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Friday, October 25, 2013

HubrisWeen Day 20: The Thing (1982)

Written by Bill Lancaster, based on the short story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell
Directed by John Carpenter

Kurt Russell:  R. J. MacReady
Wilford Brimley:  Dr. Blair
Keith David:  Childs
Rob Bottin:  Special Makeup Effects Creator and Designer

If I were curating a film festival, I think I'd want to do one on influential flops. Movies that went on to get ripped off dozens of times in different ways, but which were greeted with indifference or hostility when they were originally released. Weirdly enough, three of the films in this hypothetical festival were released the same year in 1982, and none of them came close to making their money back. Disney took a bath on Tron, but it set up the visual grammar of cyberpunk and paved the way for computer effects in movies for the next three decades. Blade Runner gave us futuristic noir and set design that's still being copied for rain-drenched cityscapes on a decaying Earth. And this film launched a hundred careers, the makeup and animatronic effects still more impressive than lesser acheivements even a quarter century or more after the film's release. I bet John Carpenter's kicking himself that he made such a great movie about extraterrestrial contamination and paranoia, and it wound up getting released right after E.T. set box office records while treating the first alien contact as a fable of hope and love.

The movie starts with two Norwegian dudes in a helicopter chasing after a huskie. One's flying the chopper and the other is shooting at the dog with an automatic rifle.

Meanwhile, in an American research station, the pastimes appear to be ping-pong, drinking, and losing to a computer chess program. MacReady manages to combine the latter two pastimes into one, because he likes to be efficient. When the helicopter flies over the American station, it's probably the most interesting and unusual thing that's happened there in months. One of the Norwegians manages to drop a thermite grenade while trying to throw it, and the previous most-interesting-thing record is immediately surpassed when the helicopter and pilot are immolated. The surviving dog-attacker screams the setup for the plot in untranslated Norwegian and shoots one of the Americans on base while trying to kill the dog. He's so focused on the dog that he doesn't notice an American drawing a bead on him and gets dropped with a single shot to the eye.

Everyone at the research station wants to know more about what the hell just happened, but their radio operator can't raise anyone to report the attack; two theories put forward by curious researchers include "people go crazy out here because it's so confined and the surroundings are so dangerous" and "we might be at war with Norway and nobody told us". In order to get more information about what the hell happened, and possibly help anyone who needs it back at the Norwegian base, the American helicopter pilot and doctor go to investigate.

Well, the doctor investigates. But the other base is an hour away by air and someone's got to take the horrible risk of flying out in the snow during the start of winter in Antarctica to give the doctor a look at the Norwegian camp. While that's going on, the rescued dog pads around the base silently, looking less like it's exploring a new environment and more like it's searching for something it already knows is there. Carpenter's skill with editing is apparent in the scenes that introduce the dog; when it turns back to look at the helicopter it's really just an insert shot of the dog happening to turn around, but inserted at the point where it's been placed makes it look like the dog really does know what the helicopter is and needs to keep tabs on its position. And padding around the base quietly, it just doesn't seem to be acting like a dog should. Kudos to the animal trainers and to Carpenter for knowing how to set up the sequences that have a non-human actor in them. And hey, maybe it just turned out that Jed the dog was just a good actor.

At the Norwegian camp, there's good news and bad news:  The bad news is everyone's dead of either suicide or homicide, but the good news is parts of it are still smoldering so it's not all that cold. Along with the bodies (one dripping with blood icicles) is the ominous sight of a huge ice block that's had something slightly larger than a human body chopped out of it. MacReady and the doctor gather up all the material they think will help figure out what the hell happened at the other station (including a frozen body that looks like two or more people melted together like candle wax) and fly back to the American base.

The autopsy on the impossible body reveals nothing out of the ordinary--all the internal organs are present and accounted for and other than the kerosene burns that killed it there's no way for the doctor to determine why it looks as horrifying as it does (and again, here's proof that Carpenter knew what he was doing when he made this film--we get a series of nice close looks at the alien's body-horror form when it's inert and dead. It's not just a grossout effect and a source of exposition, it's foreshadowing of what the creature can do and letting the viewer know what's coming during the second and third acts).

And hey, here comes a scene where that happens! The newly arrived Norwegian canine is sent to the kennel with the station's existing supply of dogs--which start barking and growling the second their handler leaves. Then the dog's head peels apart and its body sprouts tentacles and spider-legs while the other dogs go berserk and try to escape from the fenced-in kennel. The station's dog kennelmaster checks on his charges and sees something he can't even interpret. A pistol and shotgun only irritate the monster (which grows spindly arms and hauls itself up into the ceiling rafters), but the flamethrower that the base has for some reason makes short work of the absorbed and modified dog left in the kennel.

The doctor's autopsy of the dead monster clues everyone in to what they're facing:  An organism that digests and duplicates its prey--when it looked like a dog, it was really a being capable of warping its own cells to create whatever it needs to deal with any given situation. The tentacles, teeth and acid spit it manifested in the kennel were probably natural defenses or weapons from something it ate and replicated earlier in its life. And now, of course, it can look like a dog. And perhaps a person as well, given the implications of the scene where it was wandering around the base unsupervised and none of the American researchers knew they were stuck in an isolated spot with a monster.

An examination of the Norwegians' video records shows they found something in the ice (and has a few nods to the original James-Arness-as-a-vegetable-monster version of the story from 1951); MacReady flies out to the site with a couple other scientists and they find a flying saucer that's been frozen in the ice for tens of thousands of years, as well as the rectangular pit created when the Norwegians chipped the creature out of the ice. During a discussion with the rest of the base staff, MacReady immediately concedes that it sounds insane and that he doesn't have any of the scientific or medical training needed to explain it.

