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John Carpenter's


In Defense of The THING: Assessing a Forsaken Masterpiece

by Daniel Kolbe Strange

When John Carpenter’s The Thing was released in American theaters during the summer of 1982, initial estimations tipped it towards becoming a surefire success. The film―a remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks sci-fi classic The Thing From Another World—told the story of a scientific research team in Antarctica who unearth a mysterious alien life form only to have it awaken and start assimilating the members, using its perfectly imitated human copies to wage guerilla warfare upon its bewildered human adversaries. Where Hawk’s version played it safe in regards to heroic crowd-pleasing tactics and traditional Hollywood happy ending conventions, John Carpenter stayed faithful to the original source material (the 1938 novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell) and went all-out in his dark exploration of paranoia, fear and uncertainty in a claustrophobic remote outpost where friends and colleagues are driven to near madness by the possibility of any one of them being not trusted equals, but flesh-raven monstrosities in human guise. Approaching its release, one had reason for optimism regarding Carpenter’s achievement; the unostentatious cast of The Thing was manifold but unified, with all whopping twelve principals delivering solid performances; the story was viciously engaging, challenging the viewer to keep on guessing, and the pre-computerized special effects by Rob Bottin remain to this day bewitchingly stunning in their otherworldly breadth and scope; at the time they were something never seen before in cinema.

  With the box office success of Alien three years past, The Thing seemed destined to become an instant American classic of the fantasy sci-fi genre. But amazingly, the film flopped at the box office, after being mauled by critic after critic. Roger Ebert characterized it condescendingly as “a great barf-bag movie”, decrying its characters as “superficial […] stereotypes”,[1] and Vincent Canby of the New York Times summed it up as being “instant junk”.[2] It did not help The Thing that a week before its release (premiering on the same night as Blade Runner), America had been seduced by a charming extra-terrestrial called E.T., and the current summer Zeitgeist in moviegoer and critical circles did not look kindly upon dark apocalyptic narratives about fear, distrust and the great baleful Unknown. The Thing ended up grossing $1,2mil less than its $15mil budget,[3] and so the antithesis to Spielberg’s blockbuster vanished after a mere three weeks in theaters, quickly forgotten.

  The treatment that The Thing received upon public release is frankly one of the most unfair receptions any film has ever gotten. Looking back on the scanty amount of classic horror films throughout the history of modern filmmaking, The Thing stands out as a truly unique and visionary film ahead of its time. In more recent years, the film has undergone a positive critical reevaluation by a newer generation of reviewers following its release on home video; nonetheless, it continues to bear that Cainitic stigma branded on it by its initial critics back in 1982, to the effect of it still not having attained the same critical status as Alien (or E.T.). This is a gross injustice, and The Thing, being in this writer’s opinion one of the most underrated films of all time, deserves much better than such. This paper is an attempt to highlight its artistic merits, and refute some of the negative accusations heaped upon it by its firsthand judges.


The film opens to Ennio Morricone’s haunting synth score, showing a snowcapped mountainous landscape. This establishing shot invokes the symbolic view of mountains acting as seals of the sublime; a fact often remarked upon by the poets of the Romantic era. It feels looming and imposing; like some heralding or omen of things to come. The unstable camera movements merges well with the harrowing soundtrack to create an apocalyptic foreboding as one witnesses a helicopter emerging from the Antarctic mist carrying a gunner firing at a fleeing huskie running through the barren wasteland. Already answers are required. It is with this strange and ominous opening that Carpenter begins his film, cutting to the crew of Outpost 31; an American research station isolated through hundreds of miles of unbroken white.

  We are shown the team members engaged in various recreational activities; reading, playing guitar, playing ping-pong; a tranquil scene set before the breaking storm. The film’s protagonist, the helicopter pilot MacReady (played with stoic aptitude by Kurt Russel) is seen playing computer chess alone in his room, and drinking whiskey. Away from the group, Carpenter singles out MacReady as a loner, as well as a strategically minded man, and the shot of him locked in a game of chess against a non-human adversary is an allegorical image that will run in tow with the film’s progression.

