Saturday, June 25, 2022

The Ultimate in Alien Terror: The Thing at 40

As soon as the throbbing electronic pulse of Ennio Morricone's score comes up in the opening shots of John Carpenter's The Thing, accompanying a doomed pursuit, it's clear that a light hearted caper is not about to unfold. That said, the intensity of what follows still took audiences by surprise in 1982. The reception towards The Thing when it was released on June 25th, 1982, wasn't just dismissive, it was openly hostile. Beyond the fact that the film simply wasn't an enjoyable experience for many, the reaction to it was as though it was telling people something that they didn't want to hear and people were quick to push back. 

A remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks classic The Thing From Another World but more of a proper adaptation of that earlier film's source material - John W. Campbell's 1938 novella Who Goes There? - Carpenter's Thing is often described as downbeat and nihilistic. Personally, I prefer to think of it as a tough film rather than a bleak one. Despite being surly loners in general, the men of US Outpost 31 actually give a damn about not just their own lives but the lives of everyone who will suffer if the shape shifting organism that has invaded their base should somehow get past them and into the general population. As the saying goes, they might not be the heroes we want but they're the ones we need.

There are no excessive attempts on the part of Carpenter or screenwriter Bill Lancaster to humanize these men or to manufacture an extra level of sympathy for their plight by having any of them take a moment to refer to, say, that special girl waiting back home or to any loved ones that they're fighting on behalf of and wanting to reunite with. You never get the kind of stock scene that you would see in other movies where one character or another pulls out a photo of their wife or fiancee and says how they just want to kill this damn Thing and get back to their life.

Nah, there's no cheap sentiment here. All these guys seem to be, by choice, pretty alone in the world. Richard Masur's Clark likes his dogs and that's about it. These guys are where they are specifically because they aren't looking to mingle with the rest of civilized society. Which, for me, makes their determination to stop the Thing all the more poignant and noble. Yes, they're fighting for their own survival but they are also completely cognizant of what will happen if they fail to keep the Thing from proceeding further and they are willing, without hesitation, to make any necessary sacrifice to save the world. Not once do they flinch from what needs to be done or stop to whine about the shitty hand that they've been dealt.

When the Thing takes out the generator in its Hail Mary attempt to freeze its enemies to death and return to its arctic slumber, helicopter pilot R. J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) is able to get Nauls (T.K. Carter) and Garry (Donald Moffat) instantly on board with the idea to "warm things up around here" and bring the whole base down. They don't even bother to consult with Childs (Keith David) before they set their suicide plan in motion. They just do it, like Carpenter protagonists should.

Even in the film's famously ambiguous final moments, when the prospects of survival for MacReady and Childs look grim and it's very possible that all their efforts to stop The Thing may have still come up short, MacReady is still able to give a rueful chuckle before the fade out. Maybe he'll make it, maybe he won't. Maybe Childs is going to Thing out on him or maybe they're just two men about to die. Whatever happens, there's no sense crying about it. 

Carpenter and Lancaster don't ascribe the failures of the men of Outpost 31 to any specific errors on their part, an aspect of The Thing that I believe makes it more troubling to viewers. I think most people honestly prefer it when characters in horror movies make stupid mistakes. You know, it allows them to nudge their friend next to them, roll their eyes and feel safe in believing that, well, if these fools had been smart about this, all this could have been avoided but that does not happen in The Thing. You could say that MacReady and Cooper (Richard Dysart) shouldn't have brought those burned remains back from the Norwegian camp but hey, the damn dog was already in their base. The remains were superfluous. Many horror movies have a moment where the characters do something specific that unleashes the evil or sabotages everyone's chances of survival (in the original Thing, it was putting a heated electrical blanket on the block of ice holding the Thing). In the '82 Thing, though, there are no obvious, egregious fuck ups. As much as paranoia may be running rampant, the men of The Thing manage to keep their heads and make smart decisions at every turn. That they still can't claim a decisive win as the credits roll did not sit well with 1982 audiences. The we're fucked before we even started pessimism of The Thing was completely contrary to the gung ho, can-do spirit of the times. 

After the defeatism of the '70s, audiences of the early '80s were not into seeing Americans forced to play a losing hand. And they definitely did not want to hear a protagonist wearily admit "We're all very tired." No sir, not in the same summer where Rocky was getting the eye of the tiger.

The Thing's poor box office performance has always been laid at the feet of E.T. with the belief being that audiences choose Spielberg's kindly alien over Carpenter's nasty one but I don't think that one had anything to do with the other. The fact is, Ridley Scott's Alien could have come out in the summer of '82 and still crushed it. The Xenomorph would have held its own just fine against E.T. because Alien is a crowd pleaser, pure and simple, and, in every way, The Thing just isn't. Had MacReady encountered Childs in the smoking ruins of the base at the end and they immediately high-fived each other over the Thing's defeat just as a rescue helicopter arrived, well, then it would have been a different story at the box office. 

It wasn't the shocking splatter of The Thing that alienated audiences. Had its story ended with MacReady being satisfied that the Thing had been defeated and if he and Childs had survived to tell the tale, I believe that audiences could have stomached whatever hideous sights The Thing had to offer. No, it was the hopelessness and the ambiguity that really got to them.

Had Universal held off on The Thing's release until the fall, saved it for Halloween (and maybe chose to re-title it Who Goes There?), maybe it would have fared better. Who knows? Forty years later, it's all moot. It tanked and the fallout was what it was. 

The only person whose star immediately rose after The Thing was young FX genius and former Rick Baker protege Rob Bottin. As much as the grotesque FX of The Thing was slagged as borderline pornographic by outraged critics, no one could deny the astonishing level of skill that it took to pull off The Thing's transformations. 

Only twenty-four at the time and placed in charge of leading a massive crew, Bottin threw himself into the creation of the Thing so hard that he had to be checked into the hospital for nervous exhaustion by the time the shoot was done. The result of Bottin's groundbreaking wizardry, though, allowed Carpenter to make a monster movie that finally broke the "guy in a suit" cliche that even the best examples of the genre, like Alien, had always succumbed to. 

Even though the critical plaudits did come eventually it's still a shame that Carpenter took such a beating upon The Thing's release. There's some irony to be found in the fact that Carpenter made a movie about people fighting to hold onto their individuality only to get so much shit for being true to his own artistic identity. 

A lot of directors might have folded after receiving the kind of body blow that Carpenter suffered with The Thing but he not only persevered and toughed it out, he kept on making classics for years to come. Just the same, I'm sure he wishes that his first foray into major studio filmmaking had not been its own sort of painful transformation.  

In the end, I suppose you just have to believe that, come what may, every Thing is meant to be.

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