“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.”
Like most influential movies, John Carpenter’s The Thing was misunderstood at first. It’s hard to categorize, and it plays at all ends of the spectrum: paranoia thriller and zany body horror frenzy. As time progressed, of course, the film was granted cult status for reasons that become apparent with some context. It takes the camp of the 50s and 60s and transfuses the darker horror techniques of the 70s, arriving at what still feels like a very modern film. I think The Thing is a triumph of horror that challenged the notion that quality terror can’t be wildly entertaining at the same time.
The premise is golden. Grabbing the loose structure of the 1951 Thing from Another World but trimming the fat and introducing character-driven, groupmind elements from Alien, The Thing is a master class of sci-fi suspense from its screenplay alone. A group of researchers in Antarctica is infiltrated by an alien specimen that has been sealed in ice for thousands of years. The alien, or “The Thing”, can take the form of any living creatures it attacks, spreading into multiple organisms as it gains more victims. The film follows MacReady (Kurt Russell), a helicopter pilot who takes the charge in uncovering the truth behind The Thing and keeping it from infiltrating the entire camp, and in turn, the entire human race.
I was most interested, this recent viewing, in the duality to The Thing. It’s Alien, but it isn’t. There’s nothing slick and cleanly sinister about The Thing as there is with a Xenomorph. It’s certainly predatory, but it’s smarter and more of an enigma to the characters, paying homage to the campy sci-fi of the 50s and 60s when the primary plot question was “Well, what is this thing?” Carpenter smartly draws on both of these traditions. The Thing is perhaps most thrilling, most suspenseful, when it plays as Alien, but its homage to the “classics” of the 50s and 60s are equally critical to its identity: as body horror.
The Thing takes the body horror genre a step further, I believe, than Alien. While the latter film presents an infiltrating, parasitic foe, The Thing does more than devour and incubate. It imitates. The film gives us the timeless sci-fi trope of the disguised monster. How do we know, characters ask throughout the film, that we are who we say we are? There’s some really great game theory to the movie. The alien is outnumbered but possesses the skills to hide in plain sight and grow exponentially, raising the stakes as the crisis only worsens should the protagonists fail from the beginning. The Thing doesn’t just force us to think about a creature entering our body; rather, the creatures kidnaps us. It becomes us. While there’s definitely something campy and familiar about this concept (Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the clear inspiration.), Carpenter modernizes this idea. He asks us, as Scott does with Alien, to go there with him. Meet these characters and find out what would happen, pushing suspense where you would instead expect camp.
Is The Thing without its share of camp, then? Does it transcend the label entirely? If you look at the special effects and the manner in which the creature is shot, I would say not. I think this explains some initial hatred of the movie. Carpenter definitely tries to have it both ways, but his direction is so confident that it works. The effects are smiley and shown directly (as opposed to Alien which teases its creature and obscures its technical shortcomings), so some suspension of disbelief is certainly necessary. But what I think this accomplishes, should you let yourself go there with Carpenter, is a movie that is heaps of fun. The paranoia and gritty character study is always going to be there, but the body horror draws on just enough camp to make The Thing not just terrifying, but also wildly satisfying.
Just as he did with Halloween, Carpenter showed confidence, artistry, and a mastery of horror with The Thing. It’s intrusive, chilling, but also an absolute blast of a movie, definitely worth a place on your Halloween watchlist.
Films Left to Watch: 865