(Dir. John Carpenter, 1982)
Movie In Four Words
Trust no-one but yourself.
This has always felt like a tough film for me to get my head around as on the one hand it deals with huge issues and asks some very important questions in an intelligent way. On the other hand, it’s incredibly straight forward and I appreciate its capacity to feel both wildly complex and utterly simplistic. It also always feels much longer than it’s 1hr 49 minutes running time something I’d normally site as a negative. However, in this case it’s a testimony to what a fine job the film does of conveying the isolation and the paranoia until you are just willing it to stop. There’s an extensive cast of characters to keep track of too which adds to the sense of disorientation and if I’m honest, some of them do feel expendable. Drawing from John W Campbell’s original novel: Who Goes There, Agatha Christie’s: And Then There Were None and Howard Hawks’ 1951 film adaptation: The Thing From Another World Carpenter had a wealth of resources to refer to but just like any project the Director heads up, he added that sprinkle of Carpenter pizazz.
New Thing I Learnt
I’m usually too occupied with the brilliance of Ennio Morricone’s evocative soundtrack to concentrate on much else, but I watched The Thing twice over two consecutive days for this blog so I was able to apply my attention in a way I hadn’t done before. In reference to the opening, those Norwegian’s either have terrible gun technique or that dog is the luckiest pup in the world! How many times do they aim and miss, aim and miss? Of course, I’m cheering for the wolf-dog all the way right up until the point where he paws away at George suspiciously this is.
There are shots of empty spaces throughout the base camp in the early segment of the film that felt reminiscent of the final shots of Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978). Whereas Carpenter created the feeling that Michael Myers was still looming everywhere, in The Thing he is showing us the environment that will soon cease to exist and creating a sense not of being watched but being completely alone.
It’s interesting that Mac and Doctor Copper never have a conversation about whether or not they should take their finding back to camp, they just do it without question. Given the impact this could have and their lack of knowledge about it’s origins I think this is a potential oversight. In fact, the group never talk about what’s happening or how it is affecting them instead they make frenzied decisions the best they can. The closest we get to a heartfelt conversation is when Mac speaks the chilling words: ‘nobody trusts anybody now’ into his Dictaphone which he plays back again, as though to affirm his declaration.
Old Thing I Loved
I really love the characterization of the men all of whom are affected in different ways; Childs initially dismisses the events as ‘voodoo bullshit’ whereas Blair is so emotionally struck by what he discovers whilst consulting the computer that he has to be locked away in the tool shed. The diligent and likable Fuchs confides privately in Mac his suspicions about Blair and Benning chipperly jokes that their finding will: ‘win someone the Nobel Prize’.
As viewers, we are placed in the same position as the men, we don’t know who to trust or who is infected. To begin with, Carpenter is careful to show the group interacting in a relaxed and easy manner; they smoke joints together and play pool / cards whilst knocking back a few drinks. This scene of cosy normality not only helps us relate to the characters but also gives us something to remember when events do take a turn, adding to the bleakness of the film.
Lessons to be Learnt
Beware of dogs (even though this one is so god darn handsome)
‘Five minutes is enough to put you over out here’ -Naules
‘Will you turn that crap down, I’m trying to get some sleep. I was shot today’-George
‘I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter tied to this fucking couch!’-Garry
Stand Out Performance
So committed to the role of RJ Macready was the scintillatingly good Kurt Russell that it took him a year to grow out his hair and beard for The Thing. Macready (who will henceforth be known as Mac) is a complex character and upon my viewings this time I was surprised and a little saddened to discover that on occasion he says / does things that make me pull back from him. His attitude towards the Chess Master which he calls a: ‘cheating bitch’ before destroying it with whisky has a nasty undercurrent. He also doesn’t seem to care too much for the Norwegian’s (as demonstrated by the way he ignorantly and constantly reference to them as ‘The Swedish’) unlike Doctor Copper (Richard A Dysart) who accompanies him to the site . When they arrive at the Norwegian camp keen to find out more Dr Copper asks: ‘What’s happened here?’ and prolongs their stay by insisting on taking back the documentation he finds. In contrast to his partner’s inquisitive nature and reacting (as he often does and not incorrectly) on his survival instinct, Mac is eager to leave. It’s also crucial I think, that it’s Mac who discovers the ice shell; the symbolism connected to this representing his nihilism and foreshadows his future as he literally stares into an empty void. This image of staring into nothingness is echoed again when three of the men visit the spacecraft site and when they find the missing chunk of ice where ‘The Thing’ has been.