The doctor, working with an advanced-for-1983 computer, comes up with an algorithm that predicts one or more of the Americans on the research base are almost certainly duplicates; as if that isn't bad enough, the computer projects that if the monster makes it to a civilized area it'll be three years and change before every human being on Earth has been killed, absorbed and duplicated by the creature. The best case scenario is that everyone at the research station kills themselves as a precaution in order to save the world.

The worst case scenario is that the world will end no later than May of 1985. The doctor's notes, read to MacReady, also point out that the body of the alien isn't dead yet (this whole scene is Lovecraftian in the best way, revealing the true scope of the threat to the protagonist and audience at the same time). This revelation comes too late to save Bennings, who was alone with the creature's body from the Norwegian camp long enough to be imperfectly duplicated; the Benning-Thing creature gets incinerated out in the snow as the rest of the base watches in horror at what they've done and what happened to their colleague.

The doctor smashes up the radio room, the helicopter and the snow tractor that would let anyone on the base escape to civilization. He's actually doing the right thing to save humanity, but it looks indistinguishable from a complete psychotic break. Immediately after this MacReady breaks the news to everyone else that one or more of them has already been duplicated--this leads to Childs pointing out that a perfect enough copy wouldn't just be indistinguishable to everyone else, but to himself as well. Without a way to test everyone for contamination they're all doomed to be killed and absorbed by spring and when the rescue team shows up they'll be eaten within minutes of their arrival.

So all that's left for the remaining researchers to do is figure out who among them is still human and kill the ones that have already been duplicated. "Easier said than done" comes to mind, and ironically it's a character that wasn't suspected at all that winds up revealing he was already absorbed and replicated when he has a heart attack and the doctor trying to restart his heart with a defibrillator gets taken as a threat and killed.

The most suspenseful scene of the whole damn movie happens next--a blood test where everyone has to have their blood poked with a hot wire (because human blood won't do anything but burn and smell bad but a sample of Thing cells will interpret that as an attack and react, letting everyone know instantly who has been duplicated. As it turns out, nobody knows if they've been taken over or not. Watching the relief on the actors' faces when their blood is normal sells just how desperate the situation is. In 1982, the idea of a blood test telling you if you were dead already sounds like an AIDS metaphor more than anything; there's one more piece of contamination horror to go with the rending flesh and alien shrieks.

The blood test itself winds up showing one of the characters as a duplicate, and one more dies in the ensuing attack. But even after that and a series of events that result in the destruction of the base, the audience cannot be fully sure if the remaining characters have saved the world, or will be starting the alien conquest over again as soon as their bodies are taken somewhere above freezing...

 Man, I'm ticked that I was only seven when this movie came out. It had to be amazing to see the super-gruesome Rob Bottin effects on the big screen and without warning. Slime, blood, spittle, ooze, ichor and flesh in super-widescreen? I would have dug the hell out of that when I was old enough to not be terrified for a couple years every time I closed my eyes. The script is amazingly smart, sketching a dozen different characters and giving the audience constant ambiguity about who is or isn't an alien replicant from the moment the heroes know what's going on. The shifting alliances and paranoia keep the viewer on edge just as much as the characters and the cramped shots inside the American base contrast with the endless vistas of ice and show outside. I strongly suspect the people behind The Hitcher saw this one; they were obviously horror fans and the desert shots with one lone figure in the wastes recall the shots of MacReady's helicopter flying across the vast desolation.

I can fully understand why critics were appalled by the movie when it came out--it's a horror movie that actually horrifies, and it's got half a dozen set pieces where flesh rips and blood flows in a manner totally unprecedented to audiences or critics. But movies are a source of visual spectacle; I can remember being blown away just looking at Tarsem Singh's The Fall event though the story didn't really do anything for me and the child actress was incomprehensible at times. This movie, especially three decades ago, was the source of images that had never been seen before and would rarely be seen again. And I see it as the opening shot of the animatronics revolution that ruled science fiction and horror cinema for a decade or so, until James Cameron made a sequel to his time travel death robot movie and gave everyone a look at what was possible then.

There's been a remake and a video game based on this movie, and I feel weird saying "accept no substitutes" about a remake, but...accept no substitutes. This one's the real deal. Even if only a few people noticed that in its original run.


  1. I was old enough to see this in the theatre (well, nearly, and my mother was willing to play along at the cashier), and it was indeed pretty damn startling on the great big screen.

    I don't know if, in the time since you've written this, you've managed to see the remake-- if not, set some time aside, as it's more of a carefully crafted prequel. There's only one moment of hard-to-swallow nonsense toward the end, but otherwise it plays by the same rules as Carpenter, and relies on a lot of practical effects rather than CGI so one doesn't get that video-game sensation that gives the disbelief suspension such a pummelling. They do a very good job blending into the opening of Carpenter's film, too. I wouldn't recommend seeing them out of chronological sequence, but if you like one, you'll like the other.

    ...and since this is my first comment as a stranger, I should mention: I found my over from a link on "1000 Misspent Hours and Counting", and I'm enjoying my wander back through your work immensely.

  2. Thank you so much for the kind words! I've been a big fan of Santo's work on 1000 Misspent Hours for years and it's an amazing ego boost to find out that someone who likes his work likes mine as well.

    I haven't seen the remakeprequelrebootsequel yet, but it's on the list. Maybe I'll do that one for T this HubrisWeen.

    And I always thought practical effects looked better because they had to be lit on the same set or location as the actors; they just tend to occupy the reality of the scene more effectively than a CG creature or blood spray does.