Monday, October 25, 2010

Never Trust a Swedish, er, Norwegian Dog

I am just going to be completely honest here. The Thing is one of my all-time favorite movies. It comes from the era of John Carpenter in which he could do no wrong (Halloween, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China). So, I will try to be objective in this blog, but know that I surely am not objective about this picture, I’m a fan.

The first thing I thought of when watching this movie (again) was how little the film seems to care about demographics, market share, or making everyone happy. There is no romantic subplot, no humorous aside. This is the best example of a full length feature film fitting into a short-story motif. That is, there is one mood, one of mounting dread and paranoia that culminates in a good old fashioned monster hunt. The cast is all male, and all business. I love that, it doesn’t get diluted in nonsense or obvious rewrites designed to broaden the audience. It is an unapologetic horror film with science fiction elements.

What makes this movie work is the perfect isolation of the characters. MacReady’s first line of dialogue (not counting the chess playing computer he loses to) just helps to ratchet up the micro-tension that much more: “First goddamn week of winter.” The men are just setting up for a long isolated winter when a Norwegian helicopter shows up with a stray dog and shoots at them. Later Blair destroys the radios, both helicopters and the mechanical land transports. They are beyond isolated.
This works on two levels. First, and most important, the characters can’t escape. They are there with The Thing whether they like it or not. Second, The Thing is there with them. Redundant? No. What I mean by that is the isolation saves the movie from having to show The Thing trying to infect the entire world.

Along with the unapologetic tone of the movie, the understated music really sells it. That simple bass line (ba-dum-bum … ba-dum-bum …) followed by the long strings/synth sounds. Carpenter really outdid himself with the music. His score for Halloween is probably more iconic, but the music in The Thing really sets the tone and ratchets things up in the subconscious for the viewer.

Along the lines of being unapologetic the movie doesn’t fall for the hackneyed slasher film cliché of sex equals bad equals you must die. The Thing strikes as it can, like a predator. It doesn’t make judgment calls; it doesn’t care about your background, your skin color, or your station in life. It just wants to replicate … everything.

And that brings us to The Thing. It is an alien, but is it a monster? You could argue that it is just doing what it was designed to do: replicate other life forms and blend in. Isn’t it just an animal doing what comes naturally? Nope, and that is what makes this one of my favorite movies.

If The Thing can design a spaceship and travel across the stars, then it has intelligence. Intelligence implies a civilization or a society of some kind. It also implies that it knows that it is subsuming these other life forms. But it doesn’t care. It would rather have to freeze back to sleep amongst the burnt out rubble of the camp than live peaceably with humans.

Oh no, it is no mere animal. It is quite the monster. In many ways the most heinous monster we have studied this semester. It is wonderful and leads to all kinds of big picture questions.

The big one and this is the only flaw I’ve ever found in this story is this: how can a copy have the same memories and knowledge of the original organism? Copying a dog? No problem. It can pant and bark and lick your face. No need to communicate on anything but a canine level. But to replicate a human? How does it know the memories? Does the tissue itself contain the knowledge? In the “science” of this movie it does. I’m okay with this. Heck, if Star Trek and other stories can teleport people from place to place and they are fully intact memory-wise then why split hairs here, right?

This movie has some iconic imagery:

-The Norwegian dog going into the room with the silhouetted head that turns around. Who is that?

-At the Norwegian camp the frozen corpse with the bloody tendrils hanging down crystalized and solid.

-The grotesque melded flesh they bring back from the Norwegian camp that looks like pulled taffy melted and gelled together.

-Norris’s chest bursting open and eating Doc Copper’s arms.

-The big stinger: the blood leaping out of the dish when MacReady puts the hot wire in it.

The other thing about this imagery that makes this movie such a classic is that once the big reveal happens things seem worse not better for the viewer. In most horror movies, once the monster is a known quantity (big guy with a knife, serial killer, ghost, werewolf, vampire, whatever) the viewer measures that against what was in their own head and usually finds the movie version lacking. But The Thing was so groundbreaking with its imagery, so scary with the way things unfolded that even after you know what is going on you’re still freaked out and not sure what is going to happen next. The fear doesn’t diminish, it continues to increase.

