It’s a funny turn of events: today, almost three decades later, the film is critically lauded and there’s even a prequel in production. But in 1982, the film was considered a bomb, and some people even feared Carpenter’s career was over. Hah!
In the waning days of the summer of 1982, my parents took me to an afternoon matinee, a double-feature at a second-run theater in Los Angeles. I couldn’t have guessed so beforehand, but this excursion to the movies was a life-changing event for me.
That description sounds like unwarranted hyperbole until you understand that the double-bill consisted of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Imagine — just for a moment — seeing those particular films back-to-back, one after the other, on the big screen.
Then consider the impact these two genre films have on our pop culture had over time. It’s…staggering.
If you think about it, both productions share more in common than may appear obvious at first blush. Primarily, both Blade Runner and The Thing explore the existential angst of what it means to be human. Protagonists in each film combat creatures that mimic or imitate the human shape, but are indistinctly inhuman. In both films, the impostor is also an infiltrator…virtually unrecognizable — hidden — in a larger population. Both films also feature ambiguous endings: we’re not exactly certain if humanity is victorious. In far more grounded terms, both genre movies have outlived overwhelming mainstream critical disdain and poor box-office receipts.
Indeed, Blade Runner and The Thing have emerged as two of the most beloved (and forward-looking…) films of the Age of Reagan. They’ve defined the direction of their respective genres too.
Suffice it to say, I had much to think about in the days and weeks (and months and years…) following that double feature matinee. So today, in keeping with my recent John Carpenter theme here on the blog, I want to gaze at The Thing, the film that almost literally cost John Carpenter his career in Hollywood.
Why? Well, in the summer of Spielberg’s E.T. — in the days of the ascendant Moral Majority — a great many critics found Carpenter’s trailblazing horror film…questionable. On one notorious occasion, the auteur was actually termed a “pornographer of violence” for what was, in essence, a faithful visual recreation of a short story written in 1938 (“Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell). The moral watch guards weren’t alone in their condemnation of The Thing; an older generation of horror fans raised on Howard Hawks’ original version of The Thing also seemed to reflexively dislike this remake. This dislike was in spite of many deliberate (and elaborate) Carpenter homages to that famous screen predecessor.
I summarized the poisonous critical reception to The Thing in my book, The Films of John Carpenter (McFarland; 2000), but for context and history, I wanted to provide at least a handful of quotes here and now, so you might accurately glean a sense of the absolute vitriol spewed at the film and its helmsman.
Newsweek called The Thing an example of “the New Aesthetic – atrocity for atrocity’s sake.” (David Ansen; Newsweek: “Frozen Slime,” June 28, 1982). Reviewing the film for Starlog, Alan Spencer wrote: “It’s my contention that John Carpenter was never meant to direct science fiction horror movies. Here’s some things he’d be better suited to direct: Traffic accidents, train wrecks and public floggings….” (Starlog # 64, November 1982, page 69.)
And that’s just the tip of the bloody iceberg, to adopt an appropriate metaphor.
Yet today – in 2009 – John Carpenter’s The Thing is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece. It resides in the top 250 movies of all-time on the IMDB (at #173), and I counted it as the best horror film of its decade in Horror Films of the 1980s (McFarland; 2007). Of The Thing, The Village Voice’s Scott Foundas wrote in 2008: “this spatial masterpiece of desolate Arctic vistas at odds with close-quarters claustrophobia has…been hailed as a high totem of modern horror-making. There remains something deeply unnerving about Carpenter’s ambiguity as to whether the movie’s shape-shifting alien is distorting its hosts’ personalities or merely revealing something of their primal selves.”
For me, The Thing stands the test of time as a great film for several reasons. It’s not only the film’s finely-honed sense of paranoia that makes it a remarkable achievement, but the glacial, icy feelings of personal “alienation” from society that the story and presentation seem to evoke so powerfully.
Furthermore, John Carpenter’s The Thing involves not just alienation from civilization. It also makes a very squeamish, very uneasy case for the frailty and fragility of the human form itself; call it alienation of the flesh.
Additionally, it’s difficult not to interpret the “invasion” by the shape-shifting thing as an early harbinger of AIDS, a malady whispered about at the time of the film’s genesis as a “wasting disease” or “The Gay Plague.” In much more general form, the film succeeds in raising hackles over the universal fear of contagion, of disease…of the body subverted, co-opted and deformed by an implacable and invisible intruder. If not AIDS, the invader could be cancer, another STD, even old age itself.
Finally, The Thing represents such a singular experience because of the titular monster. Never before in the history of the horror film had audiences witnessed such an elusive, transcendent entity: a life-form in constant evolution and motion, never pausing — never stopping — long enough for us to get a grasp of what it “was.” Although Scott’s Alien was undeniably brilliant and fascinating in its depiction of an alien life-cycle, that life-cycle still had, ultimately, a recognizable shape and a direction (egg, face hugger, chest burster, adult drone…). By contrast, Carpenter’s “Thing” was always…becoming.
