I was maybe 7 or 8 when my next-door neighbor told me about a movie he’d seen in which a group of explorers in Antarctica were attacked by a werewolf. It was a movie with the extremely bland title The Thing, and I remember thinking “it’s called The Thing and it’s about a werewolf?” I soon found out though what it was really about. It was on TNT’s MonsterVision one Saturday night, and I only caught the scene where Bennings is assimilated, but I remember thinking about how my parents, my dog, and my sister could be Things and be coming for me next.
That movie of course was John Carpenter’s The Thing, a film that is beloved by any reasonable fan of horror films. The “werewolf” my friend Matt was talking about was the Norris-thing, and I guess that was a reasonable takeaway. Likewise, my fear that my family was going to kill me was what I assume to be exactly what Carpenter intended to evoke in his viewers.
This film is, in short, a masterpiece. If you’ve seen it, you know why. The visual effects are nearly unrivaled in execution and absolutely unrivaled in the “what the fuck am I seeing?” arena. A remake of Christian Nyby’s ‘50s B movie classic The Thing From Another World (itself an adaption of the John Campbell short story “Who Goes There?”), Carpenter’s vision eschews the minimalist, slow burn approach of Nyby’s film and instead fully immerses the audience into a film sodden with paranoia and anxiety, so wrought with fear it’s almost physically exhausting to watch. I can honestly say that the first time I realized how long it would take the Thing to assimilate all life once it reached a populated area (3.3 years according to Wilfred Brimley’s calculations), I felt a very real sense of scale in how a horror film related to the real world. No other film had affected me that way beforehand.
I want to talk about how Carpenter improved upon Nyby’s version of Campbell’s story, not just from a surface, visual level but also thematically and politically. Cinepunx’s own Brendan Foley wrote about this not too long ago, and while we have similar opinions I’d like to throw my hat in the ring as well when it comes to dissecting these films. For starters, Carpenter’s film is actually a closer adaption to the story than Nyby’s. Instead of a vegetable version of Frankenstein’s monster like James Arness is in the Nyby’s version, Campbell’s monster is a shape shifting beast from another world, just like Carpenter’s, albeit one that has an actual original shape, unlike the creature in Carpenter’s film. I understand that since I was born almost thirty years out from when Nyby’s film was released I probably lack a frame of reference for how his film affected people, but one of the things I find that Carpenter’s film really improves upon is the unstoppable nature of the Thing.
Nyby’s creature is frightening, yes. And for the people on the base the stakes are quite high. But…all they have to do is find the monster and kill it. Probably solved. In Carpenter’s vision, however, the stakes are much higher. It quickly becomes apparent that the titular Thing is seeking to get to a civilized area in order to assimilate more life forms. Literally the entire world is at stake if MacReady and his homies don’t put a stop to things. There’s an urgency in Carpenter’s vision that isn’t really present in the original film.
Furthermore, the characters in the Carpenter version are at a disadvantage: the Thing can mimic them perfectly. It’s not a simple matter of hunting it down and killing it, but rather figuring out who amongst them are inhuman copies and destroying them before they get to the mainland and infect the entire world.
A theme present in the original film is the idea of a foreign invader (communism) attacking American values, and those values being defended by the brute masculinity of the military. The alien represents the merciless and relentless un-American ideology of communism that seeks to destroy what is best about America, the otherness that will take a mile if we give an inch.
Simultaneous with the heroes of the film, American soldiers, trying to destroy the creature, we have a sneaky academic Dr. Carrington who is not only trying to communicate with the creature out of the belief that it is superior to humans, but is also using human blood to grow small seeds from the creature’s severed arm. This brand of toxically masculine disdain for intellectuals is typical of Cold War-era America, in which such types were viewed with suspicion as possible sympathizers to communist ideas. In this case, with an intellectual literally growing new versions of the enemy, Carrington could be seen as a metaphor for these intellectuals brainwashing students into starting their own communist cells. Instead of belittling science, the characters in Carpenter’s film use it to their advantage, correctly deducing how to figure out who amongst them was human and who was not. Fuchs, a doctor working on a blood test to figure out who is human and who isn’t, advises MacReady to cook his own food and only eat out of cans, and instead of being called a coward or laughed at for his caution is actually listened to.
Rugged individualism is not celebrated in Carpenter’s film; instead, the sense of paranoid isolation that befalls Outpost 31 is seen as a microcosm for America at its worst during the Cold War. The fact that all of the characters in Carpenter’s film are not only male but almost archetypically MALE is telling as well, in that all of their masculinity and the presumed virtues that came along with are largely for naught when it comes to stopping the Thing.
Despite the Cold War absolutely being a war of ideas, there was a prevalent belief that “ideas don’t win wars” and instead sheer military might be looked to as our only salvation. But in Carpenter’s vision, instead of “the best” of Cold War era American ideals being celebrated, Carpenter focuses on the absolute worst of Cold War America: the constant exhausting paranoia and fear, the ceaselessly tiring mentality of not trusting anyone, and the fact that a raw “might makes right” mentality is detrimental to the well-being of society as a whole. Carpenter saw no glory in putting such pigheaded ideals on a pedestal. Rather than making such things virtuous, he made the fear of the other and the resulting violence something that over time made us weaker. For all their bluster and strength, ultimately violence isn’t the answer.
