Few horror films combine gore and genuine creepy scares better than John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing. The film was an adaptation of a short story called “Who Goes There?”, which should give us a good indication of the main theme. But neither Carpenter’s version, nor the 1951 adaptation The Thing From Another World placed the key plot question in the title. But for all its special effects and monster makeup, The Thing can be read quite effectively as a film about individuality vs community, or an extended metaphor about cabin fever. Kurt Russell speaks the key line towards the beginning of the third act, “I know I’m me!”
There’s plenty about The Thing that’s unusual for a horror film. It’s set in Antarctica, has an all-male cast, the black character actually lives (for once) and there’s nary a “kid” in sight. These are all grown men, professional people, living together in a sealed community through the long winter night. They look the part. Kurt Russell, playing helicopter pilot MacReady, sports a big bushy beard, (ironically Wilford Brimley appears clean shaven!) and none of the other men think to cover up a paunch, or bald spots, or strike any kind of pose. And unlike modern horror films with a similar setting, such as The Grey or 30 Days of Night, none of their wardrobe, makeup or setting seems forced or staged, or artfully concocted to help them appear “tougher”. Instead, other than using Russell, Carpenter filled the roles with excellent character actors like Donald Moffat and Keith David, who go for the character first, rather than looking for a star turn. The only character who appears to be under 30 is the cook, skating around his kitchen on roller skates listening to Stevie Wonder before things turn bad.
Even though, like any realistic antarctic crew, the group consists of specialists and technicians, with an odd combination of leading scientists and far less sophisticated or educated guys like MacReady, or dog handler Clark (Richard Masur). Far from engendering some sort of class-based schism in the ranks, everyone gets along, drinking scotch from the bar and playing pool, hanging out as equals and colleagues. Nominally their leader is military man Garry, played by Donald Moffat as indecisive and insecure. This homogenization of rank and role, and the way they bond (such as second pilot Palmer’s habit of smoking huge joints with Childs (Keith David) and watching “The Price is Right” on videotape) rings true in all its causal details. Moreover, it emphasizes how much this community had already settled into a quiet routine, even if it is only the second week of winter. Carpenter uses visual tools throughout to blur the lines between characters, shooting them outside, at night, backlit with fur-lined jackets. They’re realistic men with realistic bodies in a realistic scenario. Then things start to go a bit insane.
Part of what makes The Thing so effective is its bleakness. Shot in Stewart, on a glacier in northern British Columbia, Carpenter deliberately evokes one of those great Arctic contrasts familiar to anyone who has spent time in that environment, the wild shifts between wide-open spaces that are as wide and open as any space on earth and the intense, dark, claustrophobia of the interiors. Rarely if ever is there a more dramatic difference between “interior” and “exterior”. The music, by legendary Ennio Morricone, is another triumph of electronic minimalism and spare tones and effects. Coming from the such a skilled full-on classical composer, this sort of Kraftwerk-inspired score is quite impressive in its restraint.
In an environment as desolate as a polar winter, it’s easy to feel insignificant. The land is so uncaring about your petty human concerns that slipping into a simple biological pattern of sleeping and eating without having much of an individual style or purpose is the path of least resistance.
That’s the situation right at the start of the film, when a Norwegian helicopter breaks the calm and the order of the American station, chasing a dog through the snow with seemingly deadly intent. The dog runs right into the American station and into the arms of the dog handler, Clark, whose calm demeanour and quiet watchfulness makes him more dog than man at times. (Once again, the theme of identity.) The Norwegian ultimately shoots wildly into the crowd, wounding one of the scientists, and is fatally shot by Commander Garry, leaving no living witnesses to explain the mystery of why he was chasing the dog and what danger it could pose.
MacReady and the station doctor, played by Richard Dysart, travel to the Norwegian camp to look for clues. In reality, Antarctica, especially during the cold war, was populated by a number of self-sufficient stations representing various national interests. But, as often happens with scientific specialists, national barriers faded quickly in that sort of environment. For example, even during the worst days of the cold war, Soviet stations welcomed American and French visitors with open arms and lots of Vodka. Similarly to the always-friendly relationships between astronauts and cosmonauts, the Arctic (or Antarctic) has a way of levelling identity. In fact, even in this sequence, the seemingly throwaway joke (that MacReady constantly mistakes Norwegians for Swedes) is directly on-theme for this shifting sense of identity.
