“I don’t know what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off whatever it is.”
In snow, no one can hear you scream. ‘Cause it’s cold. They stayed inside.
John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982) – not to be confused with Christian Nyby’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) or Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s THE THING (2011) – is straight up one of the best horror films achieved by mankind so far. It’s relatable but extraordinary, simple but original, blunt but ambiguous. It has quite possibly the most brilliant creature effects ever devised, or at least the only monster arguably weird enough to top ALIEN in the “well, shit, I never even thought of seeing anything like that!” department.
The Thing crash landed on earth some 100,000 years ago, and has only recently been unfrozen to raise a ruckus. A pessimist would say (as Wilford Brimley’s Blair does in the movie) that this is the type of shenanigans that could end the human race in a couple of years. An optimist would say hey, let’s just be thankful the flying saucer didn’t land properly in the first place, we got an extra 100,000 years out of that.
This is not the kind of monster that goes around eating people. I mean, it does kill people. But the terror of this creature is its ability to perfectly mimic other lifeforms. Like some fish or lizard that can change color to camouflage itself, The Thing can take on the shape of anybody. It’s scary because we don’t know if we’re looking at Wilford Brimley or some fucking tentacled alien motherfucker bending and squeezing its flesh into the exact shape of Wilford Brimley. Even doing his voice. No one can be trusted. Not even dogs.
As creepy as those implications are, it’s really catching The Thing in the act that keeps us up at night. This not a simple morph, like from panther to Michael Jackson. It usually takes a little time. The Thing is gonna want its privacy. But if you walk in on it when it’s in the middle of turning into some dogs or a person or something and it’s not ready yet, it freaks out and starts morphing and burbling and tentacling all over the place, the Thing equivalent of yelling “FUCK!” and trying to run away and pull up its pants at the same time. Then it gets confused and gets the coding wrong, or it just doesn’t give a shit and it improvises, so we see a big mouth in a guy’s chest, a bunch of dog parts melted together, an upside down severed head walking around on spider legs… all kinds of genetically incorrect madness. It’s a freaky fucking monster!
Let us take a moment to acknowledge Rob Bottin, the one of a kind bat shit factory who masterminded these effects. A protege of Rick Baker, he worked on the STAR WARS cantina scene and was the tallest member of Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes, in my opinion the Booker T and the MGs of Tatooine. He first worked with Carpenter on THE FOG (1980), but he really broke out as a superstar of effects makeup in 1981 when his incredible THE HOWLING werewolf transformation beat his mentor’s AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON one to the screen.
Since THE THING, Bottin has been less prolific than Baker or many of the other makeup legends, and he’s pretty much disappeared this decade. IMDb claims he did uncredited work on one episode of Game of Thrones in 2014, otherwise his last credit was MR. DEEDS in 2002. But if you look at his filmography you’ll see an unmistakable style of envelope-pushing effects work in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, EXPLORERS, LEGEND, THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK, ROBOCOP (yes, he designed Robocop), TOTAL RECALL, SE7EN, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS. Think about the bizarre creatures in these. Of course they were made by the same guy who made THE THING. It makes sense, right?
But of all these brilliant works, it’s hard not to consider THE THING the best.
Now, for this baroque, constantly transforming pile of body horror to stand out, you need a simple backdrop: an isolated camp for a group of gruff working men – specifically a research station in Antarctica. The all male crew don’t seem like best buds – the first dialogue is between protagonist R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell, ELVIS) and the computer chess program he chooses to hang out with – but they know how to work together. They inherit this alien intruder when the last survivor of the Norwegian team that found it chases it right into their camp. In THEY LIVE, Nada is just going about his business when he starts to see strange activities around the church, and curiosity about it eventually pulls him into an intergalactic conspiracy. Here the odd thing they witness is some guys in a helicopter trying to drop bombs on a dog! Obviously that’s gonna raise some eyebrows. Especially in Antarctica where you don’t get alot of excitement.
The fatal mistake is shooting first. They kill this apparent crazed dog hunter and have no one to ask questions of. Even if that’s a regular human dog and not an alien impostor – hell, especially if it’s a regular human dog – it’s not gonna be able to explain to them what’s going on. This is not Lassie. They blew it.
Another mistake is bringing home the big pile of frozen weird they find in the Norwegian camp. “We found this,” he says! I know, it’s rare, and finders keepers and all that, but that thing is what we would’ve called back then a TV dinner from Hell. Do not defrost. And that dog hangs around and stares at it. Does this mean he is an alien, waiting for the thing to thaw so he can have some companionship? Or does it mean he’s a regular dog keeping an eye on the situation in case he needs to help out? I’ll tell you this, if he is not an alien he is definitely gonna try to eat some of that thing if he gets a chance, don’t you think? Absolutely he is. Dogs are nasty.
