- Monthly Theme: Alien Invasions
- The Film: The Thing
- Country of origin: U.S.A.
- Date of U.S. release: June 25, 1982
- Studio: Universal Pictures & Turman-Foster Company
- Distributer: Universal Pictures
- Domestic Gross: $19.6 million
- Budget: $15 million (estimated)
- Director: John Carpenter
- Producers: Stuart Cohen, et al.
- Screenwriter: Bill Lancaster.
- Adaptation? Yes, of the 1938 novella Who Goes There? By John W. Campbell, Jr., previously filmed as 1951’s The Thing from Another World.
- Cinematography: Dean Cundey
- Make-Up/FX: Rob Bottin
- Music: Ennio Morricone
- Part of a series? Yes, this is the first film in Carpenter’s Apocalypse trilogy, followed by 1987’s Prince of Darkness and 1995’s In the Mouth of Madness.
- Remakes? Yes, there was a remake/prequel released in 2011 as The Thing.
- Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Genre film legend Kurt Russell (Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, etc.). Horror actor Keith David (They Live, The Puppet Masters, etc.).
- Other notables?: Yes. TV star Wilford Brimley.
- Awards?: n/a
- Tagline: “What you fear most… is among you.”
- The Lowdown: Twelve Americans living at a remote Antarctic research station are beset upon by a macabre, shape-shifting alien being from another world that impersonates its victims after it consumes them. Led by a misanthropic helicopter pilot (Russell), the men try to ferret out the monster and destroy it. Will they be able to defeat the Thing?
If you haven’t seen The Thing our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Kristine: We watched The Thing a few years ago and discussed it mildly then, but not with any real depth or scope. I looked back over our old notes to prep for this and asked you to do the same. Were your thoughts on the movie now vs. then very different?
Sean: No, not at all. Most of the things I put into my notes for this discussion were things that had come up back then. So, clearly, I am predictable…
Kristine: Yeah, same with me.
Sean: I was especially surprised that I mentioned Agatha Christie in those old notes, because I thought that was a ‘new’ idea I had just come up with.
Kristine: Wait, what about Agatha Christie?
Sean: Just that The Thing is really just a “locked room mystery” in hyperbolic, 1980s supergore mode. And that the same thing that animates the classic Christie novels – the certainty that one (or more) of the people gathered together in this confined space (a house, a train, a boat, etc.) is a maniac or murderer and must be found out – is the same thing animating The Thing. It helps me to answer the question, “Why is this movie so beloved?,” because I see how Carpenter very cleverly took a classic template and did something weird and stylized with it.
Kristine: It really is the same! And so many of the movies we’ve been watching this month operate the same way – combining different pieces of different genres/kinds of stories and creating something ‘new’ out of them, like pop jigsaw puzzles. Night of the Creeps and Lifeforce are both pastiches of different subgenres, but to a lesser degree, so is Signs (family melodrama, alien invasion, Twin Peaksy offbeat character study) and so is Attack the Block (boyhood adventure, urban crime drama, action-comedy, alien invasion). And it’s interesting to realize that The Thing is doing the same thing (ha!), because I think the movie tricks you into believing it is an incredibly streamlined object because of the simplicity of the premise and the setting. It seems like a very complete object, but its got all kinds of weird broken edges and ellipses when you really study it.
Sean: Absolutely. And its that combination of mystery, machismo and spectacular gore FX have enshrined this in the canon of classic horror movies. I don’t think the cultural reverence for The Thing can be overstated – it is really a beloved object, celebrated as one of the high points (if not the high point) of 1980s horror and perhaps of horror movies in general.
Kristine: I see that, but I still don’t get why it is elevated to such a high place in the canon.
Sean: I’d like, if you can, for you to articulate why you think its overrated.
Kristine: I don’t know if I can, because that would require me to articulate the absence of something, you know what I mean? I don’t have any negative feelings about this film, just a void of hugely positive feelings. I think it is very skillful. I just don’t feel the kind of emotional connection I’d need to consider something an enduring masterpiece. And by emotional connection, I’m saying that the movie never gripped me or held me in a state of high emotion. I was never terrified or enthralled or lost in some dizzying emotional state like I was during some of the really powerful movies we’ve watched previously. For instance, Night of the Living Dead shocked me with how palpable and overwhelming the experience of watching it still is over 40 years after it was released. For whatever reason, The Thing didn’t hit me hard in that way. I admire things about it and I think it’s a good movie, but it’s not a punch in the gut. At least, not for me.