It is 89 minutes into a 100 minute movie before we return to the horror movie standard of the hunted (humans) now hunting the monster (The Thing). For 89 minutes we get a slow burn that turns the heat up and picks off crew members one by one. There is very little “I’m going off by myself” nonsense. There is very little in-fighting. The crew grows paranoid and nobody trusts anybody until the blood test works, but even after they go for Blair … Childs runs out into the snow.

Which always begs the question as MacReady and Childs sit there at the end, drinking their bottle and watching the camp burn … is Childs a thing or not? I don’t think so. I think it is fitting that two humans survive only to freeze to death knowing there’s nothing they can do about it.

There is no happy ending here; no cavalry rides in to save them. They faced a monster and won, but it cost them everything. And maybe they didn’t win, that is up to the viewer. When spring comes the rescue crew will show up. What do they find? What if a very much alive MacReady, or so it appears, walks out of the rubble with a tall tale about the events of the winter? Scary wonderful.

Again, it is difficult for me to analyze this movie with anything but fanboy glasses on. I just love the whole thing (no pun intended). It is bleak and dark and believable and unapologetic and really just one of the best horror movies of all time.


  1. Did you know that The Thing was nominated for a Razzie for Worst Musical Score?

    I know. I'm upset too.

  2. REALLY? Because when I heard that heartbeat at the beginning it totally heralded the thing in the ice, its heart beating menacingly. LOVED it.

    At least that was how I took it.

    I didn't watch this with fangirl glasses, since I'd never seen it before. But I loved it. The isolation really worked for me, not because they were stuck on a spaceship, but because of the ferocity of the elements. Alien didn't work for me because I cannot relate to the ship (and apparently being able to relate to the characters and situations is very important for me, I've learned a lot about myself and my likes and dislikes on a whole new scale), but this one really worked. Maybe it had something to do with the snowpocalypse we had hear in Pittsburgh.

    I also wondered at the end, but decided that neither one was actually a Thing. I think I read somewhere that there was actually supposed to be a woman in the crew, but the actress had to back out of filming. Which, I agree with you, was a good thing. The unapologies really helped set the realism for me.

    Really thrilled with this one, and I'm with you on the music.

  3. You make some great points in here about how the isolation really ups the ante. Also, I like your points about how the mistrust in the crew really adds to the tension/paranoia. For me, this was the best part of the film. I didn't look at it through fangirl glasses, but I can see how anyone could enjoy this movie.

  4. I watched this movie when I was young enough to forget most of it by the time we watched it for class. The image that I always remembered was the head growing tentacle eyes and spider legs and taking off into the hallway. In fact, when I thought of "The Thing" before watching it, that was the one image that I could absolutely recall.

    The more I think about this movie, the more I like it. It scared the crap out of me when I was but a sprog, and it really got under my skin watching it again. Even with the very old tech (OMG I'm old).

    I'm still not sure if Childs was a Thing or not, though...

    I like your analysis, btw, of whether the thing is a monster. And I'd agree - it definitely is.

  5. I really enjoyed seeing this movie through your eyes. I wasn't a fan at all, but some of the images you pointed out, particularly, did strike me as noteworthy. It does have a fantastic visual, and I loved reading your list of the best!

  6. I agree about the whole isolation thing. It truly was complete in this movie. However, I feel that the monster was not much more than a conglomeration of Hollywood special effects of its day. Probably overdone at that. Beyond the shock value it fell flat for me.


  7. Well said. It would be hard to have this movie made today without a need to show a hot character in their underwear or adding some subplot of a romantic interlude.
    You are right. This monster is more monster than most of the readings we've done.
    I didn't find the movie all that scary, but I could be jaded with years of movies in the way.
    I enjoyed your comments on this.

  8. As usual, I loved your post, but what really stood out for me was your point about the ambiguity of the ending. I always just assumed both Childs and MacReady either froze to death or one of them mutated into the thing and infected the other; both scenarios end in the same result so what does it really matter? The idea that either of the surviving characters is a fresh and engaging perspective, not to mention one that sends chills down my spine.