“The Unenthusiastic Critic” is a special series in which my highly reluctant girlfriend “N.” joins me to watch classic movies that she has somehow managed to avoid seeing. In a very special series within this very special series, N. has agreed to watch as many horror movies as we can fit in between now and All Saint’s Day. That N. really hates horror movies, is easily freaked out, and will almost certainly have nightmares all week long, makes her participation all the more admirable…and dumb…and potentially amusing. Read the introduction to this series here.
Film: The Thing (1982), directed by John Carpenter; screenplay by Bill Lancaster, based on a story by John W. Campbell, Jr. Starring Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, David Clennon, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, and Joel Polis.
Why I Chose It: So, The Thing is a slight departure for this series in two senses: 1) we've both technically seen it before; and 2) it wasn't a movie I loved, or even liked. In fact, I had never even seen The Thing until just a couple of years ago.
I'm not sure why I'd never seen it: I was a teenager in the early '80s, and this should have been perfect fodder for the late night VHS rental marathons my friends and I would have. Yet, somehow, The Thing never made the cut. Maybe my small-town video store didn't stock it.
If they didn't, it could be because The Thing was a commercial failure and a critical flop upon its release in 1982. Comparing it unfavorably to the earlier version of the same story, Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby's The Thing from Another World (1951), critics of The Thing eviscerated it (pun intended) for its extreme gore, its unlikable characters, and its depressingly bleak world view—the same factors, of course, that would later propel it to cult classic status among horror aficionados on VHS and DVD. Nowadays, The Thing is almost guaranteed a top-five spot on every list of the scariest or best horror movies of all time, which is why my girlfriend and I rented it one night a few years ago.
And here's the thing about The Thing: we hated it. Actually, N. fell asleep during it—she has no memory of this, but she also has no memory of the movie—but I hated it. I'm not sure why: maybe I wasn't in the mood for it, or maybe I was tired, or in a pissy frame of mind. (It happens.) I do remember that we rented it on VHS, and it was a bad copy—probably one of those "formatted to fit your TV" obscenities that destroyed the super widescreen 2.35:1 ratio Carpenter intended. For whatever reason, I came away from that first viewing thinking that the collected internet and critical communities had lost their fucking minds, and that John Carpenter's The Thing was one of the clumsiest, least scary, most amateurish schlock-fests I'd ever seen.
Yet, for all the years following, there The Thing sat: at, or near the top, of every list, and held in high regard by people I admired. So when N. and I decided to do this marathon, I thought it was a good opportunity to give The Thing another look. If I'd been wrong in my earlier assessment, I was willing to admit that I was wrong. More importantly, if I was right—as I suspected—I now had the platform of this blog to convince the world that The Thing was overrated shit.
What We Knew About It Going In: N. remembered that it took place in Antarctica—and nothing else. (As we shall quickly discover, this more or less proves that, on our earlier viewing, she fell asleep practically before the credits were over.) I had a vague memory of excessive gore and shitty stop-motion special effects—the spider-legged head was what stuck in my mind—but not much else. (This suggests that I, too, might have been pretty tired when we watched it. Mea culpa.)
How It Went: Much, much better than either of us expected.
One of the strongest elements The Thing has going for it is its setting, a remote American science station in the incredible wasteland of the Antarctic. (Actually British Columbia, where the movie was filmed.) The first thing I notice about the movie—and will notice throughout—is the quiet. When the guns aren't firing, the dogs aren't barking, the explosions aren't exploding, and the creatures aren't screaming in the violent birth-pains of otherworldly monstrosity, this is an incredibly quiet film, with just the ever-present wind reminding you that there is frozen fuck-all for about 1,000 miles in every direction. (The quiet menace is enhanced by Ennio Morricone's simple score, composed mostly of two throbbing bass notes, like a heartbeat.)
Only as these first scenes unfold does it occur to me that my girlfriend—who refers to any temperature below 80 degrees as "freezing"—is the perfect audience for this movie:
Me: So this location alone should scare the crap out of you.
She: Yeah, that's pretty much my idea of Hell.
The movie opens with a shot of its title character—but of course we don't know that yet. All we see is a dog, running through the snow, being followed by a helicopter. "If this were Alaska," N. says, "Sarah Palin would be shooting at him." Maybe N. was awake for this part before, because—right on cue—someone leans out of the helicopter and does just that. "There she is," I say.
And then we are introduced to our hero, R. J. MacReady. (As the most capable man at the station, the symbolism of his name is obvious. But I also don't believe it's a coincidence that his name closely resembles that of R.P. MacMurphy, the hero of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: certainly the other, all-male inhabitants of U.S. National Science Institute Station 4 start to remind us of Nurse Ratched's patients before the movie is over.) Perhaps foreshadowing some metaphoric themes we shall discuss later, MacReady has the film's only interaction with a female character—his computer chess program—and kills the "cheating bitch" by dumping his whiskey into her circuitry when he loses.
