would ever want to be.
It’s easy to write off genre films as being shallow entertainment, even films like the Thing can easily be interpreted as little more than a very well executed psychological thriller. However, not only in it’s exploration of pushing the limits of science and understanding to new limits (albeit, as are many horror films, it’s guilty somewhat of demonizing science… I would personally argue though, that in the final act it’s clear that the characters choose the survival of humanity over their own lives and discoveries, which is a big step up from the more classical “mad scientist” narrative), but also the human body. I don’t think any other genre is able to explore the idea of what makes a human… well human, with the same extreme approach to deconstructing the human form as in horror films. Cronenberg made a career out of it, and it seems The Thing’s central problem is centered on the character’s inability to discern whether their crew mates are human or not. They not only look human, but behave and operate in the same way as you and I would. The essential difference is that they are programmed to survive at any cost, and while we’re equipped to preserve our life, it’s not taken to the same extreme as these creatures. If anything, our desire for preservation is weighed against many other variables as it soon becomes clear that if any of them survive, the human race is doomed. The creature would never weigh or consider these possibilities, and in all truth probably could not. Still, the line between “it” and us, is still very blurry. It’s rational and intelligent, and in terms of technology at the very least thousands of years ahead of us. Are they a greater or lesser species? Is the ability to survive under any condition more important than the ability to decide the cost of survival and make a choice from there?
The film’s particular brand of paranoia is rooted in all these questions, as soon even those who are human reveal the dark and ugly side of human nature that we often wish didn’t exist. There even comes a point when i think the characters themselves begin to doubt if they are one of “The Things”, simply unaware that a transformation has even taken place. That doubt and fear is in that moment is perhaps the single time in the film you really feel a line has been crossed between us and them… it is fleeting however, and being so irrational, it is essentially meaningless.