Creature Features in Review: The Thing (1982)
Thirty-five years. On June 25th, we will be celebrating thirty-five years since the release of John Carpenter’s The Thing. The review you are about to read, written by the incredibly talented William D. Prystauk, aka Billy Crash, not only the second half of the infamously awesome The Last Knock podcast, but also a teacher, director, screenwriter, and loving husband and friend, has carefully crafted what I believe to be the definitive review of The Thing. I’m glad Bill decided to take on this “creature feature.” For those who know me will be quick to understand, The Thing is by far my most favorite movie. Not just my favorite horror movie, but my favorite overall film in its entirety. From score to cast to dialogue and landscape to practical effects and most of all its unabashed fearlessness towards nihilism. Disney has spoiled generations of audiences by spoon feeding them a resolution to the conflict and the always dominant hero. But in The Thing, we are denied those expectations, wonderfully so. Not everything has to have a resolution. Not every story must end with the hero defeating the monster. Ambiguity exists in nature and thus should representation on screen, at least sometimes, right?
by William D. Prystauk
When I first saw The Thing on the big screen, I was overwhelmed by the oppressive nature of John Carpenter’s film as well as its mystery, music, cinematography, and remarkable special effects from Rob Bottin and company, as well as the gripping writing from Bad News Bears scribe, Bill Lancaster. Unfortunately, 1982 was a banner year for strong movies so The Thing didn’t make the final cut when it came to earnings, and Carpenter is supposedly still bitter about his film’s poor performance in theaters. Today, however, the film’s considered a masterpiece by many horror cinephiles, and rightfully so.
This is not a Remake
Carpenter’s version is not a remake of 1951’s The Thing from Another World with James Arness playing the alien version of Frankenstein’s monster. In this case, the movie deviates from the original tale, “Who Goes There?” a short story spun by John W. Campbell Jr., and leaves fighting the creature to the military still deservedly basking in the glow of a post-World War II world right before the horrors of The Korean War. In the story, scientists resolve the alien issue, though Lancaster’s script calls for scientists and military veterans to try and figure a way out.
Carpenter stayed closer to Campbell’s tale with its shape-shifting monster and the paranoia it caused. The director chose to have a much smaller staff at National Science Institute Station 4 instead of a larger component of men, but he kept most of the major characters’ names. As for Campbell’s tale, it’s actually a bad read due to repetition (he must have referred to MacReady as being “bronze” a hundred times) and from a sad overuse of “to be” verbs. For his part, Carpenter and Lancaster made Campbell’s story shine like gold.
Who the Hell Are These Guys?
For a science station, the men who work there don’t really fit the bill. Sure, Billings (Peter Maloney) is a meteorologist, Norris (Charles Hallahan) has a broader mind beyond his geology degree, Windows (Thomas Waites) serves as the radioman, lumberjack looking Clark (Richard Masur) handles the dogsled team, Nauls (TK Carter) feeds the crew, and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) does his best to keep everyone healthy. The man who keeps the team in line is Garry (Donald Moffat), who for some reason has a six-gun strapped to his side with a gun belt to match and serves no other purpose than a security guard. Childs (Keith David) is one hell of a mechanic, who can obviously juggle boilers, tractors, and helicopters with ease. The pilots of the choppers are Vietnam vets Palmer (David Clennon), a stoner who one wouldn’t trust to fly a remote control whirlybird, and MacReady (Kurt Russel). Both men suffer from PTSD in their own way, and while Palmer socializes and engages in marijuana, MacReady isolates himself and indulges in scotch. The final part of the troupe is Blair (Wilford Brimley) and his understudy assistant, Fuchs (Joel Polis). At one point, Doc Copper orders Blair “… to start an autopsy right away.” In Campbell’s story, Blair’s a biologist, which makes sense for the movie version, but why would he be a master of autopsy? Since the dogs have no veterinarian, he may also play that role and could have performed necropsies on animals in the past.