The sniper in the copter—a Norwegian Elmer Fudd, apparently—can’t seem to hit the dog, and so switches to hand grenades. When the dog makes it to the American station, and gives one of the men a big sloppy kiss, the Norwegian opens fire on the Americans as well, and is shot by the station’s commander, Garry (Donald Moffat).
("See," N. says, "these movies would be very short if I was in charge. First sign of the Norwegians trying to kill the dog, I would pack it up and head out. Just run. If someone is trying that hard to kill a damn dog, I'm thinking the dog needs to be killed.")
Only in passing are we introduced to the inhabitants of the station: this is not a movie concerned with deep character development. “Black dude on skates,” N. points out, is about the extent of what we learn about one of them (Nauls, played by T.K. Carter). We have the panicky communications officer Windows (Thomas Waites), the gruff science office and Quaker Oats man Blair (Wilford Brimley), the stoner Palmer (David Clennon), the kindly doctor Copper (Richard Dysart), the quiet dog-keeper Clark (Richard Masur), and a few assorted others. Only Childs (Keith David), who has a temper, seems a match for MacReady.
And yet—and here’s where I think the thin characterization is not a problem—the men all seem like real people. The late ’70s and early ’80s were the great era for working-class sci-fi and horror heroes—think of the miners on the Nostromo in Alien, an obvious influence—and here Carpenter cast good actors with interesting faces and believably bedraggled presences. We don’t know a lot about them as individuals, but we know them: they’re recognizable, relatable people, and they really do look like they’ve been stranded together in these cabins for months of mindless, irritable boredom.
MacReady and Doc Copper go to investigate the mystery of the Norwegian camp, and discover a lot of dead bodies, an excavated block of ice, and a charred bloody something that they, naturally, bring back to their own station for examination. My girlfriend takes issue with this last decision, as she will do for most other decisions the characters make:
She: Oh, hell no.
Me: What exactly would you do differently here?
She: I wouldn’t be there in the first place. And I definitely wouldn’t mess with that hoodoo. The Norwegians went to a lot of trouble to set that thing on fire, and you have now brought it back into your home.
It’s not until they get it back that we get a good look at what it is.
Me: That thing has too many fingers.
She: That thing has too many heads. Or is it one head, split in two?
Me: Is either of those options any better than the other?
She: One head. One head is normal, and normal is better.
Meanwhile, the fugitive dog has been roaming the compound freely, and seeming to take a real interest in the proceedings. (“I think the dog is evil,” N. whispers.) This is confirmed when Clark finally puts it in the kennel with the other dogs, who do not seem happy to have it there.
It’s at this point that I may as well mention that my beloved girlfriend N., who can usually be counted on to provide witty and erudite comments on these movies, will not be dropping as many bon mots as usual. Starting with the kennel scene, most of her reactions to The Thing become difficult to transcribe, but go a little something like this:
She: Um…Oh….OH…OHHHHHHHHHHHHHH………OH, IT’S AN INSIDE-OUT GOAT!….OHHH, NO…….OH, FUCK THAT SHIT!…..OHHHHHHHHHHH, JUST TELL ME WHEN IT’S OVER…
I don't blame her. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the fucking dog explodes from the inside out: its head splits open like a bloody banana, and other heads, and tentacles, and spider legs, and various projectile fluids start emerging from every direction. One of the real dogs—understandably—actually begins chewing its way through a chain-link fence in a desperate effort to get the hell away from this thing.
It’s disgusting, it’s obscene, and it’s absolutely glorious. The special effects artist, Rob Bottin, was only 14 when he was hired as an apprentice to the legendary Rick Baker, 19 when Carpenter hired him to do makeup on The Fog, and only 22 when he created the big special effects sequences for The Thing. It was apparently a perfect synthesis of an ambitious young artist who wanted to try over-the-top, never-before-seen visuals, and a director willing to let him completely off the leash to see what he could come up with. What this perfect marriage of crazy-meets-crazier produced is so ridiculously, sickeningly gratuitous that it transcends the gross and becomes majestically revolting.
(My girlfriend, however, misses most of the majesty, as her head is under a blanket until the sticky, wrenching, splattering sounds effects die away.)
Me: So you don’t remember any of this from when we watched it before?
She: I must have fallen asleep on this whole movie! Because I would remember that. You know how I was talking the other night, about “things-I-can’t-unsee?” Stuff that gets to me? That’s the kind of shit I'm talking about.
