For much of my life, I had no real urge to see John Carpenter’s The Thing. Just the name of the film seemed blasé. I mean, how scary could a so-called “thing” be in a supernatural realm of ghosts, vampires, and demons? However, my interest piqued, both as I got older and as I started thinking more broadly about the horror genre. I began to wonder: Okay, so what exactly is “the thing,” and what can it do compared to other dangerous entities? After all, I’d seen Halloween, so I knew John Carpenter was more than capable of making a compelling horror film. (And, well, I love Lauryn Hill’s 90’s hit, “That Thing.” That has to matter, right?) A few nights ago, then, with those thoughts in mind, I grabbed The Thing off the rack at our local Family Video (yes, Michael and I still support brick and mortar video lenders) and the two of us settled down for what turned out to be a lengthy, in-depth study of partly-explained infestation and unchecked paranoia.
My take on the film? It had a drawn out beginning and end, but a thick middle full of unexpected events and intensity. The film begins with a helicopter continuously circling an American camp in Antarctica, before a supposed “crazy” man emerges (he seems more than a little amped up), tries to harm the Americans, and blows himself up, along with his helicopter. He’s from the Norwegian camp, and upon a visit to the Norwegian camp, the Americans find out that the Norwegians have faced something calamitous: the camp is a charred skeleton of its former self with no survivors (except for literal charred skeletons).
The first “outbreak” that we see occurs in a sort of kennel in the American camp. “The thing” emerges from one of the dogs that it’s secretly infested and taken the form of and begins to attack the other dogs, slowly mutating to adopt the appearance of the organisms it killed. And here we must sing: U-G-L-Y, the thing ain’t got no alibi, it’s ugly, yeah-yeah, it’s ugly. Really – whomever created the appearance of “the thing,” conceived of a really ghastly, grotesque entity. How ugly the thing is – especially as it’s consuming its victims and mutating into another form – is one of my favorite things about the film. And frankly, I don’t think the film could be re-done today, because they’d try to CGI the thing, and the results would be disappointing if not catastrophic. Watching this burnt crimson, gnarled, transmuting mass is undoubtedly the best part of a film that isn’t necessarily scary but is nonetheless intelligent and jarring.
After the burly, seemingly tough scientists immolate the mutating blob, one man, Blair, locks himself in a room with a truly early 1980’s computer. He’s looking for statistics. This is what he finds: Chances that one or more men in the compound are infested – 75%. Time for the contagion to overtake the world’s population once it leaves Antarctica and sets foot on more populated land: 27,000 hours (which translates to 1,125 days, or slightly over three years, if my mathematical abilities are still in tact, i.e., if I’m still capable of correctly using a google calculator). This is probably my favorite part of the movie because the scene is incredibly foreboding and illuminates the seemingly unstoppable power of the thing. It’s also when Blair loses his mind – a scene which is the film’s first attempt to assess human behavior under the gravest and most secluded circumstances.
And the film does depict man’s insanity well. I can say “man” –instead of humanity—because one element this film does not contain is a female presence. Apparently, we women are delicate flowers who can’t withstand the arctic storm. That, or our calm, balanced reasoning capabilities would have provided too much rationality in a film full of calculating, scared, largely irrational men. Michael noted that the film might have been scarier if a bunch of no-fear, “manly men” hadn’t been at its center, but I would slightly invert that observation: while they may express their fears in paranoia and violence, these men are indubitably scared, and if these male arctic pioneers, these until-now unshakable tough guys are scared, we should be, too, in a way that could amplify the film’s fright factor. (Not that I’m justifying omitting women from this film. I think it could have benefited from one clear-sighted but ass-kicking female).
We are, as a culture, obsessed with the prospect of a world-ending plague. While this fad seems fairly recent vis a vis zombie apocalypse scenarios, it emerges saliently in 1982 in Carpenter’s The Thing. And what is life like when we get threatened? Well, apparently, it’s pretty bleak. There are multiple Walking Dead posts on this blog that all point toward one commonality: they observe that when the world’s ending and people have to fight to survive, most people become assholes. Human behavior in The Thing is not much different; as soon as the men realize that one of their crew may secretly be “the thing,” it becomes a chaotic blame game, a frenetic semi-war of all against all. For my part, I hope I don’t live to see an apocalyptic plague. I’d be less afraid of the virus, I think, and more afraid of my fellow human beings. As for my closing remarks on the film: the end was a bit drawn out, but it’s undeniably a classic, worth watching and adding to your pantheon of horror knowledge.