When witnessing the game room scene, it’s clear the men are often “standoffish.” Nauls, who a second ago was resting in his cot and watching TV with Palmer, plays pool with Clark. Windows fumbles with the newspaper from the couch, while Norris, Bennings, and Garry play poker. There’s no banter, no noise, and clearly no fun. It’s as if all these guys did something heinous and were sent to Antarctica to cool down for the “first goddamn week of winter.” Yet, they not only have handguns and shotguns at the ready, and at least one German rifle from a Norwegian, but they also have three flame throwers and dynamite. Doesn’t sound like a science station. Could it serve as some Cold War outpost? If so, this expansive complex can certainly support more men, and one wonders if abandonment of the facility looms on the horizon thanks to budget cuts.
The Thing Itself
The boogeyman in The Thing differs from the average creature feature antagonist. Each monster has a weakness, or so it seems, and once the human hero figures that out, the monster will be destroyed. In this case, the alien can replicate someone’s cells, absorb their language and mannerisms, and apparently the knowledge they have stored in their brains. Worst of all, it can seemingly infect anyone at any time (more about that later).
Our intrepid crew doesn’t know which part of space the creature came from, but thanks to Norris, we know it’s ship crashed down onto the continent about 100,000 years ago. Beyond the being’s extensive hibernation, the ship proves to be a massive one, unlike the smaller craft in the 1951 film. What we don’t know is if this was a ship built by the Thing and his or her people, or if the creature got onboard and overwhelmed the entire crew with its cellular replication. Later in the narrative, we learn that the creature tries to recreate his craft on a smaller scale with the same look as the original. Since the Thing can absorb knowledge, and since we don’t know its age or where it’s been, this may be the optimal ship design it had discovered from its journeys across the cosmos.
Oddly enough, the creature ends up away from the ship on higher ground. This can certainly happen because the topography changed due to plate tectonics and maybe volcanism, but what did the Norwegian team actually dig up? If the creature crashed in Antarctica and went into hibernation after a short walk, it certainly didn’t overtake a human at the time. Too bad the Norwegians hadn’t filmed what this Thing actually looked like. But they did videotape the outline of the ship, and they unearthed the craft thanks to thermite charges. In the movie, one may think they blew up a massive hole the size of Rhode Island, but that would have displaced tons upon tons of ice and rock – and would have certainly registered on Norris’ seismograph at the station (there has to be one). The point is that MacReady and company, for some reason, land on a ridge above the ship and rappel down.
And once the creature thawed, it went to work on absorbing the Norwegians and its dogs.
The greatest element to the short story and both films is the element of “The Other.” As we discover in many science fiction and horror movies, the other is a xenomorph (“a strange form” by definition or an “alien” or “monster”) that either must be assimilated or destroyed. What is fantastic about this tale is both creature and human are “The Other.” Humans don’t belong in Antarctica and neither does that Thing. Since the “human others” can’t determine what the monster is, it can’t be assimilated and must be killed. The “alien other” wants to assimilate the humans, yet destroys them in the process.
To see something like this in cinema is rare, though one finds such a human-xenomorph “other” combination in Ridley Scott’s Alien. The human component doesn’t thrive naturally in space, and though the alien creature comes off as the bad monster, the humans did bring this entity upon themselves in a “curiosity killed the cat” theme, though Jonesy lives to hiss another day. Unlike The Thing where destroy versus assimilate comes into play, Alien is all about kill or be killed.
Windows couldn’t connect with McMurdo (where he refers to the outpost as number 31 just like MacReady, instead of 4). The men of the station are in conflict about who should lead and who shouldn’t be trusted. But there is absolutely no communication between human and Thing.
This horror turns into a cat-and-mouse game between human and alien. Yet, if the creature just wants to survive and escape in a ship, why didn’t it simply ask for help? When MacReady addressed the members of the camp and realized they all weren’t infected because they would have jumped him, why didn’t he ask what the creature wanted? After all, it’s a stranger in a strange land, and “probably not in the best of moods” after portraying a xenomorphic popsicle for too many centuries.
Without any women on the station, one may think the crew was being macho or stubborn, but the reason runs deeper than an emotional state and posturing, though both of those elements certainly exist in the narrative. Like the alien, the humans are also predators, and that’s why communication between them never took shape. It’s a fight to the end, pure and simple. Think of it as any competition where one squares off against an opponent – to the death.
Even so, a little communication could have gone a long way, but that would have made for a different kind of film, and one that wouldn’t be worthy of review for this category. By the way, ET phoned home in 1982 on June 11, and Carpenter’s film came out two weeks later as Spielberg’s friendly alien continued to captivate little kids and their parents nationwide.
