The first movie I watched that truly disturbed me to my core was John Carpenter’s The Thing. Sure, I’d seen films that made me jump and that had given me nightmares for a week straight. And yes, there were films that made me not want to go downstairs for fear of creature hands coming through the steps and pulling me underneath for a grotesque fate. Did Poltergeist make me fear clowns and looking under my bed? Absolutely. Friday The 13th cured me of ever wanting to be the outdoors-y type. Nightmare On Elm Street made sure I’d always try to wake up before I hit the ground in a bad dream where I was falling, for fear of never waking up. And The Food Of The Gods made me fear…well, giant worms? I don’t know, but I had nightmares for a week after my parents took me to see it at the drive-in when I was 3 years old. But the film that really grabbed me and viscerally messed with my head was The Thing.
I remember watching Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World on Nightmare Theater, a local Friday night “creature feature”- like show, as a little kid with my dad and not really thinking much of it. It was interesting, but for some reason I remember thinking James Arness’ “Thing” was a giant carrot. Maybe my dad told me that(he liked to mess with me as a kid…much like I like to mess with my own children.) I got to see a lot of great and not-so great horror flicks on Nightmare Theater, which I credit for my love of horror in general. But it wasn’t until I was 10 and we bought our first VCR that I truly began building up my horror knowledge. The first two movies we rented? Romero’s Creepshow and the Bob and Doug McKenzie flick Strange Brew. I was off to a great start.
Within that first year of renting movies from Video World The Thing came about 6 months into our Betamax journey. I’d heard things about the movie, mainly from my dad talking about it, and knew I wanted to see it. My parents weren’t super strict about what they let me watch growing up. There were some “off limits” films, for sure. Mainly movies with lots of sex and lots of bad language were gonna be on the “no way” list. I remember mom and dad usually watching those after I went to bed. I could hear Risky Business, Dressed To Kill, and Scarface through the wall as I tried going to bed. The TV was directly on the other side of the wall where my bed was. Horror movies, though, my parents were a little more lenient with my brother and I. I can remember mom and dad taking my brother and I to see the original Fright Night, Silver Bullet, and even Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. I wasn’t even in middle school for any of those. We were just a horror film household I guess.
So The Thing. Both the original and Carpenter’s remake were based on the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell(writing as Don A. Stuart.) Hawks’ version was more loosely based, where Carpenter took a more direct approach to the adaptation. I think, whether they were direct or not, there were nods to McCarthy-ism in the original as it was released around the time of the McCarthy trials and the Communist witch hunts in Hollywood. The idea of not knowing who you can trust among your peers felt very close to home to those working in the community at the time, as well as in the country as a whole. In 1982, Carpenter was coming off of a stream of classic films. Halloween(1978), The Fog(1980), and Escape From New York(1981), as well as a much-loved TV movie Elvis starring Kurt Russell in 1979. He proved he was capable of doing a hell of a lot with not much bank. He went from a $6 million dollar budget with Escape to $15 million for The Thing, and it showed. The movie’s special effects were unlike anything we’d seen before. Rob Bottin, then only in his early 20s, pretty much revolutionized special effects in film.
So for those that aren’t aware of The Thing, I’ll give you a synopsis(why aren’t you aware of this classic??): At an American research station in Antarctica, the crew is encountered with an alien life form that can take the shape of its victims, which causes the all-male crew to start wondering who’s really themselves and who’s actually the alien in disguise. How they come in contact with the alien I’ll leave that up for you to find out(if you haven’t seen it.) Like I said, the special effects in this film are impressive, even by today’s standards. CGI does some great things, but it doesn’t begin to compare to practical effects. Between Bottin’s special effects crew(and one memorable effect by effects wizard Stan Winston), this film was viscerally and stomach-churningly on-point.
The score was written by Ennio Morricone. Unlike most of Carpenter’s other films, he let someone else take the reigns this time around, and that person was the spaghetti western master himself. After recently picking up the Waxwork Records release of this stunning score, I have to say that I never noticed just how incredible it was. I think watching as a kid I was so engrossed with the film that the music just didn’t register with me. Even after watching it less than a year ago the music still didn’t register with me. I think more than anything after listening to it recently was that it sounds nothing like what I imagine Ennio Morricone and his scores to sound like. That’s probably due to my ignorance more than anything else.
Like I said before, I correlate Morricone to Eastwood and spaghetti westerns. On The Thing, Morricone goes for a much tenser vibe, complete with trickling strings and brasher symphonic sounds. At times it sounds more like Bernard Herrmann scoring Alfred Hitchcock, which for a film about isolation and paranoia you couldn’t ask for anything more. There’s also a real classic feel to the orchestral movements in this film, like you’re hearing pieces from a classic Universal monster film. You can almost see Dracula’s castle in the distance, or smell the electrified corpse of Frankenstein’s monster as its being lowered from the roof into the famous laboratory. There are also moments where Morricone seems to be pulling from Carpenter’s playbook here, with minimalist notes and quiet tension. “Humanity, Pt. 2” feels like something John Carpenter would’ve come up with, while “Eternity” sounds like it could’ve been used in Carpenter’s The Fog. “Humanity Pt.1” is all slow burn with lilting strings and piano. It puts me in mind of what Jeff Grace did years later in Ti West’s excellent The House Of The Devil.
All in all, this is a beautifully arranged piece of orchestral work.
So the film was universally panned when it came out in 1982. Carpenter was crushed as his great efforts were ignored and his classic science fiction film was downplayed as “excessive” and “a wretched excess”, “the quintessential moron movie of the 80s”. One reviewer states of John Carpenter, “Astonishingly, he blows it.” Of course, dear reader, none of these critics got it. In fact, hardly anyone did at the time. It was as if everyone in the cinematic-reviewing community felt as if John Carpenter had broken some cardinal rule when he mixed both science fiction and horror together in one film. Of course it had been done before. Anyone heard of Alien? Yeah, me too. Of course, science fiction and horror go hand in hand. Some of the most astonishing evils have come from science: the atomic bomb, chemical warfare, L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. I’m all for science, folks. I’m just saying there’s a lot of scary stuff to come from scientific progress, as well some great stuff. But having said all that I don’t think John Carpenter was trying to say any great truths with The Thing. He just wanted to make a hard-boiled, bloody version of Ten Little Indians and he succeeded wonderfully. It was a film about a group of rough dudes stuck together in a place where there’s no escape, trying to figure out who’s who and what’s what. If the beast doesn’t get ’em inside, the sub-zero temps will get ’em on the outside. Even though it’s still basically a monster-in-disguise movie, there’s still plenty of “who can you trust when the enemy is hiding in plain sight” fodder that you can mull over and compare to the times we currently live in.
Everything about The Thing is perfect. From the casting to set design to the special effects to the frigid isolation. And of course the music. When Carpenter first asked Ennio Morricone to score his film, Morricone said “Regarding The Thing, by John Carpenter, I’ve asked him, as he was preparing some electronic music with an assistant to edit on the film, “Why did you call me, if you want to do it on your own?” He surprised me, he said – “I got married to your music. This is why I’ve called you.” I was quite amazed, he called me because he had my music at his wedding.” If I could tell John Carpenter why I spent so much time writing about and obsessing over a movie made 35 years ago, I guess I’d say it’s because it completely messed my prepubescent mind up.
But in the best way possible.