Sean: Right… In order to answer the question, “Why is this movie so beloved?,” I’m tempted to psychoanalyze the (largely straight male) horror audience by suggesting that one of the things (ha!) about The Thing is the movie’s almost complete absence of women… The beginning premise is this ‘frat life forever’ fantasy. The guys at the station watch tv shows, smoke pot, play poker, play pool – it’s an adolescent/young male’s fantasia, isn’t it? A place where boyhood lasts forever? And the gut-wrenching tragedy of the movie is how that space is penetrated, invaded and destroyed by this being that none of the men are equipped to understand (kind of sounds like a metaphor for womankind, if you’re willing to go there).
Kristine: I considered that, how the only female presence is the voice of the “cheating bitch” computer that MacReady destroys. It is certainly noteworthy that this is a ‘man’s movie,’ in the way that a lot of classic genre pictures are. I’m thinking of the Westerns and war movies and gangster movies from the classic Hollywood era – male genres about male characters and maleness. But MacReady’s character arc, where he starts off as a misanthropic drunk but then sacrifices himself to ‘save humankind’ is not that compelling or interesting to me. I get that it follows a pattern established by those Westerns and war movies, but I’m not into it.
Sean: Yeah, it’s almost the stuff of classic male melodrama, but not quite. And that arc, combined with the all-male Never-Never Land of the research station, must be of the movie’s appeal to genre audiences, no? But that’s just one way of looking at the movie. I also think one of the appeals of The Thing is how easy it is to make an intellectual puzzle out of it, despite it’s gruesomeness. That’s another big reason why it is so beloved.
Kristine: I agree with that, a lot. I think The Thing has an almost limitless potential for existential questions and philosophical theories, despite it’s seemingly ‘simple’ premise.
Sean: Yes – it feels really allegorical.
Kristine: In fact, I think the movie would be even stronger without the scant backstory it provides – 100,000 years buried in the ice or whatever. I don’t think it needs any of that.
Sean: Sure, except that detail about 100,000 years in the ice is part of what animates that movie’s existential/philosophical puzzles. Some of those puzzles are archaeological in nature. They deal with questions about What We Are, What the Act of Digging Is About, and What Our Relationship to the Past Is…
Kristine: Hmm, I guess you’re right. See, you are illustrating your own point about the movie’s appeal, because I didn’t get into all that. But you are correct. If the scientists had just destroyed the corpses they discovered, instead of keeping them for study and possibly for fame/fortune, they could have been saved. At one point a character even says, regarding the inert body of the creature, ‘“Can’t burn the find of the century. That’s gonna win somebody the Nobel Prize.” That thirst for power and intellectual recognition is part of what unravels the fraternal paradise. Overall, the movie is more interested in ideas and spectacle, not character work. That might be one of the things that keeps it at a distance for me.
Sean: Right. The nature of inquiry and investigation is a big theme in the movie (which again ties it to classic mystery fiction). And I agree that the characters are not the point. The only thing that matters about them is that they are (1) a fraternity/brotherhood living in relative harmony at the start of the film and (2) they represent and believe in Science and Inquiry. That’s it. That’s all the movie needs from them in order to perform it’s magic tricks, both visceral and intellectual. With that in mind, can I point to one moment that sent chills down my spine?
Sean: I’d argue that the ideological centerpiece of the movie is when MacReady delivers the following speech:
I know I’m human. And if you were all these things then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.
Remember that moment?
Sean: What Carpenter does as he films that speech is to do this slow pan down the line of men standing outside, listening to MacReady, and they’re all wearing these insectoid goggles, thick scarfs and bulky jackets. They’re clad in so much outerwear that they actually look inhuman and identity-less, and for some reason, that moment becomes the main flashpoint of horror in the movie, for me. That moment of looking around at your peers, your brothers, and realizing that they are utterly alien to you, that they’re unknowable, that perhaps they have secret and interior lives that you can never really understand. It’s like something out of Kafka or Sartre! I thought that moment was amazing and funny and truly scary. It’s also incredibly postmodern (anxieties about the nature of the ‘Real’ and the status of simulacra, etc.).