The plot plays out from here in a familiar way to fans of the film and of the genre: it turns out that the Norwegians had discovered an ancient spacecraft, lost under the ice for hundreds or thousands of years, and that spacecraft still contained a biological organism. The alien, or the “Thing,” as MacReady dubs it, absorbs other living things. It touches them, both absorbing their flesh and assimilating their genetic structure. It then reproduces that structure in exact detail, making an “imitation” of the original that is in fact a part of the Thing itself. So, while characters (including dogs) might look and act completely normally, they could in fact be imitations. The Thing’s ultimate strategy is to get to a populated area, where it could theoretically assimilate the whole planet. The response the men ultimately come up with is self-sacrifice: if they destroy the station and burn it to the ground, there’s no way the Thing could survive. It would either burn to death or retreat into the ice. This of course would also technically mean death for the remaining men, but they are prepared to make the sacrifice.
It’s a grim ending, and Universal did oblige Carpenter to shoot an alternate ending in which the last survivors make it back to the world. But the original artistic impulse was the right one, and the logical one for this kind of story. Having spent the entire film fighting to rediscover their identity, and indeed the concept of identity, the two survivors have something to sacrifice, and that makes them heroic. If a helicopter suddenly snatched them up and carried them to safety, it diminishes their heroism and thus the dramatic power of the piece.
What strikes most viewers about The Thing is its mood. Particularly in the first 45 minutes, there are many scenes that seem to have no clear purpose, just little vignettes of life at the station, interrupted by graceful dissolves and fades rather than direct cuts. It creates a dreamlike atmosphere that’s very effectively punctuated by the sudden, explosive violence. When the Thing finally emerges, through the kennel with the dogs and later on to several members of the team. Since initially the men can’t tell who is “real” and who is “imitation”, paranoia builds, another common feeling between people trapped together in a hostile environment.
The key scene comes late in the film. MacReady has four members of the team tied to a couch and devises a way to test their blood by literally “attacking” it with a hot needle. If the blood reacts in self defence, then the donor has been assimilated and imitated and must be burned to death. When MacReady starts the procedure, now well-beaten down by the stress of the film, holding a flame thrower in shaking hands, he growls out the famous line, “I know I’m me.” The phrasing indicates something that isn’t made clear in the film itself, although the actors discuss it in various documentaries, which is the idea that someone could be imitated and not really be aware of it. The extent to which the characters know they are the Thing seems problematic, and the suggestion, though tools like Charlie Hallahan’s subtle performance, is that they have a dim suspicion that something isn’t right, but not a conscious awareness of their nature. The implication is that when they are attacked, such as in MacReady’s experiment, the “Thing” nature takes over the imitation and is revealed, discarding any sense of the individual human identity and instead producing a grotesque monster. (The makeup and special effects, supervised by Rob Bottin, is one of the most-discussed aspects of the film. It’s certainly beautiful work, done with a lot of enthusiasm and old-fashioned skill, long before the age of CGI.)
So, the Thing’s weapon against the men is to set them against each other, make them suspicious and ultimately have them call into question their own identities. The fact that they’re already thinking that way even before they encounter the threat makes its job much easier. It isn’t as if the Thing wants to destroy all life on earth and bring about some sort of apocalypse: quite the contrary. It’s the men who bring the fire and brimstone, quite literally at the end. The Thing, on the other hand, wants to create and perpetuate life. The problem is that it wants to create life in its image, erasing all individual identity and replacing it with one unified life force.
The metaphors about communism would have certainly occurred to the people writing The Thing from Another World in 1951, and probably to Carpenter’s team as well. There are definite parallels, as the loss of individuality was part of how anti-communists framed the threat in that era. (While, ironically, simultaneously promoting conformity, military service and rule-following, precisely the same values as their communist “enemies”.) But beyond cold war politics, a celebration of individuality is close to the heart of the American ethos, and when it is threatened (The Borg, etc.), it reads in that culture as extremely threatening.
The deeper reading is much more ambiguous and problematic: is the Thing evil because it’s ugly? Or because it wants to survive? And how much can a personal identity really mean when an imitation doesn’t even fully realize what it is? These are the essential questions raised by this fascinating film, and why, at least for me, it transcends the “horror” genre and elevates into the top ranks of existential filmmaking.
Oh, and it’s still creepy as hell and perfect Halloween viewing.