Happy Almost Halloween 80s Fanatics! We round off our 80s Movie Challenge/31 Days of Horror crossover with a very special guest – Howard David Ingham, author of the brilliant We Don’t Go Back: A Watcher’s Guide To Folk Horror and creator of the roleplaying game The Shivering Circle.
Howard also has an interest in Body Horror and was very keen to join us to take on John Carpenter’s 1982 classic, The Thing.
Over to you, Howard…
A spaceship falls to earth, but after the credits the first thing we see is a man in a helicopter, flying across Antarctica, desperately trying to shoot a husky dog. In cinema, there’s no such thing as apophenia, so we know the two events are connected. When the man, a Norwegian, lands near another base, manned by Americans, the language barrier and the man’s desperate and inexplicable desire to shoot the dog leads to misunderstanding. Being Americans, they gun him down and put the dog in with the other huskies. The viewer has an inkling that this was a mistake. The Americans of course do not.
John Carpenter’s version of The Thing is largely a story of straight men who do not have a clue what they’re facing, and this went double for the press and the punters on the film’s release in 1982. Absolutely panned by the critics and largely shrugged at by horror fans, it was only with its second life on home video that The Thing began to assimilate itself into the popular imagination.
Complaints were made that it simply wasn’t in the same class as Christian Nyby’s 1951 classic The Thing from Another World, which adapted the same source material (and it’s ironic that the 2011 prequel movie, also confusingly called The Thing, was beset with critical complaints along the same lines with respect to Carpenter’s version). In fact, Carpenter’s movie, which is by no means a remake, is quite a bit closer to John W Campbell’s 1938 story pulp story “Who Goes There?” on which both movies are based.
Nyby’s film moves the action from the South Pole to the North Pole, and, probably because of the limitations of that era’s special effects, dispenses with the unique selling point of the monster, the thing that made the story so instantly memorable and so influential: the creature’s ability to infect and take over other living creatures, turning them into alien things mimicking the superficial shapes they have stolen. In an era where Invasion of the Body Snatchers has already been remade three times, where we’ve had six (or possibly eight, depending on how you count) Aliens movies, this intersection of replacement and infection doesn’t seem like a groundbreaking idea. But in 1938, a hauntingly familiar era, where Americans were far more scared of communists than they were of Nazis, this was a powerful sci-fi metaphor that far transcended the quality of Campbell’s original story.
Along with sticking to the Antarctic setting, taking all the character names from the story, and more or less faithfully replicating scenes, Carpenter takes the idea of infection and subsumption and runs with it. Rob Bottin’s practical effects are among the best ever made, a parade of bodies splitting open and recombining, becoming congeries of thrashing tendrils, teeth, eyes, legs, bits of spider and crab and inside-out dog, all jumbled up into improbable organic forms. The scene where Harris’s apparently dead body turns into a mouth that bites off Doc Copper’s arms before erupting into a pillar of tortured flesh, the head falling off and, upside down, sprouting legs and eyestalks and walking away is one of the greatest body horror effects sequences ever produced. When Palmer says “You’ve got to be fucking kidding!” you can’t help think that a lot of folks watching the movie would feel the same.
Why did people think this was a bad movie? Seen now, nearly forty years later, it looks like a masterpiece of dramatic economy. The characters are sketched briefly and beautifully and we see the fragile relationships of these men without needing any real expository dialogue. Of course Kurt Russell’s arrogant flyboy McReady is generally remembered. but The Thing is definitely an ensemble piece, and we meet a group of men who were already at the end of their tether, already sick of each other even before being invaded, from paternal and efficient commander Garry (Donald Moffat) to abrasive mechanic Childs (Keith David), and, perhaps most disturbingly, Blair (Wilford Brimley), the biologist who has a complete breakdown and starts smashing all the equipment because he is the first one who realises exactly what it is they have let into the station.
But critics hated it. If you look at the sort of films that won Oscars in the 70s and early 80s, you didn’t see horror films at all, and the films that did get Best Picture are often kind of talky, kind of emotional. E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, a much easier sell, got nominated for Best Picture that year. the Thing (and for that matter Blade Runner, another close contemporary) did not. The idea of the “Oscar Speech” was being lampooned by Mike Myers a whole decade later.
