If you’ve been checking out this blog, then you know I am not a horror film devotee. It’s a genre I avoid as a rule, but as Leonard Bernstein once said, “It doesn’t matter what style of music you play, there is good and bad in all genres.” That is a paraphrase to be sure, but you get the point. I just feel that there are a lot less great films in the horror genre than in others. There sure is a lot of Drek-ula.
1982 was a huge year for me. I met my wife in 1982. I went on my first nationwide tour as a musician with the band “Skyy”, opening for Kool and the Gang, and sharing the stage with such legends as Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross, Rick James, The Time, Al Jarreau and many more. I played in places I’d only dreamed of, like Radio City Music Hall, Cincinatti’s Riverfront Stadium, The Cotton Bowl, the Greek Theater, Reunion Arena.
We spent a lot of time watching movies on the tour bus, because we spent a LOT of time on the tour bus. There were some movies we watched once or twice, and some we watched multiple times. “The Thing” was one that got a bunch of viewings. It was very popular, and rightfully so. For the time, the effects were quite impressive, even on a smaller than small screen. The tension was on such a high level, the pacing so measured that time flew by.
I’ve never been a big fan of John Carpenter. He made some films that were cartoonish, almost unintentionally satiric. I am thinking primarily of “Halloween”, “Escape From LA” and “The Fog”. Then there were those movies that showed exactly what the guy could do with the right plot and attitude, like “Big Trouble in Little China”, “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Starman”.
Leading this pack was “The Thing”. Supposedly a remake of the Howard Hawks classic starring “Gunsmoke”’s James Arness as a “kitenous alien being” discovered in the Arctic. The setting of extreme cold and isolation, and the presence of a malevolent extraterrestrial are the only two factors the original and Carpenter’s remake have in common. The films otherwise couldn’t be more different. Hawks’ movie is a talky, low tension detective story masquerading as a horror film. It does hold a role as the first scientist vs. monster movie that treats the scientists as scientists, not madmen.
Apparently much more true to the original story by John W. Campbell Jr., Carpenter’s is a tumultuous shape-shifter tale, with a high level of gross-out, mistrust, and general badass-ness in the person of Kurt Russell. Carpenter and Russell had a great relationship with “The Thing”, the 2 “Escape From..” films and “Big Trouble”. These movies changed Russell from the Disney nice guy to “Snake Plissken”—a wise-cracking charismatic tough guy in the mold of Bogart’s take on Phillip Marlowe. Russell’s R.J. McReady is a paranoid loner, the perfect hero for a story like this. The scientists want to analyze the situation, but he is all about action.
“I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I'd rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!”- Garry
A U.S. scientific post in Antarctica is on the verge of winter. They witness a Norwegian helicopter in pursuit of a fleeing Siberian Husky, the passenger firing at the dog with a high-powered rifle. The dog makes it to the U.S. camp unharmed, and the chopper lands. It soon blows up by a mishap, killing the pilot. As the dog runs to the Americans, seemingly for protection, the Norse shooter fires and hits one of the Americans in his leg. A different American shoots and kills the armed Norwegian. The dog is rescued, the Americans assume the Norwegians had psychotic cabin fever, and head to their camp to find out what the situation is. The gruesome scene at the decimated camp includes a corpse with two heads that was burnt alive. Upon bringing the deformity back to their camp, they realize something is wrong with the dog, who in captivity with other huskies, has caused the other dogs to snarl and attack. The Norwegian dog begins to transform grotesquely and take over the other dogs. The Americans now realize that this is an alien life form that can transform itself into any other life form given enough time. They need to stop it, but have a huge problem. Some of them have already been infected, and they can’t tell whom.
Here’s the pitch—“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” meets “Ice Station Zebra”. That simply does not do this movie justice.
However, comparisons to “Body Snatchers” are inevitable, since the major cold war theme of an alien society coming over and stealing your soul, your individuality, your unique YOU-ness, and turning us all into walking automatons simply geared to do their bidding, is what “The Thing” is all about.
Or is it?
By 1982, this was not as fascinating and horrible a thought as it was in the ‘50’s. In the ‘50’s, they sold us a bill of goods that we, as capitalists, were all good and free cowboys, and that they, as commies, were all soulless and enchained bureaucrats. By the time the ‘80’s came around, we were no longer cowboys, that’s for sure. We were bureaucratic as HELL. We were capitalistic, warmongering, dictator supporting, hush money laundering LIARS. The only thing we had to fear was US ourselves.
Oh yeah, we also had to fear viruses, like AIDS, and our own incompetence, like Three Mile Island. Let’s not forget malevolent psycho serial killers like Son of Sam and the Green River Killer. NOW it seems like I’m getting somewhere.
John Carpenter’s version of “The Thing” was obviously a product of its time, not just in the available film technology, but also in the national ethos. The mutating alien obviously represents a disease that can take you over at any time. Our inability to identify and contain it is pure incompetence. Like a serial killer, it takes you over one at a time.
Disease, incompetence, violent psychosis. Ding, ding and ding.
The fact that the camp is isolated in Antarctica and yet still vulnerable, might just represent even more of the American ethos. We have always felt buffered by the oceans, our safety as a nation supported by the distances. The Cuban Missile Crisis ended that, and global trading, our involvement in foreign wars that had no bearing on our societal well-being, Iranian hostages and Central American revolutions began to shrink these distances.
