We’re introduced to R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) with a glass of Scotch in one hand, icicles thickening his beard, his eyes glued to a computer chess program. Isn’t the hero supposed to beat the computer and prove his ability to strategize a plan of attack against a cunning foe? He loses and calls the feminine readout a bitch as he pours the Scotch down her sassy terminal (Adrienne Barbeau briefly provides the voice of the computer and represents the only woman in the film). The men stationed at this arctic outpost act like they’re put out to be paid so much to relax. They’ve reinterpreted the arctic as being perfect for drinking, what with all the ice.
A monster invades the base disguised as a dog. Notice the all-important dark comedy, as the Norwegians chase the dog in a helicopter, scream incoherently, and accidentally blow themselves up. Nothing would have happened in The Thing if humans all spoke the same language. In this film, the divisions that we value so much, out of which we create our sense of individuality, will victimize us to a terrifying monster of collectivity. The Thing absorbs and unifies life where suspicious and divided people destroy it. This is Invasion of the Body Snatchers accelerated to universality. It is a plug for the human soul, without a plug for a specific part of it.
And so, what of MacReady, our default protagonist? The Thing doesn’t end up being something he can outsmart, but just out-gut. MacReady has to feel his way to a solution, which ends up being to give more life to destroying the Thing than it has available to live with. The Thing is a mass, purposeful suicide, a universal pact of division and loneliness. What weapons could we possibly use against a monster that can look just like us, for which “every part is a whole?” Our weapons are suspicion and dividedness, our instinct to eat our neighbor, to become packs of one. The basest essence of human self-obsession saves us from a force that is a perfect unity, a collected intelligence of single-minded existence. Its existence is to exist. It didn’t count on us having so much guts.
MacReady defines and disenchants the action hero. Yes, he has moxie, and spunk, and guts. When he threatens to kill people who get too close you know he means it. He’s not the most capable man or the wisest, but as the loneliest and most suspicious he becomes the leader of their slow Armageddon, by which I mean he’s the guy with the flamethrower. But the monster looks like his friends, who no longer remember who they used to be. In order to be the movie’s capable good soldier that kills the enemy to save the home team, he also has to no longer deserve to be.
Some claimed during the film’s first round of critical reception that the characters in The Thing are undeveloped in a film that leans on its special effects. They did not understand John Carpenter’s ingenious schematic for this remake. The Thing from Another World (1951) was a talky Howard Hawks affair disguised as B-movie sci-fi (Hawks had a way of making any genre seem like a Hawks film). The hero was a capable American army man and the villain was both an invading foreigner and a cold man of science. There’s no way Carpenter could have pitted existence against non-existence in the context of so much well-meaning fluff. An element of character growth, or romance, or national allegiance would have made his plea for desolate individuality murky with politics or positivity. He needed these characters to be one note so that he could conduct them to that terrifying end result: two men dying in the snow, their last thoughts of fearful paranoia that the other man is a thing.
Carpenter composes soundtracks like this as well, with minimal harmonies, often reduced to a theme of a few notes. For The Thing he gets Ennio Morricone to pretend to be Carpenter. Morricone’s that Mozart of minimalism that made The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly simmer with guilt and suspicion and epic fear where the images alone might never have achieved so much (watch the final duel on mute). For The Thing, Morricone manages to turn wet bones and clammy stone hallways into music. The high strings and low synth create uneasy dread as well as accompany it; The Thing sounds operatically tragic at all times, full of thunder and cold. It’s one of the best soundtracks in all the movies, perhaps precisely because no one ever mentions it. It’s so innately effective that it becomes part of the film – if The Thing is one of the best horror films, Morricone’s work (and Carpenter’s – his musical tweaking is unmistakable) must also be one of the best.
Of course, there could be no mention of great work in The Thing without Rob Bottin’s creature effects, that part of the movie that was so defining and memorable that critics lamented that it was all they could pay attention to. Bottin uses life to demoralize life. His creations reek and ooze; they are covered in teeth and hair and spider’s legs and baby’s feet and blinking eyes and warty genitals. They are amalgamations of living, indecipherably loathsome. The fear of these real, wet things writhing on the set represents the height of the fantasy of which all monster films are a part. A tiny sigh happens in my mind every time I look forward to another film like this, knowing that a digital thing cannot approach these real ones (read about the executive decision to remove the practical effects from 2011’s The Thing if you want a true tragedy of ignorance, though one that appears regularly in the industry every year).
There are limitations of the practical, however. Bottin’s effects sometimes imitate life while only imitating being truly alive: they have a sculptural aspect, less like real creatures than moving art. The final form of the Thing particularly is massive and impractical. In contrast to the subtle behavior of even a drop of its virulent blood, the full monster stands rooted to the floor, roaring, waiting to be blown up. The reason this confrontation disappoints is that the tiniest scene before it bristles with excited terror. The blood test scene is mortifyingly dramatic, a slow boil to unexpected danger. The dog kennel is ironically perhaps the film’s most potent showcase, defacing an innocent dog with monstrous imagery pushed to the fullest effect that movie magic can provide, or permit (it’s ironic because it was the only effects scene not directed by Bottin, who was exhausted to the point of hospitalization by the rest of the film and asked Stan Winston to step in for the remainder). Tiny moments bring The Thing to a quiet unease that explosions can’t justify.
Blair’s (Wilford Brimley) tragic fatalism traps the men in the arctic when he destroys all their equipment; another way to say it is that his madness saves the world. He recalls Captain Quint from Jaws, blushing with a furious but metered terror of the monster, wildly destroying all hope of communication or escape to the outside world. Of course, his madness is justified: Carpenter’s film remains scary to this day because its paranoia is flawless. MacReady orders them to go everywhere in pairs, and like normal horror movie fodder they always end up alone. But in The Thing, this trope is purposeful: they no longer trust that anyone is who they appear to be. Their paranoia drives them apart consciously, and victimizes them not because the film needs to get going but because of their own suspicious natures. The only belief they have left is in their own humanness, but is even that certain in the end? Do we know that MacReady is still human? Perhaps he proves his humanity simply by choosing not to live, something the Thing could never do.
Carpenter has made the suicide question into an inevitability. He confronts the horror of all the absurd things in the universe and concludes that they make life impossible. The universe crushes the men in The Thing; the weight of all things overwhelms them. Only their divided, singular, irrational desire for individuality prolongs their existence, for a momentary struggle of fear and suspicion that could be a whole life long and it wouldn’t be any different. Some have called The Thing the best horror film ever made. Well, how could it not be? Name one that can’t be included in the schematic of Carpenter’s grand terror of being. Other horror movies hope The Thing isn’t under their bed. By morning, they wouldn’t even remember who they used to be.
Image is a screenshot from the film.