The Thing (1982)

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*. John Carpenter has never made a secret of his idolization of Howard Hawks, so his interest in this project should have come as no surprise. What is surprising, in retrospect, is that it’s not a remake of The Thing from Another World but a more faithful re-interpretation of the same source (John W. Campell’s novella “Who Goes There?”).

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*. Carpenter wanted to make a film that expressed the anxieties of his own time, and so while some things remain constant, in particular the use of group shots (as difficult as they were to manage), the spirit of this film is very different. The black-and-white Cold War conflict of Us. vs. Them has been replaced by a murkier divide. We’re no longer sure who is “us” and who is “them.”

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*. In fact, the people infected or assimilated by the Thing may themselves be unaware of the distinction. Apparently this was a subject of “endless discussion” on the set among the cast, and the matter was never settled. In the documentary Terror Takes Shape Charles Hallahan says he “thinks” his character “unconsciously” knows he’s been infected (which explains Norris’s declining to take command, as though he somehow knew something was wrong with him). Also one notes how the people receiving the blood test seem relieved when they’re cleared. Apparently Carpenter wasn’t even sure if MacReady was infected, and wanted to leave it “ambiguous.” But this is just one of many matters in the film that is left unexplained.
*. This thematic shift is an inversion of what is a central motif in most of Hawks’s work. Instead of teamwork, Carpenter emphasizes suspicion and paranoia. Us vs. Them has infected the base dynamics. The men can’t work together because they can’t trust one another.

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*. For Carpenter “paranoia is the glue that holds the movie together.” Who can we trust? Who is human? What does being human mean?
*. I like the way the setting adds to this sense of mystery. The characters are so muffled up in winter gear, hoods, and glasses, that it’s often hard to tell who’s who even when they’re not sprouting grotesque appendages.
*. I remember that when this one came out the only thing anyone wanted to talk about was the gross-out factor. And it is still a pretty disgusting movie. The fact that it stands at the end of a great tradition of in-camera, “practical” special effects (i.e., not CGI) is also to its credit. This is wet, messy gore, not the fake digital stuff.

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*. Note how MacReady doesn’t lose his grip on that bottle of J&B even when under fire. There’s a man with a set of priorities! And it’s a little hint like that that lets us know he’s going to be the cool head that prevails when the shit really starts to hit the fan.
*. But he isn’t the only one to keep his cool. One of the things I love the most about this movie (and there’s a lot I love) is the way it inverts the usual horror-movie idiot plot. The team at the station are always smart and professional, and remain collected in the face of an insane and unprecedented danger. They almost immediately figure out what is going on and respond appropriately. MacReady is even calling for flamethrowers before he sees the Thing for the first time.
*. The only time this breaks down is at the very end, when the survivors inexplicably split up in the generator room despite knowing that at least one Thing is lurking about somewhere. Why Nauls runs after it, alone, is anybody’s guess.
*. In addition to being smart, the men are also very serious. This is another one of the movie’s strengths. Carpenter wanted to avoid any comic relief and played the whole thing straight. There are certainly some very funny lines (“It’s gone, MacReady”), but they seem almost inadvertent.

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*. You can pluck mysteries out of this film all day. Who is the shadow man? What happens to Fuchs? Why does Nauls go wandering off after the Thing, and what happens to him? How did Blair manage to build that . . . whatever it is . . . in so short a time? What happens to the Thing creature that drags itself through the roof of the dog kennel (some people say it falls back into the kennel and is burned, but for the life of me I can’t see it).
*. One of the bigger unresolved questions is just how the Thing takes people over. If, as is suggested, “a small particle can take over an entire organism,” then there’s no need for all the tentacles and such, is there? I mean the Thing could have just infected the water supply or something. And how is blowing up the base going to stop it? Presumably the Thing will go back being frozen in hibernation until someone else comes along to thaw it out. Seeing as each individual molecule of the Thing is an independent living organism, there’s really no way of destroying it.
*. What a great performance by Jed the dog. He really sells that look of sinister knowingness.

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*. Carpenter says on the DVD commentary that the blood test scene is what made him want to do the movie, and it’s a great dramatic set piece (which is in Campbell’s story too). The one thing I wonder is how MacReady decides which people aren’t going to be tied up initially. He can’t trust anyone.
*. It’s an all-male environment. Even the crew, according to Carpenter. He liked that, and I do too. In Hawks’s movie there was a girl, but she was deliberately made to seem like one of the boys. Here, any romantic interest would just be an unnecessary and  unrealistic distraction.
*. It’s not an all white environment, but apparently Morgan Freeman thought the script racist and turned it down because the two black characters were the cook and a mechanic. I don’t know. Childs strikes me as one of the heroes of the film, and as noted above we never do find out what happened to Nauls.
*. I like the score, and thought the decision to underplay it was probably the right one. A powerful score, with these visuals, might have tripped everything over into hysteria. But I wonder how much of it is Carpenter and how much Morricone. That opening with the helicopter chasing the dog sounds like Carpenter to me.
*. In the documentary, Carpenter doesn’t make much of the connection to Alien, except to say he didn’t like the guy in the rubber suit at the end of that film. But the Thing is very Alien-ish, with fanged mouths telescoping out of its body, a constantly mutating form, and lots of dripping slime. Even the creature bursting out of Norris’s belly seems like a clear borrowing.

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*. This was Carpenter’s first big studio film with a large budget, and it didn’t do well. For some reason Carpenter attributed at least some of this to the success of E.T., which came out at the same time. Personally, I don’t see how the two films shared any audience.
*. It’s interesting that Blade Runner came out at the same time and had similarly disappointing box office, only to go on, like this movie, to achieve cult status. Meanwhile, who watches E.T. today? Who even remembers it?
*. This is a movie that has always been right on the bubble of making it onto my list of all-time favourites. It’s just one of those productions where everything came together and clicked perfectly. I think it looks great, has a super script, is very well paced, and even manages to end on a remarkably dark and ambiguous note (they shot a happier ending but thankfully didn’t use it). Over the years I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen it, and it’s never gotten old. It’s not there yet, but I wouldn’t bet against it making that list.

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