John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)
I really hate Star Wars.
There! After all these years I’ve finally stated it publicly. I feel liberated.
I really hate Star Wars.
I recognize the importance of the original trilogy when it comes to movies. I recognize the importance of the original trilogy when it comes to many people’s childhood memories. I also know that the fanboys in my family will probably burn my house down when they read this… so be it! One more time.
I really *hate* Star Wars.
I hate all six films. I hate the trillion video games, comic books, action figures, other toys and Lego sets. I hate Star Wars parodies. I hate the 600 pounds of questionable literature (why do people pay for fan fiction?) I hate that Disney owns it, just as they will one day own everything else, and I hate that they have plans to release a million more movies that I will also undoubtedly hate.
“Will,” you may ask, “why do you hate Star Wars? We don’t want you to hate, we want you to lovvvvveee.”
Okay. Why do you like it so much? Behold! Exhibit A —
Seriously, call it sandpaper to my personality. For myself, science fiction films are not fairy tales masquerading as science fiction films, they are horror films masquerading as SF films. We’re talking about cheesy black and white monsters created by nuclear blasts and drooling mutants created by mad scientists. We’re talking aliens wanting to steal the women-folk and use us for food. We’re talking about this cuddly little critter—
Sans funky beasties, dark and dystopic SF works just fine. Heck, intelligent SF is up there, too. Since it tends towards the dark and dystopic variety, it all comes out in the wash the same.
This little ditty is about an alien, of the slimy, drooling variety and the film it inhabits. My little Star Wars rant was just an added bonus. I’m really here to discuss John Carpenter’s The Thing.
The VCR came late to my family. When ma and pa finally took the plunge and picked one up at Magic Mart, it was an exciting time to be a movie buff. Exciting, yet also difficult. We were four people with widely divergent tastes. On snow days the viewing order ended up similar to this: Once Upon a Time in the West(Dad), The Sound of Music (mom), Dirty Dancing (sis), and if mom would have mercy on me, and actually let me rent a horror film, Creepshow(me).
On the down side, just try getting your brain to process and go from Charles Bronson glowering and chewing a harmonica, to the neurotically happy Von Trapps, to Baby being oppressed by corners, and finally switch over to a nasty furball popping out of a crate and munching on the unwary.
On the upside, I learned to appreciate many kinds of films, and those I didn’t learn to appreciate, I at least learned to hate with articulation (like Star Wars). A lot of people worry that their children will wilt if exposed to this or exposed to that. Well, I didn’t wilt. I discovered that I loved movies and literature. I discovered that I had a desire to be creative. I developed a flexible imagination. So, take that pseudosciencepoliticalmumbojumbowe’llraiseyourkidsforya bullshit!
John Carpenter’s The Thing was a VCR movie for me when I first experienced it, as it was for many others. It first had its day back during the summer of 1982, which was a crowded one for flicks. The Thing got clobbered at the box office and buried, no thanks in part to a certain cute little Muppet.
It was just as well for home video was kind to The Thing. It quickly earned the dual status of both a cult film and a genre classic. It’s on my own personal list of seminal monster movies and that’s a very short list.
The Thing is disturbing in a different way than The Exorcist, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It plays specifically on body anxieties, how your body can turn against you at a moment’s notice. The thing itself is like a virus, invading its host on the cellular level, taking over, and then imitating said host. The Thing is a scary monster because it has no shape of its own, rather,it has your shape. It can also take the shape of anything it has previously imitated.
Loss of identity is at the core of the thing, loss of identity and assimilation into a collective. MacReady (Kurt Russel) says that after the thing takes them all over, it has no enemies left and it becomes one. In this way the film is somewhat consistent with the anti-commie propaganda that shaped its progenitor, The Thing From Another World. And that’s about all it really has in common with it.
Yes, John Carpenter’s The Thing is a remake. Nowadays, the term remake conjures up images of about a hundred substandard movies that do little more than riff on their source material. This movie is not in that league— The Thing goes back to the source material from which both are derived and offers a fresh story that has more in common with H.P. Lovecraft tales than with the Cold War pandering of the Howard Hawks produced film.
When you watch this film, the first thing you plainly see and feel is the isolation of the characters. Cut off from the world in Antarctica, and only able to communicate with the outside world with radios that fail during bad weather conditions, and unable to really venture far outside due to the extreme cold, we know that there can be no good end for these guys. Even Snake Pliskken can’t save them.
The tension and anxiety in the film ratchets up as the men, not literally knowing who is who, turn against each other. In The Thing, stuff falls apart rapidly — an uncomfortable reminder of how things tend to unravel during real life catastrophes. It’s not that things fall apart, it’s that things disintegrate. In The Thing, disintegration is accompanied by the most gonzo creature special effects you’ll ever see.
Pre-CG, with only latex and puppetry at his disposal, Rob Bottin unleashes nightmare imagery like something out of a bad acid trip: a dog transforms into a grotesque amalgamation of plant and animal, human bodies rend, bubble and burst into toothy maws and swarms of angry tentacles, and Spider-Head. Who can forget Spider-Head?
All of the Halloween gag over-the-topness can distract from the fact that The Thing is a relentlessly bleak film with one hell of a downer ending. We are left with only two characters still breathing at the end but they won’t be for long since they are going to freeze to death in the ruins of Outpost 31. The kicker is this: are either one of them still human?
I didn’t have a reaction to The Thing in the way I reacted to the other two films I’ve written about in this little series. At moments I was troubled, creeped out by others, but afterwards I remember feeling pretty darn envious. Would I ever create something as good? Was I even capable? I’m still working on the answers to those questions, boys and girls.
And I still hate Star Wars.
Scariest line:You gonna trust, Gary? You gonna let him give the orders? He could be one of those things!