— MacReady (Kurt Russell) strategizes in John Carpenter’s The Thing.
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 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 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.
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 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.
Specifically, the men of Outpost 31 carry with them the three tell-tale psychological signs or symtpoms of alienation. These are: social isolation, the absence of norms; and, finally, a life lacking meaning.
Let’s go down that list. At Outpost 31, there is no sense of “norms” whatsoever. The men stationed there have chosen life in a frozen, inhospitable wasteland. There are no women present, and thus no opportunity to procreate (a rejection of the long-held Western belief of “be fruitful and multiply.”) Because of the continent’s wintry storms, the Outpost is almost perpetually out of contact with the remainder of the world. Thus, the men there easily fit the definition of “socially isolated.”
Furthermore, these men in self-imposed exile from society don’t seem to perform much by way of legitimate scientific research. We are never told about a single ongoing project being completed or processed, for example. The “work” life and 9:00 to 5:00 routine that we live and die by in the States is thus entirely absent in The Thing, replaced by something…else. Not only do these men not reproduce...they don’t produce.
It’s a life of what some conservative critics might exaggeratedly term “liberal permissiveness.” Think about it: the men of Outpost 31 don’t even provide for themselves or their continued survival. Rather, their supplies are all shipped in from elsewhere; making the camp, in essence, the ultimate welfare state. And, when the Thing arrives, Fuchs suggests as antidote (or rather, preventative…) the re-assertion of traditional/conservative values; that all the denizens (gasp!) prepare their own food…that they cook their own meals (increasingly a rarity in the fast-food American culture of the late 20th century).
Instead of actually producing anything of use to the larger culture (in terms of scientific discoveries), the men of Outpost 31 (like Palmer…) incessantly smoke weed, play computer chess with mechanical partners, drink whiskey (MacReady), watch game show reruns on TV, including Let’s Make a Deal (Childs and Palmer), and spend abundant amounts of time lounging in the communal “rec room.” There, an arcade game console and a pool table achieve visual prominence in many compositions. In one scene, model-kit boxes — another fun hobby (but not strictly a useful endeavor…) — can be viewed on a book shelf too.
Without a productive routine or overriding set of societal norms, the leisurely lives of these men clearly lack any sort of larger meaning. Instead, it is a life of exaggerated petty grievances and arguments. Nauls complains when a “disrespectful” man throws his dirty clothes in the kitchen garbage. But hypocritically, Nauls is rather disrespectful too. When Bennings (who is attempting to relax after being shot in the legs…) asks Nauls to turn down his radio, Nauls just…turns it up. It’s a culture of self-gratification and no responsibility or common purpose. As scholar Thomas Doherty observed, this Thing features “a collection of autonomous, angry, unpleasant and self-interested individuals, as chilly and as the stark Antarctican landscape they inhabit.” (“Genre, Gender and the Aliens Trilogy.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, University of Texas Press, 1996, page 191.)
It is not until the arrival of the impostor – the chameleon – that the men are roused to that missing common purpose. They choose to fight back against the common enemy, but are already so alienated from one another (and from life itself…) that their efforts are largely unsuccessful. At one point, Blair states he doesn’t know whom to trust, and MacReady cynically suggests another traditional/conservative (but not terribly effective…) ameliorative: “Why don’t you trust in the Lord?”
Because the men of Outpost 31 don’t trust each other, their plans to defeat the Thing continually fail. Fuchs commits suicide rather than fight what he believes is a hopeless battle. Blair destroys all the vehicles and radio equipment rather than trust that his fellow man will do the right thing and help him stop the Thing there and then (before reaching society). Palmer refuses to search alongside Windows. MacReady maintains loose authority and leadership over the group only because he is equipped, alternately, with gun, flame-thrower and dynamite. He leads the others by holding them at bay, and uses draconian force to keep them in line. He shoots Clark (Richard Masur) in the head, for instance, when Clark attempts a decapitation strike.
