Happy 30th birthday to The Thing. The film opened on June 27, 1982 in the U.S.
I love this poster. The creature oozing out the crack almost has two eyes looking at us... almost. That is one of the joys of The Thing, the creature is an abstract of horror. It creates imitations of life forms but the original is lost and unknown.
For me, John Carpenter's The Thing ranks up there in the small pantheon of films that are perfect. I would not change a single frame of the film. The film did disappointing numbers at the box office when it was released. The chameleon powers and terrifying strength of The Thing was no match for the glowing finger of Steven Spielberg's puketastically lame E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, which opened a couple of weeks earlier. Ugh. Ridley Scott's Blade Runner also opened on the same day as The Thing.
Most say that the film developed a "cult" following on VHS and DVD, but I think this is ridiculous. The film is a major success. There is no "cult." If you like horror films, chances are you will like this film. If you do not like horror films, you've probably never seen it. "Cult film" status is an insult in this case.
The story is based on the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. which was first published in the pulp, Astounding Science-Fiction in August, 1938. The film's scripts is also, sometimes compared to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (originally titled Ten Little Niggers and then Ten Little Indians. Damn, these publishers knew how to offend).
In the film, a team of scientists stationed in a remote base in Antarctica discovers an alien frozen in ice. The alien wakes up. The team discovers that the alien can replicate other living creatures early on. They go after the creature. Where is the creature? Who is the creature? Can you spot the creature? The men are picked off one-by-one. Sure it's a cliche now, but in 1982 it was freshly horrifying. It is the one-by-one nature of the creature's attacks that Carpenter borrowed from Christie's, And Then There Were None.
Kurt Russell plays MacReady in the film. I love the description of McReady in the novella. Super duper pulpy.
McReady was a figure from some forgotten myth, a looming, bronze statue that held life, and walked. Six-feet-four inches he stood as he halted beside the table, and, with a characteristic glance upward to assure himself of room under the low ceiling beams, straightened. His rough, clashingly orange windproof jacket he still had on, yet with his huge frame it did not seem misplaced. Even here, four feet beneath the drift-wind that droned across the Antarctic waste above the ceiling, the cold of the frozen continent leaked in, and gave meaning to the harshness of the man. And he was bronze- his great red-bronze beard, the heavy hair that matched it. The gnarled, corded hands gripping, relaxing, gripping and relaxing on the table planks were bronze. Even the deep-sunken eyes beneath heavy brows were bronzed.Subtlety of character did not exist so much in 1938 pulps. Compare that glistening portrait to screenwriter Bill Lancaster's description for the 1982 film.
Thirty-five. Helicopter pilot. Likes chess. Hates the cold. The pay is good.HA! Carpenter and actor, Kurt Russell did work out a filecard for the character's background, but the difference here is pretty sharp.
The other characters are a perfect mix of conflict. Blue collars clash with white collars. Old men and young men, introverts and extraverts, all sharing the same small space for months on end. None of the characters are particularly happy but the way they move and talk around each other is realistic and individual. They have become unlikely brothers. This is complicated, but we get it. They care what happens to each other. They're not going to hug and cry and talk about feelings, but they are a brotherhood, a basic all-male sub-group, core to male primate instincts.
MacReady is more a testy, loner than a bronze superman. The only shot in the film that bugs me, and when I say "bugs" I mean that it is in an ant crawling on a fence across the yard from me, is when MacReady suffers a loss against an electronic Chess Wizard game, he destroys the game. I get tired of people in the film world acting rash like that. Close the door; don't throw the money in the air, you're losing some of it; don't just throw that across the room and leave, pick it up. Drives me crazy. I asked my friend and The Thing expert, Matt Widener to write a little something regarding the film's score. See below, for his analysis, but Matt couldn't contain himself. Here are his thoughts on the chess scene, "The survival against the Thing becomes one big chess match of logic and strategy, Mac against the Thing. But Mac doesn't play by the rules. He's willing to destroy the game itself, breaking the chess computer. And later, burning down the camp (the board). This is important, this is why he wins. That scene where he breaks his chess computer is one of my favorites."
The voice of the destroyed chess game was the only female in the film. This was a fantastic choice. Hollywood horror films have a way of tacking on female characters as something pretty to look at, but have the ultimate duty of dying gloriously; especially horror films in the early 1980s. Carpenter did away with this tripe by shooting an all-male horror film. Carpenter said, "The original story did not have any women, and we just went back to that, thinking it was more realistic. It was more like a Peckinpah choice—you don't throw love interest into The Wild Bunch, so we figured we were going to keep pure in this case."
