THE THING (1982)
There was a time when John Carpenter was considered to be one of the most promising directors in Hollywood. Cutting his teeth in the 1960’s with some b-movie pulp, Revenge of the Colossal Beasts (1962) and Warrior and the Demon (1969), Carpenter built the tools that would lead to his later success. Starting his mainstream directorial career with the cult classics Dark Star (1970) and Assault On Precinct 13 (1976), the director quickly earned a reputation as a man willing to take a risk with what he presented on screen. He also became known as a director of many talents, often contributing to many areas of production from set design and scriptwriting, to putting his musical talents to use on a picture’s score.
The successful one-two punch of Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980) was followed by yet another picture destined for cult-classic status, Escape From New York (1981). Despite Carpenter pushing into mainstream cinema, his pictures still retained the sort underground look and feel that was missing from most conventional cinema releases.
After Escape From New York Carpenter took on the tricky task of remaking a film that had already cemented its reputation as a slice of essential cult viewing many years ago, The Thing From Another World (1951). Produced in the golden age of b-movie horror, it was a screen version of a renowned story by writer John W. Campbell Jr entitled Who Goes There?. The limited special-effects of the time prevented The Thing From Another World from presenting the complex imitation effects described in Campbell’s tale. Whilst the film was still a tense watch the choice of ‘man-in-suit’ villain failed to accurately represent the titular ‘Thing’ in a memorable way. It also meant that the plot element of second guessing your friends and your enemies was largely absent.
Director Tobe Hooper was one of a few names that took a stab at writing a screenplay for the picture before final writing duties fell to Bill Lancaster. A completed script in place the notion of filming it appealed greatly to John Carpenter. Taking just as many pointers from Campbell’s story as from the original 1951 movie, Lancaster and Carpenter were keen for this tale to be all about the tension, suspicion, and the claustrophobia of an Antarctica setting. As it turned out The Thing, as the film was titled, gained as much notoriety for another of its less subtle aspects as it did for its terrific atmosphere.
Seeking to unsettle the audience from the very outset Carpenter opened the movie with a bizarre chase scene; a husky dog is chased across a snow field by two armed men in a helicopter. The dog makes it to a nearby science station where the helicopter crashes. One of the survivors pursues the husky, oblivious to the bewildered occupants of the station. After a brief stand-off the helicopter pilot is shot dead, and the viewer is left wondering what in the world could have brought these men to hunt this dog so feverishly. The twelve men of United States National Science Institute Station 4 are equally baffled. What makes the opening particularly special, along with the fact that it wastes no time in throwing the audience head long into the story, is the reversal of connotation once we realise why these two men wanted to kill that husky so badly.
What quickly follows is a master class on the horror within. Carpenter wisely chose not to interrupt the flow of tension with needless character exposition. The relationships of the twelve men effectively stranded in their science station are expertly woven into the growing mesh of paranoia. Small snippets of story efficiently tell us all we need to know; Garry the somewhat ineffective leader of the group as shown by his gunning down of the last Norwegian pilot, Clark the loner seemingly more concerned with his husky dogs than his workmates, Macready a man who would really rather be elsewhere taking solace in the only ‘female’ in the camp, the computerised chess machine. These glimpses into the minds of our potential heroes, and potential villains, provides useful information when it comes time to start second guessing whether the people on screen really are who they say they are.
But from the moment that dog arrives in the first minutes of the movie we as an audience are never sure exactly who to root for or against, ‘If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know it was really me?’. There is little if any representation of an existential viewpoint to help us untangle the mystery. Aside from a few sinister long shots down the Station’s empty corridors Carpenter ensures that we remain solely with the men involved, caught up in their calamity, just as confused and just as wary.
