I wrote and delivered the following essay for Clay McLeod Chapman’s Fear-Mongers series at Dixon Place in 2010. It was a hell of a panel. I shared the stage with Chapman himself, Ashley C. Williams of The Human Centipede, writer Adam Lowenstein, and the great actor Denis O’Hare, who I basically fanboyed all over for the night. The clip above is to be watched when indicated in the text.
The Thing is a movie about a bunch of guys in an Antarctic science station who are menaced by a shape-shifting alien intent on eating them and assuming their appearance. It’s also the single greatest horror movie ever made. I just wanted to say that before I got into this, because there’s an AWFUL lot to unpack about this movie.
An illustrative anecdote:
Before writing this little essay on John Carpenter's The Thing, I had to rewatch it, a task that I didn’t mind in the slightest. I’ve seen it countless times, and I never turn down a chance to see it again. I was joined by my slightly reluctant fiancee and our dog. Much to her surprise, my fiancee admired the old-school craftsmanship of this most grisly of horror films, shrieked aloud on more than one occasion, and wound up a fan of a film she’d never have thought twice about seeing of her own accord. Result.
Our dog? Fucking traumatized. He made it through the first act okay, but after a particularly ghastly setpiece in which the starbeast of the title mutates into a glisteningly disgusting appearance and proceeds to maim, massacre and digest some friendly dogs in a locked kennel, he turned to us with wide, trembling eyes and buried his face in my lap. He stayed there for the remainder.
John Carpenter, I salute you. You made a film that scares the shit out of dogs.
Why my parents even allowed it, I’m unsure, but when I was quite young, I had a fever and was given permission to make requests from the local video rental place. The two I picked? Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Thing, two films about nefarious aliens who look JUST LIKE YOU OR ME. These flicks are unsettling at the best of times, but when you’re so feverish that everything seems like an out of control nightmare, they’re worse than fucking clowns. As the fever overtakes you, you start to feel like you’ll never be in control of your body ever again. It’s a delirium that taps into every person’s most awful fear: total loss of agency. A loss of control that disfigures you and distorts the reality you thought you had a handle on.
At around the point that’s captured in the clip I’m about to show you, I was so convinced that all of this was in my mind, and so disoriented and distressed, that I proceeded to vomit uncontrollably.
So not only has John Carpenter frightened my dog, he made me throw up. Again, sir, a tip of the hat.
So here’s what did it:
(WATCH THE CLIP HERE)
It’s hard for a horror film to surprise us. Harder still to scare us. Perhaps the hardest thing of all is to genuinely, almost invasively, show us the unknown. Universal Pictures took a gamble giving a sizable budget to John Carpenter, coming off of the low-cost dream run of Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, and Escape from New York, for his remake of Howard Hawks’ seminal sci-fi chiller, The Thing From Another World. Thinking they’d get a pretty scary movie, what they really got was a glimpse into something like genuine terror, packed with imagery that doesn’t inspire chills, but awe, astonishment, nausea and real fear. The characters in The Thing often don’t run, gazing in sick wonder at the beast for whom they are little but protective meat sacks. For the first time in a horror movie, it was RIGHT not to run. You rooted for these men to survive, but you sort of didn’t want them to run because if YOU were there, you’d want a better look yourself. This was something you just hadn’t seen before, and the moment that actor David Clennon says “You gotta be fucking kidding me,” it gets a laugh. Every time. It’s up there with “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” A movie has to earn a line like that, and Carpenter does, because seriously, you’ve GOT to be fucking KIDDING me.
The question is, then, begged: what IS The Thing?
The Thing opened two weeks after E.T. in the summer of 1982, providing a pretty useful contrast and a study in why Spielberg is our pre-eminent popular filmmaker, while John Carpenter is, as they say, big in France. The reviews for Spielberg’s opus were rapturous. Carpenter made do with Roger Ebert, as staunch a defender of genre films as any, calling his film, “a geek show,” and Canby of the Times deeming it “instant junk.” E.T., a great and timeless piece of work in its own right, shows us life from another world as something comfortingly human and familiar. The magic and strangeness of E.T. is domestic, taking place in, and utilizing the signifiers of, suburbia. The Thing would not eat your Reese’s Pieces. It would use them as a trail to find you. E.T., with his long neck and spindly arms, exists for the snuggling adoration of a child. His eyes promise unconditional love. The Thing’s eyes, when you can see them, present only a primal hostility and the promise that you’d look just terrific with your insides out. The Thing not only shows us a life form that is unaccountable in real human terms, it jerks us violently out of the comfort of known surroundings and puts us in the Antarctic, a landscape that might as well be another planet.