Kristine: Hmm, interesting. That moment didn’t stick for me. I was more interested in how the movie sets up all these tensions between interiors and exteriors. Obviously, there is the way the Thing replicates the form of other organisms, so the exterior looks familiar, but the interior is alien. I was especially struck by that contrast during the (pretty spectacular) sequence where Norris seems to be having a heart attack, but actually he is the Thing caught in the act of mutating and changing. As the head of the Norris body elongates and stretches in order to skitter away across the floor, you can see that all of the tissue and tendons inside the body are green and alien and vegetative. So if you peel back the outer layers of the organism, you can tell its true nature. It is different… inside.
Sean: Right, right.
Kristine: That obsession with interiors and exteriors is also a part of how the movie thinks about the environment. It struck me that the whole point of the camp existing is the environment, the landscape they are nestled within. Their purpose for being there is to study the Antarctic, this remote, unique place. Yet other than a handful of short scenes, the movie unfolds mostly in interior spaces littered with the trappings of humans. If the Antarctic itself is this alien place the men are ‘colonizing,’ then the Thing could be read as a manifestation of the alien environment that rises up in order to fight back against that act of inquiry and investigation. The land itself resists being ‘known.’ Plus, in the movie’s final scene it is clear that even if MacReady and Childs have actually successfully killed the Thing, the Antarctic itself is going to probably kill them. The alien landscape wins, even if the alien being doesn’t. That’s because MacReady willfully destroyed all the interior spaces… Like you said, this movie can be an almost neverending hall of mirrors, which is cool. But not, you know, the coolest thing ever. Not for me, anyway.
Sean: Right on. I love that idea about interior vs. exterior. I was struck by how much of the movie is about the horror of discovering interior spaces, right down to the original discovery of the spaceship in the ice, where the glacier is this giant dead/frozen womb with this stillborn creature “dead” inside of it that the men unknowingly revive. Like when MacReady and Copper visit the Norwegian camp and find the excavated slab of ice that once held the body of the thing – it was by digging into and opening up the body of the ice that this horror was released. Even that epic transformation scene in the dog cage, where the men interrupt the Thing as it is trying to absorb the bodies of the dogs, is about the horror of the insides of something coming out, of bodies opening up, of organic tissue flowering and becoming something else.
Kristine: Oh, the dog scene is still the worst for me. Poor doggies.
Sean: And then when they find that the Thing has made this secret tunnel/womb space where it is secretly building a spaceship to escape… This is pretty much one of the classic horrors animating the entire genre – the moment when you poke at a surface that you believed to be solid and whole and realize that, no, it is actually not solid, there is an interior space that you never realized was there and… and there are things in it. Argento is all about this. The moment in Suspiria when Suzy presses on the decorative flowers on the wall and a hidden passageway opens up that leads to the coven’s lair. Or the moment in Deep Red where Mark finds the walled-up room in the abandoned villa where the murdered father’s body is hidden. Haunted house movies focus on this trope also – the disabled child’s secret bedroom in The Changeling, the trapdoor at the top of the lattice staircase in The Haunting, the infernal well (it’s the way to Hell!) in The Amityville Horror.
Kristine: And the tagline for The Thing is “Man is the warmest place to hide,” which essentially transforms the human body into a habitation, a space you can hide within, a structure with secret passageways that this Thing can enter. All bodies are wombs – no wonder men are terrified by this movie.
Kristine: I did some light research and was reading that at the real Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, after that last plane leaves for the season (so everyone left is “wintering-over” and will be there, alone, for the season), there is an annual tradition of screening two movies for the crew: The Thing & The Shining. At first, I just thought that was awesome and funny, but then it struck me how much those two movies are alike, besides the obvious isolation/winter setting theme. Especially as far as the interior/exterior stuff goes.
Sean: What do you mean?
Kristine: Well, both Jack and MacReady will likely have the same fate – after spending the majority of the movie inside, they freeze to death outside. Then there’s the whole thing about turning against your own people, where a social group (nuclear family unit; fraternal brotherhood) is torn apart by paranoia and distrust. And lastly, both movies are about a “something” (ghosts? evil? aliens?) that lives “inside” (a body? the hotel? your mind?) taking over. Plus, I think that Jack’s descent into madness is a pretty close corollary to how the men in The Thing are taken over and replaced by an uncanny Other.
