Playing Detective In Carpenter’s “The Thing”

(Author’s foreword: The following essay draws inspiration from Rob Ager’s excellent two-part series on Youtube regarding Childs’ status at the end of John Carpenter’s The Thing. The two clips can be found here and here. My intention as author of this piece is to argue for the film’s place in overarching cinematic canon, and to that end I call on some of Ager’s thoughts for the purpose of reference rather than to claim them as my own, so due credit must be given for his fantastic analysis.)

A huge part of what makes John Carpenter’s 1982 horror masterpiece The Thing so successful as a film lies in the beautiful ambiguity and paranoia intrinsic to the events of the narrative. Even when the picture comes to a close, and MacReady shares a drink with Childs amidst the white-capped and smoldering ruins of their arctic outpost, much remains uncertain; in particular, the question of Childs’ legitimacy looms large in our minds and by extension so too does the success of MacReady’s explosive coup. It’s the ultimate mystery in a movie riddled with them– who did the alien first assimilate? Who destroyed the blood samples? What happened to Fuchs exactly? None of them have the same gravity as the question of Childs’ status at the end, but it’s the confrontation of these queries that makes The Thing such an icon in horror and even film as a whole.

The Thing invites us to begin our investigative work almost immediately; the sight of the helicopter chasing down the Malamute should give anyone reason enough to pause and wonder as to the pilot’s purpose in attacking the mostly defenseless hound. We, the audience, of course have knowledge that the characters of the film do not– while we may not yet know the extent of the danger the Malamute represents to the inhabitants of the outpost the dog approaches in the first few minutes of the film, Carpenter’s opening credits, which feature a classically retro-looking UFO crashing toward Earth, indicate that something extraterrestrial is afoot from the get-go. If the Norwegians in the helicopter are trying to kill that hound, it’s not unreasonable for us to assume that the two events are somehow connected.

I’m digressing slightly. Really, nothing could be more appropriate for The Thing than an introductory mystery. I tend to think of Carpenter’s movie as something of a body horror-whodunit; it’s driven by an intention to scare its audience, certainly, but the film so deliberately and fastidiously obfuscates truth that answering the questions posed throughout the plot become as much a part of the experience as witnessing the visceral unraveling of the human form and the ratcheting levels of paranoia felt by the station’s crew members. Of course The Thing can be enjoyed solely on the merits of being a very gruesome, very frightening, very effective slice of cinema, but too much care is taken in crafting the picture to simply chalk the entire production up to being “only” a horror movie.

So with this in mind, The Thing by its very nature begets the cold opening Carpenter presents to his audience. I don’t harbor any illusions that Carpenter meant for the conundrum at the center of his film to be solvable by any means; The Thing offers no hard answers and even today is left open to great amounts of speculation and analysis to determine where both the alien nemesis of the picture and our hero, MacReady, stand. It’s only fitting, then, that Carpenter instills his film with intrigue at the onset.

Once the Malamute has ingratiated itself to the American team, and its pursuers are both dead, more questions arise immediately and continue to do so at a nearly exponential pace. (And isn’t it interesting that just as the alien creature itself assimilates other life forms, so too do the Americans absorb the Malamute into their own number?) We wonder which crew member does the silhouette on the wall belong as the dog wanders the hallways of the base, whose clothes Nauls finds in the trash, when Blair became infected. In the midst of these queries, the camp begins to break apart at the seams as distrust slowly germinates throughout the entirety of the crew, aiding in the creature’s self-propagation and the consumption of the station’s human inhabitants.

Carpenter develops these events with a careful and precise sense of staging, to the effect that he’s able to avoid giving direct answers to The Thing‘s numerous questions and yet still leave viewers with ample knowledge to deduce the alien’s movements and the fate of the remaining characters in the climactic arctic inferno. In popular theories, Childs must be infected; his behavior at the end isn’t in line with his character, and the explanation he offers MacReady for his disappearance clashes with what actually happens. Bennings must have destroyed the blood samples; Windows audibly drops the keys when he walks in on Bennings’ transformation. Even then there’s room to debate the merits of these theories, too, and so the mysteries of The Thing remain unsolved– though we can strive to reach some educated conclusions.

Ultimately, the unanswerable and unknowable nature of The Thing elevates the film into a strata beyond that of solely horror. It’s impossible to discount the effect Carpenter’s iconic picture has had on horror as a genre, or argue that The Thing isn’t a horror film, of course, but that’s not the intention. By sustaining an overarching sense of secrecy in his narrative and infusing his movie’s DNA with that of detective noir (whether he meant to or not), Carpenter’s movie succeeds in drawing viewers into the cinematic world and deeply entrenching them in the otherworldly paranoia of the characters’ circumstances. In short, Carpenter’s direction lends itself to a sense of immersion which significantly heightens the experience of watching The Thing, which in turn leads the film to resonate more strongly than many other horror films of its era.