Most of the attempts at the use of violence are either shut down immediately (MacReady arguing Childs not being in charge in favor of someone “a little more even tempered”) or lead to someone being destroyed (Clark attacking MacReady with a scalpel instead of trying to reason with him and getting shot in the head for his troubles). Even the opening scene, in which a panicked Norwegian scientist frantically screams at the Americans to get away from the dog-Thing while trying to warn them of its true nature, is an example of this disdain for violence. The Norwegian, failing to communicate verbally with the Americans, opens fire at the dog-Thing, apparently unconcerned as to whether or not he hits them. And what does he get for his troubles? Shot through the eye and killed. Communicate or die.
Not only is Carpenter’s film inherently different thematically, it also takes a different approach on how it generates a feeling of horror. Nyby’s film chose to focus on the horror of the other as something ideological and leans into the symbolism of the film while sparingly using a relatively by the numbers monster to represent that threat. Carpenter on the other hand wallows in the physicality of the Things otherness and makes it absolutely horrific. The creature designs in this film are absolutely breathtaking, and it’s only heightened at how Carpenter presents it. Our first glimpse of the Thing with its masks cast aside comes after twenty or so minutes of set up that consists mostly of dull research station routine. When the Thing, which had infiltrated the camp in the form of a dog, reveals itself, I can say without hyperbole there is nothing else like it in any film I have ever seen. When the dog-Thing turns to the camera and its face splits open to reveal a monstrous parody of a dog underneath, you truly feel like you are seeing something that transcends the word “horror”. You are seeing horror in the flesh, the ghastly otherness that the genre is constantly trying to capture embodied in this chaotic unearthly thing we see before us. The way the Thing reveals itself further to the stunned research team, extruding a pair of monstrous clawed arms to pull itself up into the rafters and attack the men with a weird tentacle tipped with what looks, at first, a flower, until you realize it’s made up of dog tongues and teeth, is almost sensual, like we’re seeing a macabre strip tease in an absurd corner of Hell. Nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, in the Hawks film is remotely close to this reveal. Not by a sight. As a matter of fact, there’s not much else in any horror that really comes close to that breathless feeling of ‘what the fuck just happened’ when this scene wraps up. It’s a gloriously violent sequence, and it’s also one of the few times in a horror film I’m okay with a dog dying. Not that I’m reveling in the suffering of an animal, but instead of showing us that suffering for a lazy moment of shocking the audience, the dogs being assimilated in the kennel is the unfortunate “B” to the Thing showing up in the camp as a dog’s “A”. It’s a natural progression in the narrative, and it’s necessary for the story about a shapeshifting alien that mimics its prey to continue smoothly. It also adds to the nightmare feel of the story, and it’s mirrored later one when the Palmer-thing violently attacks Windows. The violence of the Thing’s existence is something that Carpenter never shies away from, and that pushes the film’s depiction of a threat further into the realm of the physical. There’s still an allegory there, sure, but the film doesn’t rest nearly as heavy on symbolism as the Nyby film does.
I think the final point of how Carpenter’s film expands upon the original is the paradoxical internalization of the threat while maintaining its inherent sense of otherness. Nyby’s film points the finger clearly at James Arness’ plant monster and says ‘there. There is the enemy.’ Carpenter’s Thing is equally other, but there’s no clear character to point a finger at. The enemy looks and acts exactly as we do in Carpenter’s film. Anyone, ourselves included, could be an inhuman copy of someone we know. In essence, the enemy is us: the fear, the anxiety, the xenophobia, the paranoia, and the violence of the Cold War. All of those things were caused by an external threat, but at the same time all of those things sprung from within. The very fact that they enemy looks exactly like us says simply that we’re the ones doing all this in the end and that we are the problem. Nyby’s threat of communism was always out there, and it was up to us to protect our American way of life from infiltration. For Carpenter, infiltration has already occurred, and the American way of life has been utterly disrupted. The threat has gone from being outside our borders to being amongst us. Sure, the characters in The Thing might be trying to stop the Thing from reaching the mainland, but the overall message of Carpenter’s film is that we’ve already ruined everything for ourselves through our paranoia and xenophobia at one another.
I don’t want to take away from The Thing From Another World. It’s a competent film, a fun B-movie that is no worse than anything else that came out during that era. But it’s incredible mediocrity and painfully saccharine message makes it pale in comparison to the 1980’s remake. Carpenter’s film is deeply pessimistic, and it offers little in the way of hope for overcoming the alien menace. Instead of placing the blame at the feet of any one party, it instead just kind of shrugs and gives us a ‘that’s life!’ before leaving us wondering what the hell we just watched. And ultimately, it’s that sense of dreadful wonder that the 1982 film evokes that puts it so far ahead of the Nyby film. The Thing From Another World ends on an upbeat note and asks us at the end to watch the skies. The Thing asks nothing of the sort from us. It doesn’t ask us to watch the skies because it has already told us that the threat is here. And worst of all it implies there isn’t really anything we can do about it.