There have been films both before and after The Thing that have attempted to manipulate the audience in such a way, leaving the viewer as in the dark as the characters on screen, but The Thing is without a doubt the champion of such fear. Just thirty-three years old at the time of shooting Carpenter steers the audience with the expertise of a movie making veteran. You never feel safe from the moment the film starts, through to the first appearance of the beast, ‘I dunno what the hell’s in there but it’s weird and pissed off’, to the sticky dissection scene early on in the picture, to the fever pitch blood test scene, and through to the explosive finale. The pressure is ever mounting, and with the true nature of the ‘Thing’ revealed the stakes couldn’t be higher, ‘If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then…’
Correctly guessing how the film will play out on first viewing is impossible and from this air-tight premise springs an absolute gold mine of frights. There is no flaw in the principle of the ‘Thing’ being able to imitate any create; the beast could be hiding as anyone. Coupled with the smoke screen of dubious happenings off screen as the ‘Thing’ goes about its business, we are left just as blind and panicky as the men of Science Station 4. And just when you think you have things figured out, the goal posts are moved again.
In retrospect, many of you will be expecting Kurt Russell in the Macready role to be the lead hero, being the most well known actor on screen. But Carpenter wisely slips more than enough evidence to the contrary into the proceedings, from Macready’s jacket left out in the snow, to his propensity to disappear at key moments. Russell has also some superb sparring partners on the way and each of the twelve men is played to perfection by such seasoned actors as TK Carter, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Richard Dysart and Charles Hallahan. With the sets limited to relatively similar science station locales, at its best the movie flows not unlike a stage play, the men caught up in the nightmare very much at the centre of the action. For that reason it stands as the best ensemble horror movie ever made.
Despite still only in his early thirties, Carpenter was an experienced filmmaker by 1982 and he knew that it would take more than just a cunning plot and a strong group of actors to reel an audience in. The setting for the story was ideal, a snow stacked research facility in the middle of nowhere; but a director could have still made the mistake of filming the picture in a loud, brash way. With the help of his reliable director of photography Dean Cundy, Carpenter managed to avoid this trap. The set for the Station itself was constructed in the summer time near Stewart, British Columbia, long before the heavy winter snow was to settle. The set was then left until well into the winter season by which time the snow and ice had really taken hold, giving the science station an unbelievable look of authenticity. Carpenter knew he could let the setting speak for itself.
Filming was a hard task due to the adverse weather conditions but Carpenter used this to his advantage, making sure to capture the heavy snow in many of the scenes, adding yet another layer of claustrophobic unease. The set in place and looking astonishing, the director then proceeded to capture what must surely be some of the most startling visuals ever seen in the horror genre. In tune with the high emotions in the Station, Carpenter was sure to light the sets in such a way that one can sense the mood just by looking at the screen, no dialogue or exposition needed. See the wonderful exterior shots as Nauls, Macready and Garry head back to Blair’s shack by the light of a flare, or the deathly orange glow of the ‘Thing’ taking a fire walk after the blood test. For those scenes that would be devoid of natural lighting, Carpenter often used a more subtle light effect, creepy blues and auburns. The mood created from this technique was immense and no doubt future experts of the style, such as Michael Mann and David Fincher, were taking notes.
Carpenter also had the problem of dealing with not one but twelve lead roles. Such is the layout of the story no one part really takes centre stage, and at times there were at least eight different actors participating in what were very tight scenes. The opportunity to create a blurred mess of hastily delivered lines and camera angles was great, but once again Carpenter handled every one of the ensemble scenes in stunning fashion. Layered on top of this was wonderfully understated score from the legendary Ennio Morricone, and some of the best matte work ever carried out by Albert Whitlock. There was just one element left for Carpenter to achieve what could very well be a perfect movie.
For the creature itself Carpenter was adamant that he present something that had not been seen before. The director believed that there had never been a cinematic alien being that was truly extra-terrestrial in looks before, stating that even the beast in Alien (1979) was still just a guy dressed in a monster suit. To assist him in creating this otherworldly animal he recruited a young Rob Botin. Fresh off the success of his ground-breaking effects work in The Howling (1980) Botin was eager to impress Carpenter with his talents. Joining forces with another effects wizard, Roy Arbogast, the pair set about creating the various incarnations of the ‘Thing’. They overachieved and then some.
Such was the utter disbelief with which their effects shots were met by audiences at the time, the moments of visual horror overshadowed what was meant to be a study of man’s inability to cope with extreme paranoia. It is only with time that audiences began to look beyond the visual brilliance of The Thing’s outrageous moments of body-horror.
