Title: The Thing
Year of Release: 1982
Director: John Carpenter
Length: 109 mins
Starring: Kurt Russell, T.K. Carter, A. Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Joel Polis,
This is the third entry in this series featuring the work of John Carpenter, following The Fog and Christine, and I haven’t even got to the most obvious one yet. I remember having this particular movie on VHS as a teenager. I’d recorded it off the TV, so my copy was without the swears and a fair bit of gore had been subtly edited out. I thought it was brilliant then, but with all the swears and gore included, it’s ten times better. Coming immediately after his career-defining turn as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (yet another Carpenter film), this is undoubtedly a Kurt Russell vehicle. He was involved in the production from the very early stages in helping Carpenter develop his ideas, though strangely he was the last to be officially cast. It’s pretty difficult to imagine anyone else playing MacReady, but early discussions reportedly evolved around using Christopher Walken, Nick Nolte or even Jeff Bridges as the lead.
In the frozen wastes of Antarctica, a Norwegian helicopter is shown chasing a sled dog, which runs into an American scientific research station. The helicopter lands, and is accidentally blown up by the passenger (doh!). The surviving pilot, in between stamping his feet and shooting at the poor dog, is yelling something in Norwegian, but the Americans can’t understand him, see him as a threat, and shoot him dead. ‘Murica! So then, the investigation begins. A delegation is sent to the Norwegian base, which is found to be deserted, though evidence suggests they may have found something buried in the ice. Meanwhile, the surviving sled dog is left to mingle in the kennels with the other dogs. However, it soon transforms into a gore-tastic alien creature, and is eventually killed by Childs (David) with a flame thrower. Data recovered at the Norwegian camp leads the team to a remote excavation site containing a massive partially-buried flying saucer. Now things start swimming into focus. However, it might already be too late. The team medic Blair (Brimley) autopsies the incinerated creature, and the group finally realize that they are dealing with a shapeshifting alien entity capable of assimilating not just into a sled dog, but into any of them, too. This knowledge sends Blair round the twist, and he sabotages all the vehicles to stop ‘The Thing’ escaping and locks himself in a shed in a huff. Coming to the conclusion that nobody will be safe until they categorically know they are all human, the group try to devise a test, but obviously the alien doesn’t want to be found and takes evasive action. In the end, there are just MacReady (Russell) and Childs left, and as the camp burns around them it becomes abundantly clear that one way or another, their days are severely numbered.
First, let’s talk about that ending, which has been the source of much discussion over the years, in a little more depth. It was left deliberately ambiguous, leaving the viewer to pretty much draw their own conclusions as to which one The Thing actually is; MacReady or Childs (or both, or neither). My own feeling is that Childs was looking decidedly sheepish at the end there. Carpenter actually filmed two alternative endings, one showing The Thing transform into a dog (again) and running off into the snowy wastelands, presumably to be picked up at another arctic research facility, and the other depicting MacReady being rescued and given a blood test, which he passes. Told you I was right about Childs.
In essence, the movie explores themes of paranoia and mistrust, and examines what could happen when people’s belief systems are compromised. Several critics have since suggested that it is also influenced by a latent fear of homosexuality which, in the early Eighties, was still something to be afraid of. It is indeed interesting to note that there are no women in the film, and an awful lot of phallic tentacles. The screenplay was based on the story Who Goes There by John W Campbell, Jr (writing under the pseudonym Don. A Stuart) which was first published the August 1938 edition of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. It was actually adapted once before, for the 1951 classic The Thing from Another World, but the John Carpenter version is much more faithful to the source material. Pointedly, Carpenter and his team originally wanted to film in black and white to further replicate the 1951 version but were discouraged from doing so by Universal who feared for the commercial repercussions of such a bold move.
Amazingly, upon release The Thing was ravaged by critics and, compared to Carpenter’s other films, became a relative failure, barely managing to recoup its $15 million budget. Carpenter later said: “I take failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit… the movie was hated.” He reputedly lost out on directing the 1984 adaptation of Stephen King’s Firestarter due to its poor performance. Which could have been, in part, a reaction to the feelgood success of ET, which showed alien visitation in a completely different, altogether more encouraging, light. However, in the years since, The Thing has become the archetypal cult hit. It is often cited among one of the best sci-fi/horror films ever produced, and now regularly receives the kudos and plaudits it so richly deserves. Despite being almost 40 years old, it still holds up well and spawned a decent prequel in 2011.
The infamous ‘chest chomp’ scene, The Thing’s equivalent to the ‘chest buster’ sequence in Alien, where Dr. Cooper tries to revive Norris with a defibrillator following a suspected heart attack, were filmed using a double amputee fitted with prosthetic arms which are then ripped off.