This gives the film an authentic, dirty smell. While also mixing up the standard horror film themes into something fresh. Gone are the bad girls, doing drugs, having wanton sex, and dying at the hands of a male-force, who is then brought down by an honorable female. This varied group of unhappy men find someThing out of their control and, through no fault of their own, are murdered by said Thing. Who the men are, how they die, what is The Thing, can it be destroyed?
How The Thing kills is a big part of the delicious fun of the film. Carpenter rides the line between goofy and horrible deftly. Describe one of the death scenes to someone who has not seen the movie. An upside down spider head with alien antennae. A flower of tongues. An open chest cavity with fangs. These effects sound ridiculous. But watch the film and they are the ingredients for a lifetime of nightmares.
We never see or learn what the Thing is. We only know what it does and can only see its horrible mockery of flesh as it attempts to copy and assimilate us. The practical, real world, latex and Karo syrup nightmares don't need to be programmed with the laws of physics. They are there with the actors, they can exist. They do exist. I can think of no other film which rivals the imaginative, visceral, technical, gore effects of The Thing.
The Thing itself is also a creative and tactically sound antagonist. Just as we never see the Thing's original body, we are mostly in the dark regarding its replication abilities. Mostly. What the Thing does show us is what a crafty bastard it can be. It destroys the blood supply for the base, effectively separates the group, and even feigns a heart attack in order to situate an attack. This is not some mindless parasite, this Thing's got plans.
Dean Cundey was the director of photography on the film. He had worked with John Carpenter on three films and the two rose to prominence together with the success of Halloween. The story I have heard from people close to Mr. Cundey is that he was a make-up artist for years and then decided to switch gears and bought some of his own equipment and started shooting small projects. He eventually had enough equipment to fill up a van. He was hired for Halloween partly because he had a decent reel, but more because he had his movie van filled with gear. In 2001 I worked on a film called Lloyd the Ugly Kid and I got to drive Dean Cundey's movie van. A real thrill.
Cundey's work on The Thing is top rate. The first act of the film is shot like a real mystery, but when The Thing hits the fan, the lighting reveals more. The monster is not hidden in shadows or creeping in the unusually framed shot behind the actors. The blackness of night is replaced with cool blue. There is nothing hiding there. The lighting is basic (I hate using that word) and creates a normal environment, everything is fine, then something completely xeno and unreal happens before our eyes. This is the shock and horror of The Thing. The world is normal, Cundey and Carpenter let the abnormal events blow our minds. A wonderful choice.
Cundey also uses the cold to great effect. The actors' breath and physical reactions to the freezing weather act as a filter, always reminding us that the characters are trapped. Isolation creates horror. Beyond these thin walls is white, icy death. Every frozen breath is evidence of the failure of the walls to keep these guys safe.
In a strange move, Carpenter stepped aside for the scoring of The Thing's soundtrack. He had created some of the most iconic horror soundtrack music in film history, but handed the staff paper to Ennio Morricone. Morricone hit the ball out of the symphony hall. The music is truly haunting and like the film, perfect. My friend, Matt Widener, loves the hell out of this soundtrack more than anyone I know. He says:
"John Carpenter was a huge fan of Ennio Morricone. Not only was Morricone a gifted composer, but he was into experimentation, using electronic sources, strange vocals and instruments, whips, that sort of thing. Carpenter wanted a more European orchestral score, something cold and minimal to match the landscape of the film. Morricone said in his score for The Thing that he wanted to deny resolution, to create an entirely restless movement without purpose. After he submitted the music, which was mostly orchestral and shied away from rhythm, Carpenter asked for something electronic and rhythmic he could use in key moments of the film, something propulsive and menacing. Morricone then composed some electronic cues, one of them a synth theme—the electronic pulse heard near the beginning of the film during the wolf hunt, and many times thereafter.
The theme (titled “Humanity, Part II”) starts with a single synth heartbeat, but soon after a second beat—with slightly different, hollow timbre—slips out from behind the main pulse almost like an arrhythmia. It takes on a different pattern, as a fetus does in sonogram against a mother’s. It’s hypnotic and subversive, and it musically models the changing, hidden Thing. A synth pad develops over this, a C - C# two-note hook (root and minor second) whose interval features in several other tracks, most notably “Humanity, Part I.” This is the other major cue Morricone wrote, which Carpenter freely cut up and inserted into different scenes (MacReady and Copper flying out to the Norwegian base is the first appearance). Carpenter considered this the frail and desperate human reaction to the Thing. The G - G# string melody expands throughout the woodwinds, piano and harp plucking a delicate ascending ostinato of half steps. Again, this minor second interval figures in other tracks, like “Wait,” and “Solitude.”