The Thing serves as the first movement in John Carpenter’s self-named “Apocalypse Trilogy” (followed by 1987’s Prince of Darkness and 1994’s In The Mouth of Madness), and most genre fans are familiar with the general outline of the story, either from the remarkable Campbell literary work, or the 1950s Howard Hawks version, The Thing from Another World (1951).
In short, John Carpenter’s The Thing lands us in freezing Antarctica during the winter of 1982. A strange incident occurs at American Outpost 31, when a Norwegian helicopter breaks the peace and silence of snow.
The foreign chopper pilot and his cohort seem to be relentlessly (and madly…) pursuing a dog, a malamute. The pilot attempts to kill the canine, but in the ensuing scuffle the helicopter is destroyed and an armed Norwegian is shot dead by Outpost 31’s macho commander, Garry (Moffat).
Curious about what could have possibly driven the Norwegian scientists to such heights of apparent insanity, Outpost 31’s Doc Copper (Richard Dysart) and helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) travel to the foreign camp and find it utterly ruined, destroyed. Record tapes reveal that the Norwegians unearthed a flying saucer – and an alien – frozen in the ice for 100,000 years. They used Thermite charges to bring both to the surface. MacReady and Copper bring back the tapes, and also the inhuman, half-burned corpse of…something.
Before long, the men of Outpost 31 must grapple with the fact that an alien life form is loose in their camp. It is a chameleon who can perfectly imitate human beings right down to the minutest memories and speech patterns. Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) calculates that after 27,000 hours from first contact with the civilized world, the entire planet Earth will be infected by the extra-terrestrial shape shifter. MacReady and the others must now determine — in short order — who is a “thing” and who is a man, and arrange for a blood serum test to help them identify the interloper (or interlopers) hiding in their midst.
Nobody Trusts Anybody Now: Alienation from the World At Large
The political and societal turbulence of the 1970s (from Vietnam to Watergate to the Energy Crisis to Three Mile Island) gave rise in some cases to a deepening sense of personal, community and spiritual dissatisfaction in America of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
One might term this mood the “spirit of the times,” but whatever we call it, many Americans began to feel deep misgivings about the status quo, about an increasingly untrustworthy, shallow, unjust, and material culture. The nation’s confidence – which had so memorably suffered a “crisis” in Carter’s America – had eroded.
Punk/thrash music gave voice to this sense of discontentment in popular music throughout the 1980s; and horror films such as George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) and The Amityville Horror (1979) pinpointed sources of anxiety in the consumer culture and such seemingly-sturdy American cultural pillars as home-ownership. In these visions, the faceless masses at the local shopping mall were actually slobbering zombies, and monthly mortgage payments could run you out of your too-expensive house faster than your average demonic possession….
There also begin to arise a sense in late 70s-early 80s America that the person next door – your very neighbor — could actually be a monster in disguise…a person that, despite all physical appearances to the contrary, could be harboring monstrous, murderous secrets (think David Lynch’s Blue Velvet ).
In part, this uncertainty about the nature of “the next door neighbor” was a result of an unexpected reversal in population migration patterns. Whereas in earlier decades of the 20th century, people from small-towns had moved to the big cities (as part of industrialization…), in the early 1980s we saw “counter-urbanization:” a flight or escape from metropolitan population centers in favor of quieter, emptier areas, whether rural or suburban. This pattern was possible because of increased car production and affordability, and governmental incentives that made new home construction and home-ownership easier.
But the evils and eccentricities that some people (rightly or wrongly) associated with “big” cities also came home to roost in suburban America in this process of counter-urbanization. The Evils were named, in some cases, Ted Bundy, or John Wayne Gacy. On the surface: normal appearing. The truth: monsters in human shape.
As I’ve written before in regards to this epoch, the combination of inexpensive air transportation and the uniquely American tendency to put down roots far from one’s original home, assured that the neighbors within your average “Cuesta Verde” might be ethically or morally separate from the ideals of those living around them.
In a sense, this was true American integration: blacks and whites living peacably next door; Yankees and Confederates amicably perched across a drive-way; Christians and atheists on the same cul-de-sac; gays and straights sharing a common backyard, etc. Most of the time this was good — we learn from each other’s differences — but in isolated circumstances (if your neighbor happened to be Jeffrey Dahmner, for instance)…not so much. With a burgeoning tabloid media developing on young cable TV, it was the negative and sensational incidents which became widely known and disseminated.
The resulting ambiguity about what evil might dwell in “the house next door” created an age of uncertainty in which people didn’t really know — and therefore could not always trust — their neighbors. The result: deeper alienation, suspicion and even paranoia.
John Carpenter’s The Thing is very deliberately crafted in this world of estrangement and alienation. Consider that all the men at Outpost 31 have left behind their mother society (America), much as many disaffected youngsters in the early 1970s attempted to leave the American culture for “new” communal societies. An early version of Bill Lancaster’s script allegedly revealed MacReady’s specific sense of “displacement” after the Vietnam War, another expression of alienation from country…
You can read the rest of the piece here.