(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.