Reflections on Horror Literature: The Thing

John Carptenter’s 1982 film The Thing has a lot in common with Alien (which I reviewed two weeks ago). We have a working-class crew in relative isolation, we have a creature invading the safety of the crew’s home/workplace, and we have almost all members of that crew being picked off by the creature. But unlike Alien, The Thing’s annihilation of the invader doesn’t result in even a modicum of hope. We’re left with the lone survivors—MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David)—out of supplies and shelter in the Antarctic with no way to communicate their emergency to the outside world. As they watch the remains of their research station burn (presumably along with the last of the alien invader), they pass a bottle of scotch back and forth and exchange a bitter, resigned moment of wary camaraderie as they wait for death.

Grim. Very grim.

I rather like my horror to have be more of the “final girl” tradition, which Alien was, wherein at least one character triumphs and survives and we knowshe’ll be okay. Sure, Ripley was kind of aimlessly floating in her suspended animation with her cat, but she had supplies and a spacesuit and her wits about her. She was probably going to make it. In Carpenter’s other work, we may still have a hint that all is not well and safe (such as in 1978’s Halloween, but ultimately Laurie Strode finds relative safety in Halloween II), and yet here we’re presented with merely temporary safety, temporary calm, and no relief from the monster’s threat. Sure, Mac killed it, but he even voiced the idea that no one was leaving the station long before the final scene, telling Nauls (T.K. Carter) and Garry (Donald Moffat) that the best they can hope for is to destroy it, even if it means destroying themselves in the process.

Did I already mention this movie was grim?

Much like the various interpretations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the biggest horror of The Thing is the fact that the alien can assume anyone’s identity. Paranoia, then, is the monster, the suspicion among friends (or at least friendly colleagues) that the person sitting next to you may no longer be who he appears to be, and that the man walking next to you may not be covering your back but waiting to stab you in it instead. Other than the obvious similarities with Alien, The Thing also reminded me of an Agatha Christie drawing-room murder mystery, where the killer could be anyone and everyone. It’s a logic puzzle, ultimately, with the viewer trying to figure out which characters have disappeared off on their own during some of the onscreen death scenes.

But perhaps the reason The Thing didn’t ultimately scare me as much as Alien could be the lack of empathy I felt for any of these characters. The threat comes upon them so quickly, we don’t get to see this crew in anything resembling “the calm before the storm.” Alien did a good job of showing the camaraderie of the shipmates before things went to hell, but The Thing’s crew is thrust into madness and uncertainty from the first minute. The cast is excellent, full of “Hey, it’s that guy from that thing!” types of veteran character actors, and yet they aren’t allowed to show their full range due to each one having limited screen time. I would have preferred fewer characters with more room to get to know each one, so that their gruesome deaths actually had some impact. As it is, I felt The Thing was as cold and isolating as the Antarctic scenery itself, and its hopeless ending left me wondering why Mac didn’t suggest blowing the station up to begin with. If you’re going to die anyway, go out with a bang, not a whimper.

Carpenter, John, dir. The Thing. Universal Pictures, 1982. DVD.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Reflections on Horror Literature: The Thing

  1. “ts hopeless ending left me wondering why Mac didn’t suggest blowing the station up to begin with. If you’re going to die anyway, go out with a bang, not a whimper.”

    That assumes that Mac is still human. The beauty of the ending is that we don’t know for sure. Either he or Childs–or both–could now be the monster, waiting for the fire to die out, waiting for the next crew to arrive, waiting for their escape into the larger population. The fact that he or Childs don’t suggest going out with a bang gives credence to the argument that they have become the monster.

  2. Samantha Lienhard

    I also would have preferred a slightly smaller cast, but I suppose the larger number of characters helped it keep up the “it could be any of us” aspect for a longer period of time. I didn’t connect with any of the characters very much, but I found the Thing interesting (and horrifying) enough to keep me involved.

  3. I agree that a smaller group would have been a lot easier to keep track of. I had a hard time remembering who was who, except for the major characters. I actually went so far as to search out the script (which was astonishingly easy to find – a version is available on imdb at http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Thing,-The.html). I think the sparse characterization may be influenced by the fact that each character gets about ten words of introductory description.

  4. The only character I really liked was the guy who trained the dogs. I felt for him because he was obviously shaken up by the deaths of his animals, and I sympathies with that. And he ended up being killed and wasn’t even the thing, just a decent guy trying to do what he thought best. A little odd, but I liked him.

  5. Margaret Ayala

    As much as I admired Kurt Russell’s magnificent beard, I have to agree with Amber. The dog trainer was the only character I felt sympathy for. But even though I didn’t connect with the characters well, the sense of paranoia still hit hard for me.

  6. I think the fact that the characters weren’t too fleshed out actually worked in favor of the creep factor. I wonder if we really had gotten to know these characters deeper, if we as watchers would have felt betrayed when they ended up being the Thing. Or that, because the Thing assimilates them, but may not know how to act “human” (one theory is that the assimilation take a while, with the Thing’s cells hitching a ride in the their host before total assimilation), greater characterization may have taken away from the overall “it could be anybody, is everyone acting the same” mentality that built the tension. For me personally I felt more for the guys dealing with the Thing than I did for the Nostromo crew. Maybe because I already knew one of them definitely survived?

    • Hmm, good points! Maybe it was also to show that this crew wasn’t very tight themselves, so even they wouldn’t be able to notice specific differences. If you don’t know your bunk mate well enough to notice when he’s acting weird, it’s more dangerous.

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