Sean: That’s great.
Kristine: I am also wondering if it is possible to read the Thing as a delusion happening in MacReady’s alcoholic, cabin-fever-crazed mind. Maybe there was no Thing and he imagined it all and killed everybody and destroyed the camp for nothing.
Sean: That’s a braintwister.
Sean: That’s not an unreasonable argument to make for a movie that is so, so steeped in paranoia and distrust… It is easy to see how The Thing is a product of the early 1980s/post-1970s moment (post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, etc.). No one can be trusted, especially not the government. Like when Palmer, the resident conspiracy theorist, is like, “Happens all the time, man. They’re falling out of the skies like flies. Government knows all about it. Chariots of the gods – they practically own South America. I mean, they taught the Incas everything they know.”
Kristine: Oh my god, that guy.
Sean: He’s really the ‘voice of the era’ in the movie. Someone who is reflecting that 1970s ‘they’re all out to get us’ mentality. Also, keep in mind that Palmer is the guy who fails the blood test and Things out while he’s tied up with Garry and Childs and eats Windows with his monstrous flower/head with Windows’ legs kicking and spazzing out everywhere. The imaginatively bizarre effects/gore are so amazing.
Kristine: I forgot how gory and gross this film is.
Sean: It is so grody. Were you impressed with the imagination of the FX?
Kristine: Yes, it is pretty amazing that over 30 years later it is still so shocking and gruesome. So far, Alien Invasion Month has taught me that the best weapon when fighting off antagonistic aliens is fire (Attack the Block, Night of the Creeps, The Thing). I don’t give the twee water theory from Signs much credence. So, throw away your artillery stockpile and invest in matches and flamethrowers.
Sean: Yeah. Fire, fire, fire, fire!
Kristine: That’s the lesson of The Thing.
Sean: Can we talk about the blood test?
Sean: I was fascinated by how much emphasis was placed on Purity of the Blood as this marker of humanity and (as we discussed the first time we watched this) how much AIDS subtext is present in a movie that was probably released before the general public really even understood what AIDS was.
Kristine: Agreed. And also how the blood test scene proves that Mac has killed at least one innocent (meaning: still human) comrade, cementing his role as the antihero who is willing to do whatever it takes to stop the Thing.
Sean: Right. We talked during Splatter Month (a long way back) about how the impulse at the root of splatter is a horrified and often comic fascination with embodiment, with having bodies. The Thing might be the ultimate example of that fascination. I thought there was a very macabre, mordant humor to a lot of the big gore setpieces, like the defibrillator moment. I was captivated by just how much the movie is expressing a distrust and horror at the reality of bodies in all those surreal moments where there is a hole that opens to reveal a limb that opens to reveal a mouth and on and on… Bodies cannot be trusted.
Kristine: Yes, agreed. You’re laughing, but you’re also flinching right along with the characters. Do you think the Thing deserves to take over Earth? I mean, it is clearly at a much higher evolutionary state, even though it still requires a host of some kind.
Sean: It is so inhuman, so insidious and so biologically other, I feel like we have to really counterprogram our evolutionary aversions in order to side with the Thing. Plus, it killed all those dogs, so fuck the Thing.
Sean: I’m just trying to imagine its end goal…
Kristine: Me, too.
Sean: A world where everything retains its shape, but it a secret thing? Like, all the squirrels and the antelope? Would the Thing want to just keep acting out all the modes of life on Earth? Or, once everything is absorbed, would it eventually just lay there and pulsate and ooze fluids?
Kristine: I think that after all it’s enemies are dead, it can stop masquerading and reveal it’s true face which is… What? I’m not sure. Is there one big Thing or a whole bunch of Things?
Sean: One of the features of the Thing is that every individual part of any organism it is masquerading as functions as its own creature, á la that amazing Norris’-head-becomes-a-spider-crab scene. So, I don’t know what it would do if everything was assimilated.
Kristine: Me neither. See, this kind of speculation is nerdboy nirvana, right?
Sean: Yep. The philosophic quandaries are infinite.
Kristine: An infinite hall of mirrors. The Thing can just keep splitting itself indefinitely. It makes me tired.