One of Mac’s strengths however, is that he’s always quick to react, when he hears a suspicious muffling sound from the dogs he responds quickly by hitting the alarm button; quite rightly he doesn’t take any chances. When Bennings is infected the group encircle him motionless, uncertain what to do. Notably, Mac is the only one who acts declaring: ‘it’s not Bennings’ before setting him alight. It’s slightly chilling how unaffected by this Mac appears to be as Garry (who has known Bennings for 10 years) confronts him about the incident. During Blair’s outburst Mac (who has not yet officially assumed the leadership role) steps up again, naturally taking control of the chaos directing the group out of the situation-even the headstrong Childs takes orders from him.
Mac’s also not afraid to face the truth, even when it’s disturbing such as when he tells the group openly that if they wait until Spring they could all be infected. Later during another briefing, he asserts that he is human and the reason he knows that everyone is not infected is because they’re not all attacking him. While this makes perfect sense, it’s also rather self-indulgent but its the only mode Mac has left to turn to in order to survive.
Having seeded Mac as the hero of The Thing, I think Carpenter provides a good twist in showing Nauls finding his torn clothes. This occurs just a few scenes after Mac’s Dictaphone entry where he states that ‘The Thing’ rips through the clothes of whoever it infects. The group then proceed to turn on their leader, forming a resistance against Mac and it’s at this same point that we see the bearded protagonist really loose his cool as he threatens them with a bundle of dynamite. Could it be that just as the dogs were a life line for Clarke that leading the group becomes Mac’s reason to survive and once this is taken away from him, he feels he has nothing left?
Although he has shortcomings as discussed above, ultimately Mac displays a selflessness and bravery at the films conclusion as despite knowing that he’s going to die, he refuses to allow ‘The Thing’ to freeze again. In bringing the remainder of the group together into a pact, Mac leads them in a mission of burning the camp to the ground. An incredibly dramatic final act contains only a momentary offering of light relief when the underground the manifestation of ‘The Thing’ whips the dynamite out of Mac’s hands. We are left with two survivors, Mac and Childs neither of whom really know much about the other and have no choice but to resign to their fate: ‘maybe we shouldn’t make it’, Mac says and Childs does not argue back.
Scene that Stayed With Me
One of the groups most shattering moments is when they learn that the blood has been taken. The guilty party is among them and this news fractures an already weakening morale as they now favour themselves individually over the general well being of the group. In quick succession they turn on one another, throwing about blame and accusations and its deeply saddening to watch them breaking from within. They even start putting doubts in one another minds: ‘he could be one of those things’ in a frantic attempt to understand their fear and save themselves. Garry (played as sometimes honourable and at others down right terrifying by Donald Moffatt) swears quite believably, that he did not take the blood although the finger is pointed firmly at him as the holder of the key. Seeing that he no longer has the faith and trust of the group, he hands over his gun before nominating Norris (who declines). Childs quickly seizes his opportunity for leadership but equally quick Mac snatches the gun from him, declaring that it should be: ‘someone a little more even-tempered’ and no one, not even Childs himself objects.
The special effects in The Thing are incredible, not only for the time, but even now I firmly believe they hold up and this is all thanks to the incredible imagination and craft of Rob Bottin. Of all the terrifying set pieces he created none provoke a reaction in me quite so much as the chest defibration scene. It happens so quickly that despite seeing the film numerous times I never have time to prepare for it and I’d actually forgotten the full horror of the scene. Part of me feels that given it’s extremeness it should be funny but it isn’t, it’s absolutely shocking and gruesome; my brain actually struggles to comprehend the level of pain involved. Carpenter doesn’t hold back either, not only do we see Copper’s arms lodged in the mouth of Norris’ stomach but we see his half bitten off limbs. We’re hardly allowed an intake of breath before we manifestation of The Thing comes out of Norris and his head breaks away from his body like a massive cheese string. This scene is visually spectacular and contains another very fine quote: ‘you gotta be fucking kidding…’
The lengthy blood testing scene is absolutely heaped with tension as the men are tied down (with I noticed, the rope which was hanging as a noose in Blair’s tool shed) and cut almost ritualistically by Mac for samples. Again, despite having seen the film many times before, it’s always hard to recall who is infected and who is not adding to the mounting fear which is now at its peak. Needless to say that chaos ensues as men are freed, found out or as in one case, incorrectly shot dead by Mac.What this scene shows is that what the men thought to be true isn’t the case, meaning they can no longer rely upon their own judgements. Childs seems to think he could be infected but, as the test shows, he is human. Mac is convinced that Garry has been attached by ‘The Thing’ but is proven wrong and we learn that Clarke was in fact in the clear. The truth is now forever in doubt for the men as they learn that at Outpost 31, things are not always what they appear to be.