An Appreciation – The Thing
Once The Thing enters the station, it quickly spreads like a fast-moving virus. It slowly contaminates any living organism it encounters, replicating its host’s body as a means of hiding in plain sight. The intrigue comes in watching the characters discover what is happening and how they react once things turn desperate. One key factor is how Carpenter shows us The Thing’s path of destruction. The team travel to a nearby Norwegian station to find it in ruins. They intuit that whatever caused this devastation could very well be repeating it in their outpost. In the same way Steven Spielberg used hints and clues to show us how dangerous the shark was in Jaws (1975), Carpenter does the same thing here. An axe stuck in the wall, a frozen corpse of a man who committed suicide, an empty ice block – these all contribute to a growing fear of what The Thing is capable of.
Much of this apprehension can be attributed to the score. Carpenter has been known to compose his own music, so the fact that he did not do it this time comes as a surprise. Even more surprising is that Ennio Morricone – the great composer famously known for his work in Spaghetti Westerns – was brought on. The score Morricone provided has a synth-tinged, rhythmic style, as though it were a slow electronic heartbeat. It’s reported that this approach came at the suggestion of Carpenter, who asked that Morricone compose something closer to the soundtrack of Escape from New York. The result is a blend of both collaborators – a haunting arrangement that exudes the icy remoteness of the story. In a bit of interesting trivia, Morricone would go on to win an Oscar for scoring Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015). In that film, Morricone used pieces of music he had originally written for The Thing.
Once Carpenter shifts the narrative from suggestion to an all-out alien attack, he does not hold back. This is some of the grossest, nastiest, and wettest scenes of body horror ever captured. Scare scenes include but are not limited to: faces splitting apart, body parts transforming into spider-like creatures, blood and guts spraying out violently, etc. These moments are not for the faint of heart and are still effective all these years later. It’s a credit to the make-up and special effects department for creating such convincing prosthetics and animatronics. Led by a then twenty-two-year-old Rob Bottin (with a minor assist from Stan Winston) the visual effects punctuate the horror like a sledgehammer. Because The Thing does not have a recognizable form, Bottin and his staff got creative with how they wanted to depict it, and they did so in spectacular fashion
Even with all the gooey, drippy viscera, Carpenter never forgets to emphasize the storytelling first. The horror is amplified with stellar cinematic choices. Carpenter sets up scare scenes by presenting a common, familiar image and then coming back to it with a gruesome twist. When Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) attempts to revive a dying Norris (Charles Hallahan) with a defibrillator, Carpenter (with Todd C. Ramsay’s editing) shows us the first unsuccessful attempt. When Copper tries to shock Norris again, we believe that we’re going to see the same thing. However, this time we are thrown for a loop when Norris’ body opens like a bear trap, clamping down on Copper’s arms and ripping them off. Norris was an imitation created by The Thing, and when its cover is blown mutates into a half-man-half-alien demon. The scene closes with a perfectly timed bit of comedy. As Norris’ mutated head scampers off like an insect, Palmer (David Clennon) says what everyone else is thinking: “You gotta be f*ckin’ kidding!”
This masterful execution happens up and down the film. Carpenter establishes a “safe” image, one in which we assume the characters are temporarily guarded from immediate harm, and then opens the doors for The Thing to attack. This is done again in what might be the best scene, where MacReady – now under full paranoia – forces everyone to take a blood test. Armed with a gun and flamethrower, he uses a hot wire to test if anyone’s blood is infected. A medium close-up shows MacReady holding a petri dish of blood in one hand and the wire in the other. This is the safe image. When the shot is repeated, MacReady touches the blood with the wire again, but this time a mutated arm comes springing out of the dish. The safe image has now been corrupted by the evil force, triggering yet another sequence of graphic horror.
The fear of the unknown is what drives the narrative, forcing characters to make brash and unwise decisions. This is what elevates The Thing to greatness. A heavy distrust forms amongst the group. There is an intended ambiguity as to whom gets infected when, tailored to make us question everyone in the compound (MacReady included). The group could have sat in a room together and figured out a solution, but their fear and suspicion of one another led to their downfall. This is scarily accurate to real life. The Thing from Another World was influenced by the Cold War, the Red Scare, and the rise of the nuclear age. This film carries much of the same sentiment but can be broadened out to a wider viewpoint. It can be argued that – given the time frame – parallels could be made to the AIDS epidemic. Its relevance can even be applied to today. As of this writing, the Covid-19 virus is still raging. Sadly, instead of societies banding together to help take down the disease, it has become politicized with a small but vocal minority spreading misinformation and anxiety. Strange that a movie from decades ago can still be used to comment on the present.
At the end of The Thing, with the station destroyed and in flames, the remaining two men – MacReady and Childs (Keith David) – still question each other despite being too exhausted to do anything about it. The closing scene is left open-ended. The likelihood of the two surviving is close to zero, and yet uncertainty lingers. What are we to make of this? Are we to believe that fear is such a motivating factor that even in the most desperate times we still let it control us? Or are things left unresolved so that we may consider what we can do to make things better? The closing shot implies that whether we follow the path of darkness or light, the choice – and consequence – is entirely up to us.