Morricone was versed in modernist classical techniques, the post-war type that had been slowly filtering into film scores in the previous decade, along with all the New Viennese 12-tone theory that had revolutionized modern classical. (The pointillist pizzicato we know from composers like Penderecki and Crumb and Xenakis is in “Contamination” during the showdown against the final creature.) So he came to the score with an emphasis on harmonic content and texture, a shifting, nearly dodecophonic smear of burbling chords—woodwinds and muted brass belying tonality beneath strings screeching in higher, more tense regions. We sometimes get angular melodic lines, something to hum, but always there is atonal counterpoint clouding any center or expectation. This was the “purposeless movement” he was after, and what I think makes the score for The Thing so effective. There’s no percussion. Percussion would give semblance of accomplishment or at least direction, and in The Thing there’s only futility.
But it wasn’t quite enough for Carpenter. He hired his friend, who worked with him on Escape From New York, to compose some electronic cues, mostly drones and stingers. That’s the horrible sound you hear when the shadow passes in front of Fuchs (the sound haunted me as a kid). When they go out to MacReady’s shack, when they burn Bennings, in the title sequence, there are organ-like layered electronic drones, almost La Monte Young-ian. Much (too much) has been made of some comments that Morricone made, about being hired and told to compose in the style of Carpenter, then being replaced with Carpenter’s actual music. I can see how it would be insulting. But at the end of the day, they’re in the business of collaboration. Those droning electronic tracks are the glue of the movie, and I think Carpenter’s intuition was spot on for including them.
It’s funny, I’ve listened to the soundtrack so much over the years, I forget that not all the tracks feature in the film. Morricone didn’t write to the actual scenes, as other composers do; instead he watched the film and used the inspiration to later write pieces that the director would then assign and edit. He composed without stricture to timestamp. In a way it's a higher art, similar to hearing Bartok and Ligeti and Penderecki in Kubrick's films. And he ended up composing way too much music for The Thing, which isn’t a bad thing at all. But not every track on the album is in the movie. And none of Carpenter’s music is on the album. You have to actively listen to the film, and somehow ignore the iconic dialogue, and remember to breathe during the suspenseful scenes, and after juggling all that, you end up forgetting to analyze the music and have to rewind. Which also isn't a bad thing.
Ultimately, it was both of them, Morricone and Carpenter, that made the music so successful. The soundtrack is their misshapen little baby, born of strange duality. One man brought training and sophistication, the other intuitively knew what worked in his horror medium (and had the courage to tamper with his hero’s art). And somehow the orchestral textures fit neatly alongside the electronic elements—but maybe that’s because the film is science fiction and also horror, it’s about assimilation and nonsensical combinations. There seems to be room in it for different styles, for two composers."
Thanks to Matt for that wonderful analysis of the score.
The ending of the film upset many fans at the time. There is no heroic 80s action ending. Like Carpenter's Halloween, The Thing ends with uncertainty. The whole film ramps up the paranoia and fear and then just when we break out the pom poms for a victory cheer, that damn music kicks in and we know. We just know, that we don't know. Carpenter said, "There was a great deal of pressure not to end the movie the way it ended. We tried a cut where MacReady blows up the creature and then just basically sits down by himself, and it didn't make a difference, the audience didn't care, so we went ahead and left my ending intact."
I first saw the film at a birthday party in 1983. A bunch of sugar-fueled boys and annoying older sisters, that we all secretly wanted to kiss. My friend's dad was a Viet Nam vet and showed us his bullet scars. A wet dog ran through the room at some point. Not such a great environment to foster fear. The film has a chaotic spirit that feeds paranoia. I hate chaos and the film just soaks you in it. The gore in the film is sublime. I didn't know Rob Bottin's name at the time but grew to be a big fan of his work.
If you have not seen the film, you should feel ashamed and embarrassed. This is horror at its finest. The film is endlessly re-watchable. Like I said at the beginning of the post, The Thing is a perfect film.
"Man is the warmest place to hide." Here is a beautifully clean copy of the trailer.
Here is a fantastic intro to the film by John Carpenter. This was filmed for a 70mm showing of the film.
(Poster courtesy of Wrong Side of the Art. Stills from Beautiful Stills from Beautiful Films, an awesome site. I also learned about the incredible work, fans of the film are doing over on Outpost #31. I didn't get to look at the site before working on this post, unfortunately.)