The setting is key.
From its majestic opening shots of a wolf being chased, for mysterious reasons, through the tundra by armed men in a helicopter, The Thing announces itself not as a successor to Carpenter's previous works, not as a remake of the 1951 film, not even as an adaptation of “Who Goes There?,” the short story from which The Thing draws its premise. No, The Thing is the first and only true Lovecraftian work in American film. From the impossibly grotesque, pre-human physicality of the monster itself to the dark intimations of looming apocalypse, it is the closest cinematic relative to Lovecraft’s tundra-set horror, “At the Mountains of Madness.”
The Thing is also a Western. In fact, most of John Carpenter's early movies are Westerns. Assault on Precinct 13 is a Howard Hawks tribute act, a siege narrative pitting a handful of cowboys against a vast army of Indians. Typical of Carpenter, the Indians get guns and look like they might win. Halloween is very much about an outlaw who returns home to terrorize his family, confronted by an old gunslinger who failed to pacify him years ago and is determined to settle things. Escape From New York resembles nothing so much as the dystopian action epic John Wayne never got to make. Carpenter shoots The Thing in a spacious widescreen that plays like an old-fashioned frontier epic. It’s another siege story, but this time the siege has been inverted. The Indians aren’t wearing feathers and carrying tomahawks. Any of us could be The Thing. Guns are pointed out at potential intruders at the beginning of the film. By the end, those guns have been turned against friends.
It’s also a GUY movie, packed to the gills with big, sweaty men spitting terse, monosyllabic man-bile at each other between shooting guns, drinking scotch and smoking weed. Asses are kicked, threats are issued, and there is much dick-swinging. There’s a LOT of man in this movie, from Keith David’s hyper-butch, oddly named Childs, to Wilford Brimley, YES, WILFORD BRIMLEY. The leading man, however, is Kurt Russell, issuing all of his dialogue in a sub-verbal growl, wearing a beard and mop-top so intense that he looks like Bigfoot, if he let himself go a little. He has an animal’s sense of panic, only widening his tight little eyes when his survival is under immediate threat. It’s a magnificent piece of acting minimalism.
The sheer manliness of the film could lead to a certain speculation on the nature of the threat: The Thing is the only creature in the film capable of reproduction, and it sends a bunch of already tense, tightly wound men into a distrustful, homicidal frenzy. These men are being menaced by what is essentially a huge, self-sustaining intergalactic vagina. And do you know when most men faint dead away in the delivery room? When the afterbirth comes pouring out. Deal with THAT.
So it’s a Lovecraftian Horror Science Fiction Guy Western with woman issues. Well played, Carpenter.
So why does it stick so hard? Why haunt so much?
There’s a truly perverse sense of violation coursing through the film, made tangible by Carpenter's use of practical effects. The Thing enters you and goes through several, agonizing stages of change before settling on the right one. There's a reason that the metamorphosis is always accompanied by screams. Bone and flesh and tendon are being twisted into impossible shapes. The viscera turns your stomach, but the suffering gets under your skin.
There’s also the craft, which is considerable. It’s hard to think of an American filmmaker so in love with and attentive to the actual DEPTH of a frame. Carpenter's use of fore, mid and background is evocative of those mile-deep compositions Kurosawa conjured up in Seven Samurai. Kurosawa used those multiple fields to show us majesty. Carpenter uses it to instill in us a fear that any segment of the frame might be invaded at any time. For a film derided at the time as a senseless, artless gore show, it’s painstakingly constructed. While The Thing might give you violent stomach cramps, it will never give you a headache.
Finally, and most hauntingly, it does something horror movies are not supposed to do. A magician friend of mine spoke of how closely related horror and magic are. A true horror movie goes through the three stages of a magic trick: the conditions of the trick are set, there is a turn, and then all is restored. Not here. After the turn, things grow only more hopeless, more threatening, ending on the two survivors of the ordeal, without shelter or chance of rescue, two men who cannot be sure of the humanity of the other. As the cold begins to set in, they stare at each other blankly.
And Russell utters the other great line of the film: “Why don’t we just wait here for a little while…see what happens.”
And that’s it.