Scholar Jonathan Lake Crane writes that the Carpenter film is “exquisitely constructed to deny every attempt from the pathetic to the brilliant, on the part of its supposed protagonists, to master their world.” (Terror and Everyday Life: Singular Moments in the History of the Horror Film, Sage Publications, 1994, page 137.). Sounds like a microcosm in America, circa 1978-1982. Several hundred of our citizens were held hostage in Iraq for over a year, and even with our supposed military might, we could not successfully rescue them (Operation Iron Claw; April 24, 1980). By contrast, there was a post-war sense of triumphalism, camaraderie, and even romance in Hawks’ The Thing.
Yet in this Carpenter version there is no brotherhood to speak of, only distrust and cynicism.
What Crane is talking about there is the inevitable end result, perhaps, of excessive alienation: powerlessness. In the end, a lone man, MacReady is able to battle the thing barely to a draw. The film’s end is ambiguous in regards to his victory. He could be The Thing, fellow survivor Childs could be the Thing, or the Thing could still be “out there.” Not one of those options is particularly attractive, or decisive.
Carpenter’s careful selection of visuals gets at the leitmotif of alienation in some intriguing and artistic ways. He often positions his camera at the center of a circle (or half-circle), gazing out from that point, so that the men of Outpost 31 are facing the audience, and essentially, surrounding the audience in a kind of half-moon configuration (representative perhaps, of the way we are surrounded by our larger society). We search in their “human” faces for sign of contagion and contamination, but can’t find it. We don’t know what anyone is thinking, whether man or “Thing.” Often this is so because their human expressions are “cloaked” behind large goggles, shielded in parka hoods, or otherwise obscured. The larger point is certainly that we can’t read what is in a person (or monster’s…) heart from a facial expression. Evil can hide behind a pleasant human face, or even a familiar one.
As viewers, we seek out signs of common humanity among those who surround us, but are, many times in The Thing, denied a view of the eyes, the window to the soul. Thus, in some small way, we begin to understand the existential crisis of these alienated men. The Thing has arrived and deviously replaced some members of the circle, but because each denizen has lived a life of isolation, leisure and even “disrespect,” the intuiting of the humanity of those around us is impossible. We have no history of humanity by which to judge the potential “thingness” of a neighbor. In The Los Angeles Times, reviewer Linda Gross (on June 25, 1982), appropriately described The Thing as “bereft, despairing and nihilistic” and noted that the most disturbing aspect of Carpenter’s film is its “terrible absence of love.”
Indeed, the “alienated” dramatis personae of The Thing have squandered and ignored their common humanity for too long, and now, when their lives are threatened, attempt lamely to re-assert it. This is what I call The Planet of the Apes Principle of Character Arc. In that film, Charlton Heston’s Taylor is a misanthrope who leaves behind the human race (on a deep space mission) only to find himself in the position of forcibly becoming mankind’s only defender (in the face of Ape Culture). The socially isolated outcasts of Outpost 31 of The Thing have similarly shunned and abandoned their world but, by battling the Thing, are forced to be society’s (unlikely and unsuccessful) defenders. MacReady alone seems worthy of that honor, though he is never delineated in larger-than-life terms. He makes many a mistake (killing Clark, trusting Nauls, suggesting Gary is the saboteur…)
Again, you might think that a movie about a battle between emotional humanity and alien assimilator would highlight the differences between species, but the important take away from The Thing is that the alien is pretty much undetectable in a world where we don’t know our neighbors, don’t understand our countrymen, and have “checked” out from the normal ebb and flow of society. The Thing’s great power is not that it is super strong, but that it has found a place where it can successfully hide. In some ways, it is but a measly coward — hiding and just waiting out the other cowards. It would rather “pretend” to be one of the pack than either engage or combat the culture of the enemy.
Is That a Man in There? Or Something Else? – Alienation of the Flesh
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