But what moments. From the early scene of the husky dog sprouting into an amalgamation of previous alien life forms, to the incredible shot of the most painfully administered CCG in history (which saw an additional actor who had lost both arms in an industrial accident brought in to double as the now arm-less Dr. Copper), and the blackly comic sight of Norris’ severed head sprouting legs, ‘You gotta be fucking kidding me’, it is an absolute feast for the eyes. Carpenter’s original aim of creating something never before witnessed was fully accomplished and then some. Has there ever been a more wild and audacious scene as the ‘Thing’s’ reveal at the end of the blood test scene? A long time before CGI, every shot had to be made from scratch and look as real as possible. The work was not without its toll; Botin, who had worked for over a year without a days rest, had to eventually call in the help of effects maestro Stan Winston. The effort was more than worth it though; The Thing is the pinnacle of practical effects work in movies, a title it will likely never use now computer generated effects are the preferred option for Hollywood.
Despite the film’s technical brilliance and chilling story The Thing fared poorly at the box office. Scheduling its release two weeks after ET: The Extra Terrestrial (1982) came out did not help. No one wanted to see a head munching, homicidal visitor from out of space after seeing the cutesy schmaltz of Spielberg’s offering. Time has been kind to The Thing though, and it is now seen as masterpiece of science fiction cinema. The aforementioned story of paranoia amongst men is central to the winning formula, and the set pieces that spark off of the premise are wonderfully imaginative and seamlessly included in the story arc. You may have already noticed the references to the blood test scene, a scene which Carpenter states was the real motivation behind his wanting to make the picture. Rival that with the eerie discovery of the Norwegian and alien space craft, or the marvellous final scene ‘Why don’t we just wait here for a little while…see what happens’, and it is difficult to pin point one moment that outshines the film’s overall brilliance. Even the smaller moments that pass by hold minute flashes of genius; see the bone chilling moment when Blair calculates how long it will take for the alien creature to decimate the entire planet ‘27,000 hours until world assimilation’.
Twenty eight years on and Hollywood finally grasped the terrifying genius of Carpenter’s remake, Universal commissioning a prequel. The movie followed the Norwegian scientists we meet at the start of Carpenter’s picture chasing a dog into the American research station. Somewhat confusingly titled The Thing (2011), Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. was given the tough job of directing the picture, just his second time in the director’s chair. Together with Eric Heisserer on script writing, the pair delivered movie which surprised many. Though the CGI effects couldn’t weren’t anywhere near as impressive as the effects spectaculars achieved in 1982, the story was as gripping as it could be for a film where the ending was a foregone conclusion. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton led the cast, and the plot didn’t take the obvious route to its helicopter dog chase finale. The curse of The Thing continued though; just as Carpenter’s film only took $19million from a $15million budget, so Heijningen’s movie only managed to claw back $31million of its $38million budget.
In looking at the work of John Carpenter, and in particular his efforts in the field of horror, many consider Halloween (1978) to be his finest film, but compared to the brilliance of this science fiction masterpiece one could argue that the efforts of Michael Myers are tame in comparison. There are so many elements to The Thing that qualify it as one of the truly great horror films; you can remove any ingredient and hold it up to anything that has gone before or followed it, from the scripting and acting, to the effects work, sound work, or the photography, each is an example of cinema at its best.
In discussing the film retrospectively, many of those involved in making it, both in front of and behind the camera, speak fondly of their memories of shooting the picture. Strange considering the dark subject matter and the harsh shooting conditions, the love and enthusiasm for The Thing clearly flowed onto screen. Every member of the crew was adamant that they would make this tale of twelve men in full survival mode the best picture they could. There are really thirteen people if truth be told, thirteen sets of suspicious eyes darting around Station 4, shooting wary glances from man to man. The thirteenth pair of eyes are yours, The Thing expertly capturing that claustrophobic feeling of actually ‘being there’. Whether you are brave enough to place yourself with The Thing for a hundred and four minutes of icy cold terror is another matter entirely.
See also The Thing From Another World (1951), The Thing (2011)