But as nasty as they are I feel sorry for the dogs in this. They’re the first ones to discover they’ve been infiltrated and get lashed by tentacles and messed up. When they see what they thought was a fellow dog turn into a spider thing they must be thinking “Oh jesus, the humans are never gonna believe this shit.” Thank God Clark (Richard Masur, FIRE DOWN BELOW) sees it for himself.
I’m not saying I agree with The Thing’s behavior, but I will say this: it would suck to be frozen for 100,000 years in my opinion. So maybe The Thing isn’t really being itself. For all we know it could be a complete gentleman most of the time, it’s just that right now it’s confused and irritable from freezer burn.
Poor guy must’ve been bored out of his mind down there. These scientists aren’t exactly having the time of their lives, but they have recreation. They have a Heat Wave pinball machine, Defender, the computer chess (voice of Adrienne Barbeau!), board games, Jim Beam, Smirnoff, Coors, a jukebox, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book. Bennings (Peter Maloney, THE CHILDREN, MANHUNTER) refers to “crap” on the radio while “Superstition” is playing, which is why nobody can really argue with him being the first human to go. Sorry, bud. Shouldn’t have disrespected Stevie.
Speaking of music, that’s another pitch perfect element of this movie. The score by Ennio Morricone is as spare and haunting as the landscape. Carpenter went out and got one of the greatest composers who ever lived to make him music, then he didn’t use most of it. It’s interesting that unused portions ended up in another snowbound Kurt Russell-led ensemble, THE HATEFUL EIGHT. According to Quentin Tarantino, Morricone composed full orchestral and synthesizer scores for THE THING, but Carpenter only used the main synth theme. I haven’t been able to find a comprehensive breakdown of the unused music, but apparently the tracks called “Eternity,” “Bestiality” and “Despair” are all used in HATEFUL EIGHT (but were also included on the THE THING soundtrack album).
I want you to check out the one called “Bestiality”:
Great music that’s hard to imagine in THE THING as it exists. Carpenter’s movie doesn’t dance around like that. It looks intently straight ahead. It is steady and single-minded. It sounds like a John Carpenter movie. He must’ve felt kinda bad getting the maestro to create that for him and realizing that he just couldn’t put it in the movie. He zeroed in on the simplest parts, the parts that helped build the mood of a slow, hopeless march straight into the heart of a snow storm.
Morricone’s score album is out of print, for some reason eclipsed by a still-produced re-recording produced by Carpenter collaborator Alan Howarth and arranged by Larry Hopkins. They cover “Bestiality,” even though it wasn’t in the movie, and there are three additional tracks credited to Carpenter in association with Howarth.
If THE THING is Carpenter’s masterpiece, it’s weird that his masterpiece is the rare one that he didn’t compose the score for. Or at least most of it. It’s also Carpenter’s first film besides the ELVIS mini-series that he didn’t write. The “Who Goes There?” short story by John W. Campbell Jr. was adapted by Bill Lancaster, the son of Burt Lancaster and writer of THE BAD NEWS BEARS and THE BAD NEWS BEARS GO TO JAPAN. No shit, that’s who wrote THE THING. And he was married to Ernie Kovacs’ daughter Kippie.
I never noticed until this viewing how much this has in common with ALIEN aside from just being another masterpiece of sci-fi horror dread with mindblowing creature designs. Both begin quietly, even peacefully, in space. In this, more than five minutes pass before there’s any talking. Then they introduce their teams of working class people on missions far away from other humans, trying to get through their long, shitty, lonely jobs without cracking. They find evidence of another group in distress, so some of them go explore the inexplicable scene of disaster, where they discover alien artifacts and the buried wreckage of a long-ago-crashed alien spacecraft. They accidentally bring a deadly predatory species back to the crib, and it’s hidden inside some of them. They argue, plan, try to burn it, get picked off one by one, and eventually try to blow up the whole place to destroy the thing.
(After writing all this I listened to the co-producer’s commentary track, and he says that the success of ALIEN helped them finally get the movie off the ground. It had been previously in development for Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel.)
The biggest difference is that THE THING is more body-snatcher paranoid. It’s about fear of betrayal, of hidden motives, and the dangers of disunity. At first they approach this situation as a team. They discuss plans, delegate tasks. As in the Howard Hawks produced 1951 version they are professionals. Early on we see them all standing around this Thing on a slab, hands on their hips in some cases, examining it, offering their expertise, considering possibilities.
But the very nature of The Thing is to create division. It does it just by living. By exactly mimicking other lifeforms so that nobody knows who goes there, who’s who and who’s Thing, it makes sure the group is torn apart by suspicion. Natural divide and conquer.
The blood test is a brilliant invention on the part of the characters and the filmatists. Every part of the Thing is designed to defend itself, so stick a drop of blood with a hot poker and it will put up its dukes. I assume the same would be true of a sweaty towel or a pile of poo.