The Thing does not have Oscar Speeches. The Thing has the austere portrayal of straight men in crisis – and losing. Many horror films are backwards-looking, but The Thing’s narrative economy and the spare subtlety of its dialogue and performances – in sharp contrast to the balls-to-the-wall horror of the invasion itself – was a sign of things to come.
The mechanics of the alien invasion are lightly sketched. Notwithstanding the biological excesses on display, it actually benefits from not being as minutely explained as, say, the lifecycle of the Xenomorph in the Alien movies, which makes less sense the more you think about it. The Thing here, just as it is in Campbell’s original story, is a composite entity, somewhere between slime mould and virus. It doesn’t make a copy of a living being, so much as infect its victim, growing into the body and replacing the earthly flesh from the inside out. Then it wears its victim’s shape like a suit as long as it can, which is generally until it gets rattled. And then the transformations become external, often admitting parts of the beings the Thing has already absorbed. That much is explicit. In a Cronenberg movie, there’s a lot of figurative penetration. But here, the metaphor is infection.
(I don’t think The Thing is supposed to be an AIDS metaphor. It’s not hard to read that into it, but in the early 80s, AIDS was still tied inextricably with the gay community. And the one thing The Thing is not is homoerotic. The straightness of the men here is manifest in everything they do.)
But at what point is the earthly being gone and the Thing there in its place? Are the men simply dead from the moment it has them, the creature simply using their memories to mimic human behaviour like a duck call, where you can fool the ducks but don’t really understand what they’re saying? Or are they still in there and under its control? Do they think they’re OK right up until the moment where they erupt into torrents of mangled flesh and the creature abandons mind as decisively as it does body? Or is it something else?
The creature isn’t stupid, certainly – having infected Blair it uses his shape to attempt to build an escape ship from helicopter parts. In fact, everything it does suggests, primarily, self-preservation, survival.
And the stakes are always survival. And the men aren’t all that great at it. None of them trusts each other. At least one entirely uninfected member of the crew winds up dead because of that. While The Thing multiplies into a succession of separate bodies, each new body claimed as fast as McReady and the others can incinerate the last one, it has one mind and one purpose, it doesn’t need trust. There is only one Thing. But the men are dangerously separate. None of them trusts each other in the first place, and McReady’s leadership is gained and kept by brute force and intimidation as much as anything. It’s all very fragile, the bad decisions of straight men dooming everyone, and only preserving the world because the world is so very far away.
The isolated, inhospitable setting allows for the story to be contained; if the creature had landed in a populated area, it would surely bring about the end of the human race. As it stands, The Thing at best postpones that. Childs and McReady sit alone, with no hope of rescue, each suspecting the other (and maybe even themselves) of being the creature. But we’ve already established that the Thing can survive here indefinitely, preserved by the cold. A human body is much more fragile. All the creature has to do is wait. And when it is found, that’s it for biodiversity.
The Thing is one of the very greatest speculative horror movies. It’s an uneasy film, and a film that’s hard-edged, and film that shows men failing at being men because they’re being men. It’s a film that doesn’t try to be liked, any more than its protagonists do, and that chilly element to it, its heart as cold as the Antarctic wasteland, is perhaps why it took so long for our opinion of it to thaw.
Howard David Ingham is the Bram Stoker Award-nominated author of We Don’t Go Back: A Watcher’s Guide To Folk Horror. A follow up on Cult Cinema is due out soon. Follow Howard on Twitter (@HowTheWoodMoves) and visit their website Room 207 Press for more information. Howard is speaking a the all-day Halloween event, Rural Gothic: Samhain Surprise tomorrow and it promises to be an excellent online event. Get your tickets from The Folklore Podcast.
Massive thanks Howard – it’s been a genuine pleasure!
Join us next week for more 80s antics as Francis Fisher guides us on a tour of Gotham City with Tim Burton’s 1989 take on the Caped Crusader’s now well-worn origin – that’s right, it’s Batman!