THE THING (1982)

  • Director: John Carpenter
  • Writers: Bill Lancaster, based on the novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr.
  • Starring: Kurt Russell, Keith David, A. Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, Donald Moffat, David Clennon, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Joel Polis, and Richard Waites
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Showtime, rent or buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Today, John Carpenter’s The Thing is considered a horror classic, to the point that it is frequently shows up on lists of the best movies of the 80s. It succeeds not at shocking the audience with jump scares but at horrifying them on a visceral level. It perfectly captures deep paranoia, as a group of scientists descends into hysterics over the fact that there is a monster among them that can perfectly imitate humans, that could infect them at any moment. Yet when it came out in 1982, those were the exact reasons it was almost universally reviled. Audiences didn’t want cynicism, gore, ambiguity, and paranoia in 1982, at the height of Reagan-era optimism. The year’s biggest hit was E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Both that movie and this are about single aliens lost on Earth, but they have absolutely nothing else in common. The New York Times called it “instant junk,” and Roger Ebert said that it was “a barfbag movie.” Carpenter blamed himself for the movie’s financial failure, noting that he was just wrong about what audiences wanted.

In retrospect, there are bits of these takes that are understandable. The body horror in The Thing was not something that had really been seen in a studio movie before. This a monster that can look like anything, that can rend human flesh into new and terrible shapes. Dead people’s heads pop off, grow legs, and skitter away. Chests open up to reveal bloody, gaping maws. This was not something being done much in mainstream movies at this time (and honestly, this is maybe the best its ever been done). So a critic or audience member might be forgiven for experiencing deep revulsion at those parts of the movie. That is what the movie is going for, but it’s not everyone’s thing. Also, as the New York Times pointed out at the time, the characters are not particularly well delineated. No one, not even Kurt Russell’s helicopter pilot MacReady, really has a distinctive voice, and we learn absolutely nothing about the backgrounds of any of the characters. On the other hand, there really isn’t time in a movie like this to present the 12 men at an Antarctic base as anything more than caricatures, and I almost prefer this movie’s take of presenting them mostly as 12 average people losing their minds under pressure to just presenting a bunch of stereotypes.

All of this said, it seems pretty clear to me that The Thing is actually a masterpiece, one that, if anything, plays better today that it would have at the time. The story is pretty simple: the workers at an American Antarctic base find that a neighboring Norwegian base has been completely destroyed after the last survivor showed up in a helicopter, shooting at a cute dog as it runs away. Only later do they realize that it’s actually a dog that’s been replaced by an alien that can assume any shape, and that any one of them (or more than one) might now be the alien. The taciturn biologist (A. Wilford Brimley) destroys their vehicles to prevent them from escaping… or is it because he’s the alien and wants to trap all of them? In an all-timer of a scene, Russell’s character holds everyone at gunpoint (or flamethrower-point, this movie gets more mileage out of flamethrowers than I think I’ve ever seen) while he tests each of their blood to find out if they are the alien. All hell breaks loose when one of them suddenly tests positive and he finds that his flamethrower isn’t working as well as he was hoping. 

The ending of The Thing is ambiguous, with MacReady and Childs (Keith David) the only two survivors of the base, with neither knowing if the other one is the alien, as the movie cuts to black. MacReady has blown up the base, so if nobody comes the two of them are going to freeze to death. But we’ve already shown that freezing doesn’t completely stop this creature. Is one of them the alien? Both? Are they rescued? If one of them is the Thing, does that mean the world ends, as the movie implies will happen if the monster is allowed to reach civilization? Carpenter likes to tell the story of a test screening where one woman asked him many of these questions afterwards, to which he answered that it was up to her imagination. “Oh, I hate that,” she replied, which seemed to be the way that audiences and critics felt at the time. Now, it’s impossible to imagine any other ending, to the point that even when the movie was “remade” in 2011, the actual movie that ended up being made is really a sort of prequel, showing what happened at the Norwegian base.

Nor, for that matter, was Carpenter’s movie the first version filmed version of the story, as Howard Hawks had made a version in 1951 called The Thing From Another World. When the original story by Sci-Fi legend John W. Campbell, Jr., came out in the late 30s, and when Hawks’ film was made in the 50s, this story of a monster that can look like anyone and the way it causes people to turn on each other was a fairly transparent metaphor for the communist menace. Carpenter’s reimagining, in which the menace becomes very physical, you may literally be penetrated and then your body will be ripped apart, made the story universal in a way it hadn’t been previously. 1982 was the height of the AIDS epidemic, particularly in the gay community. In The Thing, you don’t know who is infected, until they get a blood test, and then when you find out they are the only solution is to set them on fire. This is not a coincidence. But most of America in 1982 was ignoring the AIDS Epidemic. The President refused to even use the term “AIDS.” It wasn’t something people were thinking about.

Sort of on this front, at least thematically, is the choice of the filmmakers to make the cast of this movie entirely male. There is something to be said about this bringing out the homosexual panic of the AIDS metaphor, in which the monster literally sticks its tendrils into the men’s bodies, or about how Carpenter wanted to make a movie about the need to show “manliness” and how because everyone is always playing someone they’re not you never know who anyone truly is. But the actual explanation is probably more prosaic, given that writer Bill Lancaster apparently felt that a love story would only serve as a “distraction” and that “broads are gratuitous.” As if women only exist to romance men and can only be a distraction in an action movie.

Regardless of its other themes, the core of The Thing will likely always be its central monster. Instead of holding off on showing the monster, as Spielberg and many others had done in monster movies, Carpenter chooses to show us the monster in full light, but what he shows is so indescribable and ever-changing that you still have no idea what’s coming. This may be the only movie monster that gets scarier when you actually see it. The credit for all of the practical effects goes to Rob Bottin, a 22-year-old at the time. He claimed that many of the designs came to him in dreams. He insisted on being involved in every aspect of the process and ended up hospitalized from exhaustion. Button’s more recent work included designing the White Walkers on Game of Thrones.

Other than Russell, much of the cast was assembled from TV and character actors. Richard Dysart of L.A. Law fame plays the base doctor, featured in the memorable scene where he tries to resuscitate an apparently dead man, only for a giant mouth to appear in the dead man’s chest and chomp off his arms. Perhaps the most memorable portrayal is Wilford Brimley’s gruff scientist, who figures out before everyone else the threat the monster poses. Brimley did not start acting until late in his life, having spent years working as an actual cowboy and even as Howard Hughes’ bodyguard. Today he is probably best known for his pronunciation of the word “Diabeetus” in a series of commercials for testing supplies, but this is probably an injustice. Especially because he devoted much of his spare time in later years working to raise funds for diabetes-related charities. Brimley passed away this past summer in St. George, Utah.

Though it clearly had the AIDS epidemic in the back of its mind, The Thing still works just as well today. It’s not as if a movie about people turning on each other because of an invisible infection is untopical in 2020. I am not a “good old days” kind of person, but one huge advantage older movies have over new ones is in their use of practical effects. No CGI effect could possibly match the sinew-rupturing immediacy of the monster in this movie. It turns body horror into terrible art, impossible to look away from. America in the 1980s thought that it had moved beyond movies like The Thing. It was very wrong.

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