But it’s not an easy test to administer. They had to tie each other up and collect the blood. Really makes you appreciate the convenience of those sunglasses in THEY LIVE. So much more user friendly.
The ambiguity of the rules of Thingsmanship add an extra dab of existential terror. I’ve always wondered if the people who are The Thing would necessarily know they are The Thing. Behind-the-scenes materials confirm that Russell asked about this during filming. Isn’t it possible that this lifeform mimics not just physical characteristics, but memories? This would explain how they can speak and still seem like the humans they’re replacing, and why Thing-Blair knew so many ways to sabotage the team. It could also explain why the people who turn out to not be Things still seem scared to take the blood test. Or at least that seems to imply that they don’t know how it works either and fear the possibility that they could be The Thing without realizing it. In a way the idea of not knowing if you’re a human or a monster imitating a dead human is scarier than all your friends being replaced by monsters.
And that makes the hall-of-famer inconclusive ending even better, because maybe neither of them knows what’s gonna happen either. I really have no interest in that debate about whether MacReady or Childs (Keith David, MARKED FOR DEATH) is assimilated at the end. The answer is obvious: MacReady is or Childs is or both are or neither are and they just have a few drinks and then freeze to death. It could be any of these things, that’s the point, why would there be a correct answer?
This is legendary as a nihilistic ending, but there’s a possible victory in it if we assume Thing-Childs or Thing-MacReady are limited to human frailties and will die. But what happens if The Thing does manage to escape the camp is fascinating to contemplate.
First, though, I have to wonder, is there The Thing or are there Things? Since the individual cells can function as separate organisms, does that mean everyone assimilated shares one consciousness? If so, The Thing’s goal could be to have one mind populating the entire planet. Or multiple planets – maybe it still knows what’s going on back at home, and anywhere else it has spread.
If there’s only one Thing it seems logical that it will take its methodology to its logical conclusion of killing and replacing every last person on earth. So how does that work? How far does it go into that couple of years before it dispenses with the “we’re humans” bullshit and starts wrecking shit in its primary form of weird misshapen body part piles? Or is that even its primary form? In fact, does it have a primary form? I guess its primary form is each individual cell. They just work together in different systems based on the lifeforms they encounter. Were they even the ones flying that saucer, or were they an infection, like in ALIEN?
Would it end up like the aliens in THEY LIVE, a secret class hiding among us? And what kind of sense of humor would it have about it? What if it continues with this M.O. of imitating humans and waits until it has only one person left to assimilate and then it says “Surprise!” and that’s the signal for the entire rest of the population of earth to simultaneously Bottin out? That would be pretty upsetting if you were that last human, but pretty funny if you were The Thing.
But what I really wonder is what if it replaces the whole human race and then it never drops the charade? Maybe the mimicry is not just to deceive, but a way to adapt to different environments, and then it would make sense to stick with the human form or some evolved variation on it. Even if that’s not The Thing’s instinct, who is to say it won’t find itself comfortable enough that it will continue to live as human, or even identify as human? It has killed every human and now there are billions of fake humans. A whole planet of The Things forever going through the motions of being people, like some crazy, soul-less puppet show from space.
Maybe at first it’s real stiff. “Hello, how are you?” “I am fine. I hope that you are fine also.” But over time it gets better at it. It gets so involved in the human ways that it sympathizes with them. It becomes invested in the lives it fakes. It started as a joke and it became serious. It forgets it was a put on. It just becomes its life.
If The Thing picks up people’s memories and mannerisms, would it pick up on our differences enough to imitate our class and race prejudices? Would it erase these conflicts to make itself happy, or stay faithful to the original source material and fight amongst itself?
Oh shit, and what about animals? It took over dogs, would it have to take over the other animals? I’m gonna say no, or if not the Thing people should be vegetarians so they’re not eating Thing animals. That would be gross.
So there’s this whole Thing civilization, The Thing pretending to be humans, interacting with each other, working together and for each other, exchanging money for goods and services, eating food, building families, making love, getting an education, still not knowing what to do with its life, never quite feeling like it made the right decisions, not being able to make life work like it used to picture it when it was younger, feeling unfulfilled, fearing death, taking a job out in the middle of fucking Antarctica, away from most of the other Things, typing in numbers, performing tests, learning about this planet…
Then one day it finds the flying saucer. It remembers where it came from. The Thing, during this mid-assimilation crisis, could decide to drop everything and shift to any other form. But it could also stay fake-human. Maybe try to make some little adjustments, little improvements, see if it can make it work.
This would be the real test for humanity. What would it do? Why don’t we just… wait here for a while. See what happens.
Thanks for reading, everybody, and happy Halloween!
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.