by Julien Allen
What makes The Thing really scary is not the special effects. Unlike Phantom of the Opera (1924), wherein all the terror begins and ends with the indelible image of Lon Chaney’s unmasked face (see, in similar vein, Pumpkins III’s treatment of Mr. Barlow in Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot) there are many unforgettable coups de théâtre by Rob Bottin in The Thing by turns disgusting, bewildering, sickening, shocking, and more often than not absolutely hilarious—but not scary. Not really. If anything, these magnificent plastic pyrotechnics operate as a welcome release from what is truly horrific about John Carpenter’s 1982 flopzilla (now cult favorite)—and that’s not knowing what it is that you’re afraid of.
You see, The Thing is not just a clever title. The enemy, a corrosive alien organism which kills and replicates its prey, by its nature has no distinct face or personality of its own—a trite “conquer and survive” motivation is ascribed to it but it defies any description, hence the impotent references throughout to “that . . . thing.” It only exists visually as either a complete replication of one of the characters, or more often a repulsive abortion of its own attempt to do so. Whereas the exact same observation could be made of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, that film was very quick to define the enemy (and its motivation) by reference to a familiar concept of global paranoia. Despite Wilford Brimley’s character being driven mad by the prospect of the Thing incubating and destroying every human on earth, The Thing is really just haunted house drama—the primary aim of each character is his own immediate survival within the confines of an Antarctic base, cut off from the outside world by a snowstorm. For this, each character needs to know who he can trust to help him.
But if you don’t know what it is you’re afraid of, then you’re afraid of everything. So once the immediate danger is defined as the possibility that any one might be “infected,” the film becomes a thrilling reimagining of Jean-Paul Sartre’s short play No Way Out, wherein Garcin, trapped in a single room with his two female companions, utters the immortal Sartrian aphorism: “Hell is . . . other people.”
This close-quarters horror culminates in an unbearably tense dialogue/action scene wherein MacReady (Kurt Russell, who is no more trusted than anyone else, but who has the presence of mind to go first dibs on the flame thrower) ties all the survivors up onto a bench and tests blood samples from each of them to try and trigger a defensive reaction from whichever is the Thing all while the trussed victims bark their innocence, resentment, and fear at him. The satisfaction of the scene, as with so many others in the film, is in the impossibility of the audience to properly relate to any of the protagonists—a gruesome pocket version of Ten Little Indians, where the killer changes into the victim on each occasion.
So what of these “other people”? Here is where Carpenter seems to have stolen directly from Ridley Scott’s Alien, by having his cast of characters comprise a group of ostensibly tedious scientists. They are as far removed from the genre stereotypes as possible, but Carpenter takes it even further: respected theatrical character actors Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat, and Peter Maloney are amongst the nerdlingers easily brushed aside by MacReady when it comes to getting serious about killing the Thing. Though these straight batsmen, like Gregory Peck in The Omen, seem meant to add credibility, they will all be violently (and delectably) transformed into some of the more repulsive entities in horror cinema—the graphic implausibility operating as comic relief from the taut cheesewire atmosphere of distrust and fear. As Thomas Waites says when Charles Hallahan’s disembodied head grows arachnoid legs, turns upside down and scuttles out of the door in silence while the others simply watch: “You have gotta be fucking kidding.”
The Thing ultimately represented for Carpenter the opportunity to throw onto the screen what Halloween’s restricted budget forbade him. And just as a cash-strapped Carpenter devised an apparently omnipresent ghost in Halloween (Michael Myers is a now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t creature of the shadows, who could strike from anywhere), so in The Thing, the same claustrophobic sense of present danger is more terrifying than any special effect.