Right now you’re saying, SHEEEEIT, Wayne. It’s just an alien horror movie! Stick to Hollywood, will ya? True. It IS just an alien horror movie, the template for which was set by Ridley Scott’s revolutionary Sci-Fi “Alien”. Unlike Scott’s horror masterpiece, which is totally a serial killer parable, “The Thing” tries (and succeeds) to speak to ALL of our fears during that strange era of cultural and political waste known as the ‘80’s.
The star of this movie is not Kurt Russell, although he does a fine job in his role of the tough chopper pilot. The stars are the effects, the make-up and the grossest of gross out images, concocted by Rob Bottin and Stan Winston. Apparently the workload was so heavy for Bottin that he had to be checked into a hospital for exhaustion at one point. The mutation scenes pre-date “Terminator 2” by 9 years! They are also much more disgusting than anything I think I have seen in any other horror film. There will be at least 4 times when you say “auggghh…no!” At one point, Palmer sees Norris’ disembodied head sprout King Crab legs and start to scuttle along the floor to escape the flamethrowers, and he says what we are all thinking; “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding.” All of the transformation sequences take the amazing make-up/animation concepts and techniques from the previous year’s “An American Werewolf in London”, and raise the ante.
There are tons of flammable and explosive moments, of course. The film is sometimes a bit of overkill in this way. After all, this is a quintessential “dick flick”. In fact, it is completely devoid of female presence whatsoever, with the single exception of the voice of McReady’s computer chess opponent, supplied by Carpenter’s then wife, Adrienne Barbeau.
Carpenter turns the Spielberg model (adding normal everyday life events to heighten the realism) a bit on its head with a few comic turns to lighten the unbearably tense atmosphere. One of my favorites is when Palmer is watching “Let’s Make a Deal”, and he runs up to the video console, turns it off, and declares “I know how this one ends”, ejecting the video tape. Boy did that moment hit home on the tour bus! Ironic that there was this dig at Spielberg, since “The Thing” can blame it’s box office futility on a far more benign story of aliens landing on Earth that was released at the same time—“E.T.”!
The decision by Carpenter, et al to not reveal whether either of the last two survivors are infected I found both courageous and fascinating. The film ends unresolved, like so many contemporary art house flicks. Think about it; there are so many ways they could have gone with the end of this film. 1) McReady and Childs both get rescued, but you don’t know if one of them is infected. 2) One of them kills the other, and it turns out that he was right, and the one he killed was infected. 3) One of them kills the other and it turns out he was wrong, the man was still human. 4) They decide to blow themselves up. 5) The alien wins and takes over the human. 6) The actual ending—we never know what happens. I like both 1 and 6 of these endings, which are pretty much the same. This lack of resolution probably hurt the movie at the Box Office, but I believe it will help the film have a long and happy life as a cult classic.
Ennio Morricone of Spaghetti Western fame supplied the score, and it is typical for a horror film. Lots of droning synth sounds are punctuated with a persistent low pitched heartbeat. There’s no great theme like his melodies for “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”, or both “Once Upon a Time…” films. Whatever—it’s about a million times better than that cheesy crap Carpenter wrote for “Halloween”!
As stated earlier, Kurt Russell is the hero/anti-hero McReady, and despite apparently wearing eyeliner, he is a tough as nails, scotch swilling sonovabitch. If you identify with anyone in this film, it’s McReady. Most of us remember the shock when Russell, a Disney heartthrob, went WAY out of character to play Texas tower spree killer Charles Whitman in “The Deadly Tower”, a very well known made for TV movie. However, his real breakout role in the raunchy and hysterical comedy “Used Cars” gave us a clue of the future actor we had on our hands. Right on the heels of that was Russell’s first true actioner, and his first team-up with Carpenter, “Escape From New York”. At this point we knew there was a great male lead in Russell, and that he was someone you could count on for humor, toughness and range.
There is little to no character exposition in the film. You get the idea that Wilford Brimley’s character, Dr. Blair is the head of the science crew, and that Garry, played by Donald Moffat, is the main muscle guy, supported by Childs (Keith David) and Clark (Richard Masur). Windows (Thomas Waites) is communications, the other scientists are Dr. Copper, Norris, Fuchs and Bennings. Nauls is the cook, and Palmer—well, we just know he likes to get high. Brimley does a great job in trying to destroy everything when he realizes that the alien must be contained or else it might infest the entire planet. It’s probably the most real acting anyone does in the film, and he handles it as beautifully as he handled anything else he ever performed.
One other performance worth noting in the film is by Jed, the husky who plays the “dog thing”. So much of the tension and eeriness of the beginning of the film comes from watching Jed check things out. He watches the goings on from a window, far more interested than a typical dog. He goes in the cage with the other huskies and lies down in a very sentient manner, knowing they are going to be able to recognize his malevolence. It’s a great, bravura animal performance. No, seriously!
ON SECOND LOOK
Oh, man. Just go get a nice doobie, settle back and watch this movie again. It’s a wild trip, and something very different than your typical alien monster horror pic. Get (Mc)ready by listening to some tunes from “Thriller”, or maybe even better yet, Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone”. Get in that 1982 mindset. Oh, and don’t make the mistake I made and cuddle your dog while watching. In fact lock the dog in the other room. And definitely don’t eat rich food right beforehand. No red meat! Prepare to be grossed out, and to be scared and entertained by a great horror film—one of the best.
1st Look- ★★★1/2 2nd Look ★★★ 1/2