There’s really no cinematic experience quite like watching John Carpenter’s The Thing for the first time. The desolation, the gritty man’s man vibe, the snow, and of course Rob Bottin’s next level special effects. It’s a movie about paranoia; not knowing who you thought you knew and not trusting someone you considered a brother. Something malevolent that could take the shape and mannerisms of anything it encountered; a friend, a co-worker, a Siberian Husky, your mom. It’s a special kind of horror, really. John Carpenter took the concept to a whole new level, turning his sci fi action film into a extra-terrestrial nightmare of the highest order.
Of course, sometimes when you shoot for the moon you sometimes end up flat on your face. I just don’t think the world at large was ready for John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982. It was loved by those true blue horror fans that saw it(maybe 40 people?), but was not treated so kindly by the typical movie viewer looking for a fun alien flick. Critics were, well, critical to say the least. I won’t repeat some of the worst quotes. I’ll just say these people were watching this film with their heads up their proverbial asses. Talk about just not getting it. Sheesh.
Of course hindsight is 20/20, and many have gone back to revisit The Thing with new eyes and open minds and have realized what an absolute classic and one-of-a-kind film it truly was. Unfortunately, re-evaluation doesn’t change quotes like “quintessential moron movie of the 80’s”, and the negative press hurt Carpenter in the long run. When I found out he was supposed to have directed Firestarter but lost the job because of the backlash from this I was devastated. Of course, he did get Christine. But he should’ve gotten both of them dammit!(though, if he’d gotten Firestarter we wouldn’t have had that amazing Tangerine Dream score.) I just think the overall backlash John Carpenter got in 1982 broke something inside of the guy. It permanently rewired a master filmmaker to be doubtful of his abilities and pessimistic of his chosen field.
But hey, we’re supposed to be talking about scores!
The score to The Thing was the least memorable thing about the film to me, at least until I revisited it 30 years later. As a kid scores like Halloween, The Fog, and Escape From New York stuck out. They were very much a part of the film, like a character playing a part. With Morricone’s work in The Thing it was a score in the classic sense. He wrote a score for an action film, not so much a horror film. But when re-watching The Thing with objective eyes it was just as much The Wild Bunch as it was Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A gritty, foul-mouthed western set in the world of frozen deserts and science fiction. The score needed to be subtle, but dramatic. After watching The Thing several times over the last few years with my son I see it with different eyes. The Thing was John Carpenter’s Sam Peckinpah film. That is, Sam Peckinpah doing science fiction and horror. The Thing was an ode to old westerns, grizzled men, and double crosses, but done so in a horror setting. This could’ve been on a fishing boat or an oil rig in the ocean or a space station in…wait, that’s been done. Anyways, I think you get what I’m saying.
Ennio Morricone’s score sneaks up on you. It’s extremely quiet throughout with slow build ups. When Waxwork released it on vinyl three years ago I picked it up and was immediately taken aback by the fact I’d never really noticed how amazing it was. “Humanity(Part 1)” is gorgeous and melancholy. Desolate like the Antarctic landscape where the film takes place. “Contamination” is spider legs crawling up a wall(or out of a human head), spinning with prickly strings. “Beastiality” creates dread in the classic sense with picked strings as well, very much in the vein of Bernard Herrmann. “Humanity(Part 2)” does a great job of borrowing from the Carpenter bag of musical tricks. With a heartbeat rhythm Morricone gives his sound a hypnotic, electronic vibe.
Revisiting the score I’m hearing it with new ears, much like the world at large has re-evaluated Carpenter’s film. I can’t imagine one without the other now, and I can’t fathom a world where this film was reviled like it was. For all the 1980s fetishizing, this was one major dark spot on it. The Thing was and is an absolute masterpiece; from the desolate landscape to the nuanced acting to the next-level effects, and of course the amazing score by Ennio Morricone.
I think it’s time to revisit the film again.