Picture this: the year is 20XX and civilisation has long since collapsed. The cities lie in ruins, a harsh synth soundtrack highlights daily life, and society is ruled by two vicious metal-plate clad gangs: the Practical FX Crew and the CGI Wimps. The latter gang attack with imagined, intangible weapons and spout the virtues of Avatar, whilst the former are dedicated to forcing the heathens to revere their one true God – John Carpenter.
With a career spanning on and off forty years, the man not only knows horror – he embodies it. Whether it be: slasher (Halloween), body horror (The Thing), or even a twisted ghost story (The Fog), whatever Carpenter turns his hand to it usually ends up worshipped by some part of the horror community.
In this review I will be focusing on The Thing, the first part of his seminal Apocalypse Trilogy: three vaguely linked films (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness) from 1982, 1987 and 1995 respectively.
The Thing follows eleven researchers (including Kurt Russell) isolated in an Antarctic Research station for the winter. After an encounter with crazed Norwegian researchers the group uncover grisly goings on in the attackers’ own base. There they make a remarkable discovery with the potential to affect all of mankind – a crashed UFO and alien corpse that’s in worse condition than Cavity Sam.
Naturally, the corpse is revealed to be a living nightmare; capable of self-replicating and polymorphism. With no means of communication, or escape, the men have no choice but to fight off this bizarre threat. Something which proves incredibly difficult given that their entire defence is limited to basic hunting weapons, utility tools (flamethrowers and dynamite) and harsh language.
Initially, this set up seems to be nothing more than a slasher with an icky coating. The researchers make poor decisions, wander off alone, and get picked off one by one. But very early on we see how Carpenter and Lancaster utilise various aspects of the setting to combine the nuances of psychological horror with the visceral nature of body horror.
There’s a sense of isolation which runs throughout the film. The men are trapped in a remote wasteland, with absolutely no chance of outside assistance. The remoteness of the location, incredibly hazardous weather conditions (the crew are ‘wintering over’) and lack of comforts beyond the most basic, help to create an oppressive atmosphere even before the Thing appears. It explores similar territory to The Shining: showing how fragile the human psyche can be when there’s nothing to take solace in.
Where The Thing differs is that unofficial protagonist MacReady (Russell) is not alone during the story, and is able to take comfort in companionship – at least until paranoia rears its ugly head. Because who can you trust when faced against a shape-shifting foe capable of replicating the personality of anyone it assimilates? It’s similar to that most insidious of epistemological concepts – the Other Minds theory.
The theory suggests that we can never definitively know if others experience life the same way as ourselves, or even exist beyond their bodies. We effectively see this play out here: the characters are able to identify one another, but there’s no way for them to identify what’s going on underneath the flesh. Leaving the team little recourse but to try and work out who is actually the monster.
Quickly the base becomes a suffocating pressure cooker environment. And by setting his film against the immense panorama of the Antarctic wasteland, Carpenter is able to craft a sense of helplessness in a place without hope. Ennio Morricone’s baleful electronic score underscores this desolation, whilst also evoking notions of a forbidden knowledge.
Because, at heart the movie is a mystery. Important details are deliberately withheld: we never fully understand what the Thing is. Blair (Wilfred Brimley) is able to identify that it’s essentially a collection of self-serving cells, able to spread, adapt and multiply; but there’s no grand revelation as to the true nature of the monstrosity. The assumption of what it is and where it came from is left to us to decide.
People often mistake ambiguity for bad storytelling, but this isn’t necessarily the case. It is possible for a cohesive narrative to leave room for interpretation. In The Thing, it’s not important that we are shown exactly what happened to those misshapen broken corpses in the Norwegian base, nor do we need to know why the creature came to Earth. How we interpret the details doesn’t change the story, but gives it a personal touch. Which is one of the reasons why the prequel is held with such disdain; there’s little point in explaining a back story fans have had thirty years to mull over.
The team’s efforts to root out the infected, and the creature’s own guerrilla tactics feels like they’re taken straight out of an espionage thriller. There’s a war of wills being waged, a sense of the Thing playing the men of against one themselves; which is contrasted brilliantly with the all out assault of the horror scenes. A monster which prefers to plan its manoeuvres to exploit its environment and the mindsets of its victims is depressingly unique in a slasher style film.
To this end the main cast are all well portrayed. The late great Roger Ebert criticised the film for poor characterisation, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. It’s no Raging Bull and I wouldn’t say that any of the characters are particularly memorable, but they come across as real people dealing with an impossible situation in a realistic way.
Over the course of the film the strain wears on them: they make illogical choices, turn on each other, and even become distrustful. Which is of course how someone is expected to act under such duress. Windows (Thomas G Waites) losing the keys, ultimately allowing the Thing to sabotage the blood, feels like a believable mistake one would make. As does the highly competent MacReady employing guilty until proven innocent techniques on his colleagues. And for a horror film what more could you ask? The way the characters develop is relevant to the story being told, and for a claustrophobic body horror piece it works just fine.
However, one thing which can prove particularly jarring is the lack of female characters. There’s technically one female presence in the entire movie: the AI in the Chess game, portrayed by Carpenter’s then wife Adrienne Barbeau. And even then the computer is destroyed five minutes in by MacReady, in what can be described as an incredibly symbolic move. It’s fitting in with the tone of the story: a gloomy, hopeless fight to the death has no place for emotional attachments.
There’s a definite lack of feminine influence and the men’s reliance on brutality at the cost of reason and civility. Which is not to say that female characters have to be two dimensional plot points but, generally speaking, the inclusion of women in horror is done purely to add emotional investment and additional ‘motivation’ for the male protagonist.
In fact the story is so undedicated to providing closure that many have tried to apply different interpretations of it over the years: some portray the Thing as a cultural invader (Communism, Immigration) trying to smash down the boundaries of American culture and force them to conform. Others still, see it as an allegory for the largely unspoiled continent of Antarctica defending itself against the encroaching influence of humankind.
The idea of Antarctica defending itself is almost reflected in the creature itself. Each set piece with the creature is designed to show the Thing as this impossible, living organism desperately trying to survive. Rob Bottin and his team clearly had a ball designing the monster’s various forms.
And there are so many memorable set pieces in the movie: A grisly collection of dog corpses, writhing tentacles and twisted limbs; Norris’ (Charles Hallahan) chest opening up into mouth-like orifice ripping off Cooper’s (Richard A. Dysart) arms, a huge multi-limbed form pulling itself out of his chest, and even Norris’ head ripping itself from the body and spouting spider-like legs.
In my opinion, The Thing still stands head and shoulders above most CGI reliant movies. Knowing what we see on the screen was actually in front of the actors really adds to film’s sense of horror. Compare the 1982 film with its 2011 prequel. It’s not a bad film, but the computer enhancements completely overshadow the otherwise fantastic practical effects, leaving it looking pretty artificial. To paraphrase Shakespeare‘s Sonnet 130: “Practical effects may not be the prettiest, but CGI looks like complete arse.”
Of the films in the Apocalypse Trilogy, The Thing is perhaps the most well known. It wasn’t a success in the box office, but it did open against Blade Runner. And it has been suggested that ET – which was released two weeks earlier – apparently had some effect on the film’s performance; because I guess people wanted to believe that aliens would rather wipe us out via overbearingly offbeat antics than through painful absorption.
Carpenter has been vindicated by a resurgence in The Thing’s popularity, which started in the mid-90’s and has remained highly regarded since. Aside from the fantastic effects and atmosphere, the film is probably best remembered for its incredibly nihilistic ending (base destroyed, MacReady and Childs almost definitely set to freeze to death).
The most extraordinary thing about the ending is its ability to still ignite passionate debates amongst fans, some thirty years later. Is the Thing dead? Has it assimilated MacReady? How about Childs (Keith David)? It’s infuriatingly ambiguous, and will probably never be answered – which is, quite frankly, delightful.
The last scene is haunting: both men know they are certain to die and thus try to spend their final hours forging an uneasy alliance, despite an intense distrust of each other. MacReady and Childs are lost (both physically and metaphorically), and by ending with no definitive answer the film leaves us just as lost.