Background:

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) was initially detested by film critics, however, it has since become a horror/sci-fi masterpiece. Despite its initial failing, John Carpenter viewed (and continues to view it) as his best film. The director of the original The Thing (the 1982 The Thing was a remake) critiqued it for its excessive gore. Its budget was around $15 million (a huge amount for a horror film at the time) and earned a total of $19.5 million at the end of its run, making it neither a box office flop or a hit.

The Thing is often cited for its incredible special effects, which were done by Rob Bottin, who found himself practically living on set at one point. His intense and continuous labor on-set led him to be medically diagnosed with exhaustion and was admitted to the hospital and forced to take a break.

Unfortunately for The Thing, it was released mere weeks after ET and a while finalizing the film, Universal sent Carpenter a demographic study showing that the audience appeal of horror films had declined by 70% over the previous six months. Audiences were more interested in the conservative and comfortable appeal of optimistic films rather than the transgressive nihilism of horror films like The Thing. In particular, audiences hated the vagueness of the film’s ending, which includes two major characters awaiting their death by freezing and the uncertainty of whether the thing is still out there (or if it is one of them).

Plot Summary

After a stray dog is taken in by an American research station in Antarctica, a number of disturbances alert the team to the fact that the dog may have been something much more weird and threatening. They discover that the dog was actually a creature that absorbs other life forms in order to perfectly imitate these other organisms. This discovery causes the team to distrust each other since they now are unable to determine who is human and who is not. One of the doctors of the team discovers that if this creature is taken to civilization, human life will be destroyed within a matter of hours. The film ends very pessimistically: MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David) sharing a bottle of scotch as they both know they’re going to die of exposure to the cold anyway, so they may as well put aside their distrust.

Note that, in this scene, Childs’ breath can’t be seen and he’s wearing a different jacket from the one he was last seen in.

Notes & Scenes

  • I love considering The Thing as an example of ecohorror. If we consider both outer space and the antarctic as “wild” spaces (as Roderick Nash does), then this becomes a story of the wilderness invading an outpost of civilization, and threatening to further infect civilization itself. As a result of its invasion, it becomes difficult for the research team to determine human from nonhuman- wilderness has completely taken control. Additionally, this story is told through contagion. Once again, the wilderness infecting humanity is a contagious element, humans should not spend too much time in wild spaces. Indeed, one character immediately assumes that the Norwegian base where the thing first emerged from the ice, was instead attacked by a bad case of cabin fever rather than an alien invader. I’d also be interested to pay close attention to the human characters’ use of gasoline. Right from the beginning of the film,  a Norwegian plane (flown, presumably using gasoline) flies, crashes, and explodes (partly due to the gasoline). The research facility of the Americans is surrounding by gasoline buckets.

Throughout the film, gasoline is used as a method of exploding and destroying any creatures that the humans come in contact with, right up until the final scene, when MacReady and the remaining members of the team purposefully blow up their station so that the fire will prevent the creature from freezing itself (the creature freezes itself so that it will survive until the next human organisms encounter it). Unfortunately, this is an imperfect solution: Blair’s notebook seems to describe the creature pretty perfectly based on what the audience has seen. Near the end of one of the entries it states, “there is still cellular activity in these burned remains. They’re not dead yet!” So, by burning the station (and the creature), this doesn’t necessarily kill the alien, however, it does guarantee the death of the remaining humans, who cannot survive the cold without proper habitation and must instead await their certain death.

MacReady using a flame thrower against the thing

  • Secondly, I’m interested in the role that artificial intelligence and human imitation play in the film. I was really surprised at the presence of technology and AI in this movie during my re-watch! At the beginning of the film, MacReady plays a game of chess against a computer and looses. When the computer states “Checkmate. Checkmate,” MacReady throws his drink at the computer, muttering “Cheating bitch.”

Also, it’s really difficult for the team to tell the difference between an imitation human (the thing) and a real human. The best method they discover, in fact, is by burning samples of each other’s blood. For humans, blood is just tissue, but for the thing, each part of it is living, so there will be a major reaction. It is disturbing to consider that the thing’s ability to imitate is so perfect that it can be undetected by other human beings, even humans who have been living together in the Antarctic. Our personalities and mannerisms are absolutely reproducible.

Burning the thing’s blood

Knowledge is a major part of this film. Despite being in a research facility, the Americans are unable to fully determine what the creature is. In fact, they resort to calling it “it,” “the thing,” “the creature,” etc. Without being able to clearly label this creature, the humans are unable to gain control over the situation. This is interesting considering the role knowledge plays in 19th century American gothic and horror literature, where (seeking) knowledge is often dangerous.

 

In the current Trump era, The Thing is experiencing a resurgence on social media through the meme below. Social media users have posted this image as a means for capturing the current political feeling.

And finally, we can’t forget the amazing special effects of The Thing: