John Carpenter's frost-bitten, claustrophobic, body-horror classic that follows a small group of scientists at an arctic research base who get picked off one by one by a parasitic alien turns 35 this week. A paranoiac thriller sitting astride genre, style, and interpretation, The Thing is a masterpiece of modern cinema, that like its namesake, adapts to its surroundings to remain unkillable.
Like most masterpieces, The Thing was a critical and commercial flop. Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote: ""John Carpenter's The Thing is a foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is fun as neither one thing or the other." Released the same day as another initially misunderstood cult classic, Bladerunner, Carpenter's stark psycho-horror, heavily laced with doubt, anxiety, and dread, was ill received by audiences wanting their exploitation with a little less cerebral moralising. The Thing was up against E.T, which in 1982 held wider appeal than an inside out dog and like Bladerunner, Carpenter's film suffered among the forcibly optimistic output of the early Reagan-years. "I'd made a really grueling, dark film and I just don't think audiences in 1982 wanted to see that," said Carpenter. "They wanted to see E.T. and The Thing was the opposite."
Carpenter was riding on the wave of Halloween (1978), which at one point was the highest grossing independent film in the history of American cinema. Like his contemporaries—Lynch, Scott, Cronenberg—Carpenter was fascinated with the form of the American genre film, and like the above, infected its tropes and visual vocabulary with a whopping dose of his personal neuroses. From 2017 we can place Carpenter amongst John Ford and Howard Hawks, as a filmmaker who took the literalism of American individualism and realigned it within their own filmic language.
John Carpenter in his seven-minute DVD introduction to The Thing:
The production was famously hellish. Suffering frostbite, alcoholism, panic attacks, and existential dread—the cast and crew were swept up into a production that spread much calamity as the film's titular critter. Filmed in a refrigerated studio in balmy LA, flu ran rife. Special effects genius Rob Bottin, whose diabolic creations give the film its effervescence, succumbed to exhaustion and was hospitalized, all the while juggling pneumonia and a stomach ulcer. There's countless anecdotes of how the grueling shoot was compounded by Carpenter's obsessive attention to detail, but the slog that was the production of The Thing informs the final product's visceral power.
Bottin's creations are some of the greatest in the history of films. His hallucinatory nightmares are childhood closet-monster by way of severe coke withdrawal. The infamous chest chomp is a classic example of he and Carpenter's quest to bring the authentic and the uncanny to the otherworldly. Bottin found a man who'd lost his arms (elbow down) in an industrial accident, armed him (so to speak) with is prosthetic creations, applied a dollop of gored up KY-Jelly, and then had him pull the stumps out of his sadistic creation. The muted realness of those stumps is the kind if micro-touch that fills the film, lending every moment, every terror, a tactility and wholeness that propels the films particular beauty to this day.
Related: For more on Hollywood special effects, "Meet the Animator Behind Star Wars and Jurassic Park"
At the heart of The Thing is Kurt Russell's performance as R.J. MacReady. Russell, flowing mullet, aquiline jaw, and hip heavy swagger, stands out amongst the Stallones, Schwartzeneggers, and Willises of the time. His collaborations with Carpenter are something to behold: oddly, they bring out the softness in one another. MacReady is a chill as heck dude but he's no action hero: he gets scared, he's left vulnerable. Literally, when MacReady is blown back by a stick of dynamite, Russell's face screams "oh shit," because he was unwittingly close to the explosion.
Carpenter and various multi-media franchise spinoffs have explained that MacReady was a Vietnam vet. Carpenter brings a weight to the character, a startling realness of life that juts out amongst the white screen of The Thing's setting and mood. Plus, no one lends power to "fuck" like Russell. His delivery of "yeah, fuck you too" is a slither of catharsis in a film that doggedly (no pun) avoids it.
There are no female characters in the film, with the exception of a talking computer (voiced by Carpenter's then-wife, Adrienne Barbeau). The absence of women textures the film's fundamental ideas. On one level, its peculiar for a film of this genre to not have female characters as a) a victim in distress (as in Halloween) or b) a (post Alien) no-nonsense asskicker, leading a gaggle of fools through a crisis (as in the 2011 prequel). The Thing is not a promotion or projection of manliness, so much as it's a scathing examination of it. It is about male frailty. In a film where intimacy, confession, and empathy are the only ways to out the monster, we (at first) find our characters trapped in their pride and stunted emotional growth, literally unable to confront what is at hand for fear of embarrassment or exposure. The Thing is the collapse of masculine spaces by way of masculinity's falseness.
As with all great tragedies, The Thing's meaning depends on its audience. Just like the parasite, The Thing adapts to the paranoia of the age—and our hang-ups, self-doubts, and buried ennui make perfect hosts. Fundamentally, it's a film about second-guessing yourself. The title of the novella that inspired Carpenter's adaptation, and 1951's The Thing From Another World, was "Who Goes There?" Carpenter retracts those questions. Superficially, it's a film about being unable to trust one's peers. Beyond that, it speaks of a distrust that can project itself onto anything. One viewer may see a dissection of post-Watergate disillusionment; another of the rise of the military industry complex; another a vignette of societal atomisation; another a haunting diorama of the spread of some frightening foreign philosophy.
The Thing will always feel relevant. In 2017, when the leader of the free world literally looks like one of Rod Bottin's animatronic demons, it's a vital call to certainty in uncertain times. Rewatching it now, in the digital tundra of self-perpetuating bullshit, it's easy to reimagine the infamous blood-test scene with the suddenly identified parasite screeching "fake news."
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