But if The Thing were more tasteful and restrained, it would lose a lot of its charm, and also a lot of its humor. The absolute repulsion of the dog kennel scene, for example, makes the straightforward delivery of these lines (from Masur) downright hilarious: “I don’t know what the hell’s in there. It’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.”
They take a flamethrower to the giant exploded dog fetus, and then perform an autopsy in which Brimley's character figures out—with remarkable ease and accuracy—that this life-form can imitate other life-forms.
Me: How come the other guy is the doctor, but Wilford Brimley performs all the autopsies?
She: Maybe he has the better gag reflex.
This leads the men to further investigation of the Norwegians’ activities, and the discovery of a space ship buried 100,000 years ago in the ice. Blair—running numbers on one of those movie computers that can answer any question—figures out that this thing will take over the planet in about 20 minutes if they let it escape Antarctica.
The real terror of The Thing doesn’t kick in until another man, Fuchs (Joel Polis) figures out what Blair already has: that the creature can assimilate any of them. This is proven when the men discover (and set fire to) something that looks like Bennings (Peter Maloney), mid-transformation.
Blair goes a little preemptively crazy, and seals the situational deal: he destroys the computers, destroys the radio, and dismantles the helicopter and vehicles. (“This shit doesn’t happen in warmer climates,” N. points out. “People don’t lose their minds when it’s nice out.”) But now we’re off to the races, because the men are trapped together in this remote place, with no way of contacting or reaching the outside world, and any of them could be an alien. The Thing is as much about paranoia as it is about an alien invasion: “Someone in this camp ain’t what he appears to be,” MacReady speechifies. “Right now that may be one or two of us. By spring it could be all of us.” It’s Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, only with flamethrowers and giant exploding dog fetuses.
“Shoot him!” my girlfriend says, whenever one character is alone with another. She proves once again that if she were the protagonist of these kinds of stories, they would be much shorter, but she herself would survive them:
She: Fuck this shit. I would just kill everybody, day one, and lock myself in a closet. “Sorry, but somebody here is fucked up, and I know it’s not me, so everybody gotta go.”
Doc comes up with a way to use unaltered blood samples to test for alien possession, but someone has destroyed all the blood supplies.
Me: Can’t they use Wilford Brimley’s blood? They know he’s human.
She: Yeah, but he has the diabeetus.
Suspicion falls on various men in turn—including MacReady when some of his clothes are found shredded—which leads to a lot of tense, paranoid stand-offs with guns and flamethrowers and dynamite. (Having watched the movie several times now, I still don’t know for sure who is infected, or when: until someone starts sprouting spider legs, it’s hard to tell. The Thing is not a who-dunit: it’s a how-the-fuck-do-we-survive-it.) However, when one of the men, Norris (Charles Hallahan), grabs his stomach, we know for sure it’s a bad sign. A few moments later he’s stopped breathing, and a few moments after that Doc Copper is trying to resuscitate him. He hits him a couple of times with the defibrillator, and on the third shock Norris’s body decides to fight back:
As my girlfriend starts moaning again, Hallahan’s body chews off the doctor's arms, and begins sprouting hairy growths and slimy tentacles. (“I DON’T LIKE WIGGLY THINGS,” N. protests.) His entire head slithers its way off his body, falls to the floor upside down, and sprouts spider legs to make good its escape. “You gotta be fucking kidding,” Palmer says, deadpan, while my girlfriend objects again to “THINGS YOU CAN’T UNSEE!”
But Norris’s transformation has given MacReady the idea for the best and most suspenseful sequence in the film: he’s figured out that every cell of the creature’s body is alive and will react to threat, and so he ties up several of the others, and tests their blood with a hot needle. The scene is masterfully constructed, with the tension building as MacReady thrusts the hissing needle into each petri dish of blood. The first few samples have no reaction, so Mac sets their owners free and hands them weapons. (Personally, I’d want some guarantee the test worked before I began handing out flamethrowers, but whatever.)
Me: Who do you think is human, and who isn’t? Place your bets now.
She: The black people are cool. The black people are always cool.
Me: This is a horror movie. I’m amazed the black people are still alive.
MacReady thinks Garry is the alien, and says “We’ll save you for last”—which perfectly sets up the surprise when the very next blood sample he tests—Palmer’s—violently reacts in his hand. Palmer then begins to transform—but he’s tied to the others. They can’t escape, and Mac can’t shoot it with the flamethrower without incinerating the other two. Somebody didn't think this through.
It’s at this point that the remaining survivors decide they are well and truly fucked, and that—whatever happens—this thing must not be allowed to escape. “We’re not getting out of here alive,” MacReady says. “But neither is the thing.” They decide to blow up the entire camp, to ensure that any traces of the alien will be incinerated.