This has been a point of contention for many The Thing fans: Who got infected when, how, and even why? A meme showed Blair tapping a pencil against his lips after the autopsy. Hmm… However, the answer is far simpler: They were all at risk of infection the moment they unwrapped the creature with two faces, akin to the theater masks of comedy and drama, looking outward with one connected tongue. Doc Copper in all his medical expertise asked, “Is that a man in there?” when he and MacReady dug up the monster and brought it home to infect everyone else. Clearly, no quarantine protocol was in effect.
When they unwrapped the frozen creature, with the heat of the room, water evaporated from the body and Blair backed off from the stench. After all, the Thing began to defrost once inside the warmer helicopter. Now, as MacReady proved later with another item from the book, that each cell was a creature on its own, who knows what flew into the air and made its way through the mouths and nostrils and into the lungs of the crew. Yes, some became infected (though we really don’t know when), and others did not (though we really don’t know why), but airborne infection seems to be just as likely as bloodborne in this case.
Due to each component of the Thing being its own individual entity, this creature may be its own entire civilization. In 2015, Robin Corey, a biochemist, wrote that there are 37.2 trillion cells in the human body, not including bacteria. This means that once the Thing takes over a human host, that can make for one hell of a population. Blair had calculated that we’d all be infected in 27,000 hours, which is a little over three years, but there’s an excellent chance that infection, or assimilation, would happen much faster.
There are many more mysteries packed within Carpenter’s amazing horror, but that’s for another time. The important thing is to watch the film and become a prisoner like the others, trapped “a thousand miles from nowhere” without a radio, and a heavy storm that prevents anyone from escaping even on foot. This is what the horror genre is meant to be: isolated and frightening with a sense that there’s no way out.
Carpenter tips his hand that there’s little hope for our characters right from the beginning. The opening shot after the credits is that of a sheer rock face. The camera lingers there as if to say it’s too foreboding and not scalable. We see the Norwegian helicopter flying over the rock as it heads towards its own doom, but it’s clear that our “science” crew won’t make it out of the station alive.
In the film, we’re left with a couple of characters waiting for what might possibly come next. We don’t know if one is infected or if either one of them is. We do know, however, that they’re both not infected because an alien greeting most definitely would have been different. And in the brownish light of a fiery night, the camera pulls back from the pair and we fade to black. In the television version, after the camera pulled back, we see a dog leaving the station, bookending the film in excellent fashion. Maybe it doesn’t really matter who was infected since all is lost.
Thankfully, The Thing survived its poor and undeserved theatrical showing and keeps bringing the scares and incredible in-camera effects to new generations of horror fans. Whether you’ve seen the film once or a thousand times, keep your eyes peeled for the multitude of little mysteries that neither the characters nor the audience can answer (Who got to the blood anyway?). Revel in ambiguous horror that delivers on every level, including bottom end gloom from the renowned Ennio Morricone’s doom-ridden composition, and the excellent cinematography from one of the best, Dean Cundey. Carpenter created something for the ages, and for fans – human or otherwise.
William D. Prystauk (aka Billy Crash) cohosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes and at http://crashpalaceproductions.com. He’s in pre-production of a dramatic science fiction feature film he’ll shoot in Seattle with his company, Crash Palace Productions. When he’s not listening to punk rock and leaving no sushi behind, he indulges in the food group better known as chocolate. Follow him on Twitter as @crashpalace, and look for him under his real name at LinkedIn, IMDb, Amazon, Behance, and at http://williamdprystauk.com.
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February 23, 2017 | Categories: Horror, Movies, Reviews | Tags: 1951, 1982, atmospheric, Bill Lancaster, Charles Hallahan, Creature Feature, creature features, Creature Features in Review, dark, dark fiction, David Clennon, Donald Moffat, film, Guest author, Horror, horror movies, horror reviews, Joel Polis, John Carpenter, Keith David, Kurt Russell, monster movies, monsters, movie review, movie reviews, nihilism, nihilistic, paranoia, Peter Maloney, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur, T. K. Carter, The Last Knock, The Thing, The Thing From Another World, Thomas G. Waites, thriller, Wilford Brimley, William D. Prystauk | 4 Comments