Sean: I do think there’s a real and genuine melancholy and existential angst at the heart of the movie. When Childs asks, “If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?,” there is a real pathos there. What makes me ‘me’? How do I know that I exist? The distrust that Palmer embodies towards the government is maybe even less uncanny and nihilistic than the movie’s attitude towards self-identity. I’d argue that the movie’s assertion that you maybe can’t even trust yourself is the foundation of all the movie’s visceral and psychological impact. That very basic questioning of identity is the main philosophical dimension of the movie.
Kristine: I like that aspect of the movie.
Sean: Yeah, I love that deep paranoid shit, too. All kicked off by The Dog That Is Not a Dog…
Kristine: I still love, but am also scared of, that dog.
Sean: That dog actor is so good at being truly uncanny and frightening. Good woof! You get a treat! It looks like it is thinking! But what is it thinking?
Kristine: Impossible to know.
Sean: Before we wrap up, I just wanted to say that the middle of the movie, to me, gets really political, when the power dynamic keeps shifting according to who is holding the gun and how the movie escalates into this phantasmagoric hostage crisis.
Kristine: It’s very Lord of the Flies. Whoever holds the conch has the power.
Sean: Yeah, but even more pointed because GUNS and because TERRORISM. If Lord of the Flies is about Man’s true nature, this movie is about the political realities of that nature colliding with weaponry and systemic power structures. Once you introduce the gun, it becomes all about who has the gun.
Kristine: Remember, in the blood scene, when the one guy turns out to be human and Mac is like, “Hmm, I guess you’re okay then?” Like… disappointed. Because as much as these men would like to be RIMAs [Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority], their emotions and pre-existing tensions and personality conflicts do play into their actions and decision-making.
Sean: Right, right.
Kristine: What has Alien Invasion Month taught you?
Sean: Its weird. I picked “unusual” alien movies as a desperate ploy to appeal to you, and it didn’t really work. Like, Lifeforce and Night of the Creeps aren’t your ‘typical’ alien invasion movies. They’re anomalous.
Kristine: Wait, what is a ‘typical’ alien invasion movie? Also, thank you for desperately trying to appease me. I enjoy such acts.
Sean: A ‘classic’ alien invasion movie would be War of the Worlds or Independence Day or Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Then there are classic ‘soft’ invasion movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Invaders from Mars.
Sean: Alien Invasion Month has taught me that you always root for the alien. Do you root for the monster in The Thing?
Kristine: No. Like you said, it is too far from human to feel a connection with. Plus, doggie murder. I don’t really root for the humans, either. I am more like, ‘This is fucked. I am depressed.’
Sean: With Alien you were like, ‘The alien has every right to defend itself against these invading asshole humans who think they own space,’ but in each of these movies, the aliens have come to our planet and are invading us. So that dynamic is reversed.
Kristine: Yeah, but the humans usually do some horrible act to the alien at the beginning that makes me mad.
Sean: Like in Attack the Block.
Kristine: Yes, exactly. Maybe they came in peace until they met humans and the humans acted horribly.
Kristine: I’m serious.
Sean: The gorilladogs were like, ‘Oh well now this is an invasion. Before it was just brunch.’
Kristine: That’s exactly right.
Sean: One last thing. This time around, the monster reminded me a lot of the monster from The Host, and I was wondering: Is the Thing a lady? Or a stand-in for ladies?
Kristine: I would like to say yes because of its endless ability to reproduce and also it being the ultimate enemy of the Antarctic division of the He-Man Woman Hater’s Club, but I don’t know. It could be too foreign to place a gender on.
Sean: Even with all it’s vulvic openings and dripping pudenda? It’s the ultimate Vagina Dentata. My theory is that the Thing is the Pussy. That’s the thing that men don’t understand and are afraid of (getting sucked into and eaten by). Á la Dead Alive.
Kristine: And when it takes one of the guys over, he may look the same but he turns against his own bros!
Sean: Exactly. “The chameleon strikes in the dark,” Kristine.
Kristine: Ew. Quit it.
The Girl’s Rating: A worthy film but won’t keep me up at night AND Totally disgusting AND It’s always about AIDS.
The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece! AND Deserves props for being groundbreaking and innovative AND Masterpiece of gore.