On the one hand, they all seem to accept this suicide-pact with an absurd lack of protest. ("Yeah, I think I'd object a little more strongly than that," my girlfriend says. "I mean, you're saying we went through all this shit just to lay down and die?") On the other hand, it’s a nice touch: they are doing the noble thing, the heroic thing, but nobody has to say it. It reinforces the sense of these men as decent, working class guys—most of whom are probably veterans—who know how to do the right thing without making a big song and dance about it.
The few remaining survivors rig the entire camp with dynamite; doing this requires them to split up, which guarantees several of them are dispatched. Childs is off somewhere, so it falls to MacReady alone to face the largest version of The Thing we've seen so far when it erupts at his feet, a giant abortion of a totem pole composed of human, animal, and alien parts.
"Yeah, well fuck you too," MacReady says, in a wonderful non-catchphrase, and blows the thing to smithereens with dynamite.
With the entire camp burning itself out, a battered and half-frozen MacReady meets a half-frozen Childs, and the two sit down to share some whiskey. Neither knows if the other is infected—and for that matter, neither do we—but they agree it doesn't matter. "If we've got any surprises for each other, I don't think we're in much shape to do anything about it." The film ends in marvelously bleak ambiguity, with the two of them facing each other, not expecting to survive and agreeing that they probably shouldn't. "Let's just sit here a while," MacReady says, "and see what happens."
So let's get this out of the way now: I won't say I was wrong, exactly, in my earlier opinion about The Thing, but I certainly wasn't quite as right as I usually am.
OK, fine, I was wrong. The Thing is kind of great. Yes, the characters are thin. Yes, the story is almost equally thin, and meanders chaotically without any kind of structure. Yes, the special effects are incredibly, ludicrously over-the-top. But, on this recent viewing, all of these things seemed like they were in The Thing's favor. For a movie about an alien monster that looks like a nightmarish abortion, The Thing has a strange and admirable realism to it. It doesn't waste a lot of time on Hollywood structure, careful establishment of character backgrounds, or predictably dramatic story beats. It sets up its horrifying situation, plops some good character actors in the middle of it, and gets on with its business in a believable, unsentimental way.
I haven't seen the recent prequel/stealth remake, but I can almost guarantee that it is slicker, showier, and more polished. It probably takes more time to establish characters, it probably has a traditional three-act structure, and it no doubt has more expensive special effects. And it is almost certainly much, much less effective than Carpenter's dark, callous, gleefully messy version. I won't say John Carpenter's The Thing is the greatest horror movie ever made, but it's earned a place on my top 10 for its audacity, its tone, and its willingness to treat the audience without kid gloves.
But, more importantly, what did my girlfriend think?
She: Yeah, I must have totally passed out when we watched it before, because I didn't remember any of that, and that's the stuff I would remember.
Me: So what did you think this time?
She: It wasn't horrible. [Note: This is high praise for N. to give a horror movie.]
Me: Scariest movie of all time?
She: I haven't seen enough scary movies to judge. It wasn't so much scary, but I'm pretty squeamish. So it's not so much make-you-jump scary as I need to turn away now.
Me: For example?
She: The dogs were particularly unpleasant. And when they're giving the blood test, and that guy exploded, and then started to eat the other guy, that was a rough one. The guy whose head came off and started crawling across the floor was also a nice touch. I'm not a big fan of squiggly. There were a lot of bloody, gaping vaginas spewing fetus-looking shit.
Me: You think that was intended as a metaphor? It was a bunch of men, all alone. The only female voice was the computer, and Kurt Russell killed that bitch in his very first scene.
She: All horror directors are afraid of the vagina. Their darkest fear is the vagina.
Me: So what was your favorite part?
She: Kurt Russell's hair.
Me: He did have nice hair.
She: No, I thought it was good. It very effectively used that isolated atmosphere, and tapped into that psychological fear of not being able to trust anyone. But again, I would have gotten around that by shooting everyone. I don't give a shit. I will deal with the consequences later.
Me: Remind me to not to go on any secluded vacations with you.
She: Oh, the second you touched your stomach, you'd be gone. If I'm wrong, sorry, but I'm lighting your ass up.
Me: So it's kind of like the medieval witch tests. The good news is, if you die, you're not an alien…
She: If you die, my bad. Sorry! If you start squiggling up the fucking wall, I was right. Either way, I'm not taking any chances.
Next up in The Unenthusiastic Critic's Seven Nights of Halloween: N. becomes "one of us" as she faces the film she's most scared to watch: Tod Browning's 1932 classic Freaks.