John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)

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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.

8 responses to “John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)

  1. I’ve probably seen The Thing…at least 5 times by now, and every time the question that just eats at me to no end is wondering not just who’s a thing and who’s human (because Carpenter himself has admitted that not even he’s ever been sure who’s a Thing and who’s human), but also, if you’re a Thing, do you even know it? I think of Norris and wonder if that’s actually him in mind, having a heart attack and having this alien disease rip open a gaping mouth in his chest, or if the Thing’s REALLY good at fooling these guys (and us), feigning a heart attack.

    Besides that, I loved the mood that Carpenter set. Not too much music (other than little spurts of Morricone’s one-beat score, which REALLY set the mood otherwise), how Carpenter so gradually increases the paranoia and tension between spurts of dog guts and crawling heads, so that you trust these guys less and less (I like what you said about the unreliable narrators), that masterpiece of tension (and pay-off) that is the blood test scene, and the best and creepiest performance I’ve EVER seen in a dog 🙂 .

  2. Definetely, I think more than most things it’s the doubts of the individual characters as to their own humanity that propels the film’s atmosphere and paranoia. When you can’t even trust yourself to be well… yourself, who can you begin to trust? Obviously, the best films dealing with paranoia are those that put into question the trust of those around you, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a good one, and more recently The Machinist and Memento try to evoke the same self-doubt as this film. While I don’t think either is a bad film, neither succeeds quite as well as evoking that fear as this.

    I agee on the dog, might be the best animal performance I’ve seen period. It’s far more than the way Carpenter shoots the dog, because the way he’s framed and moves through the screen is in itself frightening, but it’s focus and expression are strange. I was reading it was half dog-half wolf, it certainly has an unusual look to it.

  3. It was indeed half dog-half wolf, and he probably showed more personality than half the guys in that base. And his name was Jed.

    Yeah, I watched the movie with the commentary by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, so what? 😛

  4. I’m always telling myself I need to watch more Audio commentaries, they can be filled with awesome tidbits and sometimes great humour. I’m so lazy about i though.

  5. Me being easily pleased by eye candy, I absolutely loved the creature designs and how the animatronics were pulled off in this film. The multi-dog absorption scene? Fantastic.The post-bloodtest Venus flytrap face…guy? Awesome. I was nine years old when I saw The Thing, and it’s probably the single most influential film in my career as a concept artist.

  6. Sadly, I haven’t seen “The Thing” in– forever– yet it often comes back to me. All of that icy paranoia is so overwhelming! When Carpenter’s place in the pantheon is secured, this film will have a lot to do it. Looking at stills on the web I’m amazed with his compositions. I’ll have to finally “reward” myself with a viewing soon.

  7. I haven’ seen much Carpenter (3 I think), but this stands out for me as his greatest work. Truly exceptional. It’s a shame in recent years he has apparently lost his “touch”.

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