Best of all, The Thing‘s very nature presents an excellent example of how audience members can become active participants in viewing a movie. In between the film’s celebrated use of practical effects work and substantial volumes of grue, The Thing proves to be a thinking person’s movie, as we’re encouraged to engage in its central mystery ourselves and unravel the threads to discern the truth. And in fact as Carpenter transports us into his narrative, we’re almost naturally inclined to do just that; the further we’re pulled into the film, the more we concern ourselves with identifying the infected crew members and figuring out whether their various discoveries (MacReady’s torn clothes, for example) are evidential or simply alien ploys.

I’m writing all of this about a month after the release of the 2011 prequel picture to Carpenter’s classic*, which I haven’t seen and probably won’t bother touching until it makes its way to DVD. Just as his film is remembered over Howard Hawks’ 1940 treatment of the material**, though, so too will we remember the 1982 film before the 2011 film a decade from now. Indisputably, Carpenter’s vision is singular and iconic within both the scope of horror cinema and cinema at large, but what truly distinguishes The Thing from the rest of his oeuvre and from the work of his peers lies in how elements unconnected from one another at first glance weave together to create something totally unique; it’s as much a horror movie as it is a puzzle and an enigma that dares its audience to piece together the truth on their own.

*Full disclosure: I’d originally meant to get published in-line with that movie’s release. Oops.

**Incidentally, calling Carpenter’s film a “remake” is slightly inaccurate, as his picture is closer to the source material, John W. Campbell’s short story Who Goes There?, than Hawks’ picture.

8 thoughts on “Playing Detective In Carpenter’s “The Thing”

  1. Bra-VO.

    Yeah, that was a nice read, right there. A loving tribute. Well deserved.

    I’m totally down with it, this film is great. There’s no doubt. Genius getting tossed around is not out of line… its incredible.

    “Best of all, The Thing‘s very nature presents an excellent example of how audience members can become active participants in viewing a movie. In between the film’s celebrated use of practical effects work and substantial volumes of grue, The Thing proves to be a thinking person’s movie, as we’re encouraged to engage in its central mystery ourselves and unravel the threads to discern the truth. And in fact as Carpenter transports us into his narrative, we’re almost naturally inclined to do just that”

    Should be a blurb on a future special edition box cover! 😀

    Listen though man… do yourself a favor. Dont even see the new one. Just dont. I mean, maybe for someone who had never seen THIS movie the new one might not be a total waste, but for people who have seen and loved this one… it’s depressing. Seriously depressing. The only scenes of value are lifted almost note for note and shot for shot from this one, and everything and anything they added that was new or their own just sucked outright.

    I left it depressed. You will too…

    • I’m not even sure how I never got around to responding to this comment, Dan. Better late than never, though.

      First, you’re right on. Nothing wrong with calling this a classic or a genius piece of filmmaking– because that’s exactly what it is. The idea might be steeped in camp, but Carpenter treats it with adult gloves and makes a genuine, bona fide outstanding mystery out of it. It’s a marvel of craftsmanship.

      Thanks for the kind words. I hope that I’m lucky enough to get even half that paragraph to serve as a DVD blurb, but I’ll just be happy with the fact that you made the remark in the first place. Much appreciated. As to the remake– I don’t know, bud. I can’t really not see it. Such is my love for Carpenter’s masterpiece that I will accept the hideous challenge that is sitting through the prequel/remake/whateverthefuckitis. It can’t be helped.

    • Well, how awesome is WordPress now, sending alerts when comments have been replied to even if you’re not subscribed to the thread?

      Dont sweat it Andy, I know how it goes…. I’m curious as to how you even– Ah. The commenter below brought you back. Gotcha.

      Yeah, man, I was impressed with this one Andy, it was a nice write up. I still check in here, BTW, you just havent put up anything I can chime in on in awhile. LOL… I’ll be interested to know how bad you hate the prequel (:D Note I’ve already signed you up as a hater), so hit me up somehow when you see it man.

      • I like that new feature myself. Very useful stuff.

        And I’m glad you liked this so much, that means a lot. I just hope that my future updates contain some stuff you can actually comment on!

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  3. Your review clearly demonstrates a deep appreciation of Carpenter’s artistry. While I will always call myself a “fan,” it is only in memory of his films from two decades past. His earliest films- Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing- have a foreboding atmosphere, such elegant looming imagery, it is hard to believe his films have become so hackneyed. I consider Starman (a departure for him) to be the last truly great film. While I enjoyed Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness, everything after that just seems cheap and uninspired. Two years ago, I saw a midnight madness screening of The Ward at the TIFF, hoping it be a return to form, but it was a depressingly mediocre movie. I fear the Carpenter I used to love is gone for good.

    • I’m inclined to believe that Carpenter’s best movies– The Thing, Escape From New York, etc– could only have been made in the late 70s/early-mid 80s. Outside of that stretch of time, they just don’t work, though I will admit to being a big fan of both In the Mouth of Madness and Vampires. I don’t think you could make The Thing (’82) today and have it succeed. So while I love the Carpenter of old, I’m with you– he’s long gone. And The Ward was, indeed, terrible.

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