What the hell is THE THING? Is it the greatest horror movie of all time? Is it the greatest science fiction movie of all time? Maybe it’s just the greatest movie of all time. O.K, I’ll try not to go too overboard, but we ARE talking about THE THING here, a movie that transforms, mutates and above all grows in size with each passing year. JOHN CARPENTER what have you made? Based on a 1938 novella by a then 28-year-old JOHN W.CAMPBELL entitled “WHO GOES THERE?” and previously brought to the screen in the form of 1951’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (this version was produced by and, some say, ghost directed by CARPENTER‘s idol HOWARD HAWKS), THE THING is that rare film that not only stands up to the test of time, but also gives the test of time a wedgie for looking at it funny.
The story involves a research team in Antarctica who rightfully save a puppy from some PETA scoffing Norwegians (who wouldn’t?) Unfortunately, the doggie’s appreciative face licking is revealed to be a rouse when the canine’s cranium splits apart and his body turns into a hodgepodge circus of tentacles, crab legs and toothy Venus Fly Trap style orifices. Its outlandish anatomy even comes equipped with a super soaker like device that squirts white puss all over the real (nice) dogs! He’s no pet, he’s THE THING and he’s been bouncing around planets trying on other life form’s DNA like he’s shopping for shoes on Rodeo Drive for millions of years. THE THING can look, act and appear as anyone once it gets its gooey mitts into them, and that stirs up a heap of paranoia in this secluded outpost where dialing 911 is not an option and proper civilization is way out of reach.
Now you may be saying to yourself, “Hey, why don’t I just watch ALIEN and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS back to back instead?” Well, you should do that anyway sometime but THE THING has so much more going for it than just that set-up. First of all, there is the incredible end of the globe environment that’s just tailor made for J.C.‘s widescreen love of the horizon line (we might as well be on the moon). Then there’s the brilliantly sparse heart beat in a mother’s womb score by ENNIO MORRICONE that lulls and startles with equal force. And finally, amongst an admirable cast of veteran character actors and newbies alike, you have KURT RUSSELL‘s R.J. MacReady, the kind of humbly stoic would-be loner type that used to be a familiar American archetype, but is sadly missing from the flotsam and jetsam films of today. This cowboy on an ice bank is a fallible, reluctant hero who knows how to say, “Fuck you too!” and mean it.
It’s impossible to talk about THE THING without mentioning the inspirational, ahead of its time special effects designed by ROB BOTTIN (STAN WINSTON deserves a nod as well for his work in the mentioned dog kennel scene). The film’s lackluster box office performance in 1982 is often blamed on the feel good vapors surrounding the just released E.T. While there’s certainly some truth to that, I’ve begun to believe that audiences where simply too overwhelmed by BOTTIN‘s extraordinary work to really get what THE THING was about. I know when I saw the film as a kid that there was so much screaming and horrified laughter that it drowned out much of the dialogue. After the famous “spider head” walk, I think many brains were just too blown away to focus on the finer nuances on display. This goes for critics as well who wrongly accused the movie of being ONLY a showcase for effects. Now that years have passed and the slime has settled, BOTTIN‘s work is still awe inspiring but, thanks to the advent of home viewing, one can rewatch the film again and again unearthing different layers and forms without the distraction of picking your jaw off the floor.
At its heart, THE THING is about more than simple Xenophobia. It’s about that nameless space that exists between all people in all types of relationships. The fear that we can never know another’s real intentions. The knowledge that we can never know anyone absolutely. It’s interesting to note that original author JOHN W. CAMPBELL‘s mother had an identical twin sister who actively disliked John and that he had trouble telling the two apart. This factoid not only goes far in explaining the story’s fascination with false identity but even what some claim is a thread of misogyny throughout, citing the fact that the all male group is harmonious until a reproductive presence is introduced. CARPENTER does a fine job orchestrating the group dynamics within the camp and showing how leadership roles adjust during crisis. Before the unknown arrives, there is a general sense of camaraderie but much like the more recent THE MIST (which sports THE THING‘s theatrical poster in an early scene as a sort of mission statement or to-do list) once doubt goes in the “in box” and trust goes in the “out” box everyone starts looking a bit shady. THE THING may not leave you demanding a blood sample from your significant other (something else folks were not too keen to think about in an AIDS hysteric 1982) but it is bound to remind you just how very cold it can get when trust is “hard to come by”.
Disregarding undercurrents, THE THING simply works as a movie about people in a dire situation. I’ve already mentioned its membership in the sci-fi and horror genres but it also grafts action and western elements into the frosty mix as well. This is where CARPENTER really excels as a director. Although the final act may not reach the zenith level of excitement found within the film’s middle (scrapped stop motion effects take out much of the final showdown), the viewer is left with a truly singular experience that has yet to be equaled. Truth be told the tale is not without it’s fair share of loose ends and ambiguities (J.C. admits much was created on the fly) but its strengths are so dynamic that these undefined elements become part of its appeal. At the end of the day CARPENTER and company can only be admired for producing that rare remake that artfully picks only the strongest components of its previous sources, while adding new innovative shadings uniquely it’s own.
In lieu of transcribing the entire movie, let’s just say there is a plethora of indelible scenes and a rich bounty of quotable dialogue to be found here. Something that needs to be singled out though is the film’s “Sorry, you’re not getting off the hook THAT easy!” ending. Asking people to think too much or fill in the blanks was not really a popular or polite thing for a movie to do in the early eighties (just ask equally shrugged off, now regarded masterpieces BLADE RUNNER and VIDEODROME!) and THE THING demands you do just that. What was once considered a frustrating non-payoff is now the film’s undeniable masterstroke of a calling card. It leaves you thinking and thinking is a good thing (you might say it’s what separates humans from things).