  Carpenter has treated the audience with respect in casting mature actors to portray the somber researchers and technicians who inhabit Outpost 31. Rather than the frolicking teenagers that horror movies have become famous for harboring (and that Carpenter himself helped promulgate in Halloween), the team of Outpost 31 is made up of rational and intelligent adults trained in retaining control and order; these are all men of action who come across as genuinely real and believable people. And when a crazed helicopter gunner disrupts their equanimity, frantically aiming for the fleeing dog and wounding the meteorologist Bennings in the process, they react not like macho movie icons, but like real professionals forced into unforeseen circumstances. Though this levelheadedness is soon to disintegrate into uncertainty and insecurity, Carpenter and Lancaster never insults the viewer by sacrificing their characters through moronic actions conflicting with their established modus operandi.

  After the shootout, when Garry the station manager fires a bullet through the head of the Norwegian assailant to protect his team mates, Carpenter invests a few contemplative seconds showing the shootist silently gazing upon his fallen kill. The “superficial […] stereotypes” that Ebert claimed was inundating this film is still nowhere to be found. The rescued huskie is taken in by Clark, the dog handler, and MacReady agrees to fly Dr. Cooper to investigate the Norwegian research base that the intruder’s helicopter has been traced to.

  Even though much suspicion from the audience must now lie on the strangely stoical dog, Carpenter wisely focuses the camera on the film’s characters. Every man at Outpost 31 has a professional purpose and a personal reason for having been willingly stationed in a no man’s land far from civilization. With such limited time to tell the story, Carpenter, rather than going into every person’s past and preoccupation, gives clear and concise exposition of the film’s twelve characters through brief moments of interaction and snippets of dialogue. Had not Bill Lancaster’s script, brilliant in its confidence and simplicity, endowed each of these men with heart and backbone once the Thing starts infiltrating the group and breaks down the chain of command, the movie would lose suspense in its lack of interest to its own characters. Fortunately, due to the full year of pre-production that the movie underwent, Carpenter and his crew were able to fine-tune the film to an optimal degree that truly shows in the assertiveness of the final product. As independent director Rob Ager states in his review of The Thing: “careful planning and preparation, not mega-budgets, are the secret to quality film making.”[4]

  As the dog roams offscreen about the camp like some Edenic serpent, MacReady and Copper arrive by chopper at what used to be the Norwegian outpost. The entire station has been reduced to a Pompeian mound of smoking rubble, with no survivors in sight. One wonders what Walpurgisnacht befell the Norwegians here as the two Americans enter a sepulchral hovel in search of answers.[5] The philosophical ingeniousness of this scene lies in its cyclical and subconscious nature. As Anne Bilson points in her BFI monograph, we see in the Norwegian camp a horrifying alternate reality foreshadowing the fate of the American outpost.[6] Standing as a testament to the destructive powers of the Thing, the entire tomb exhumes an aura of the unheimlich: that which is dismaying and uncanny, yet at the same time strangely familiar. Except in their similar basic infrastructures, the Norwegian camp is the antithesis to the American one, having been rendered a netherworldly hollow bastion by the Thing’s visit. Sundered walls stand clad in crimson icicles; an axe embeds a door like some Dantesque warning; no hope inside, hell all frozen over. Events happened here prefigure events to come, with the frosted slit-wristed Norwegian corpse foreshadowing Fuch’s own apparent suicide further into the film, as well as an axe completely identical to its Norwegian twin materializing in the American camp, used by Blair to kill the remaining huskies. This is similar to the use of hidden subliminal imagery that Stanley Kubrick used in The Shining (Kubrick, curiously enough, also used a towering mountain in the opening sequence to signify the sublime) to subconsciously warn viewers of the impending doom of certain characters. We see the same method manifested by Carpenter in the Norwegian base. Is true hell not finding Tartarus and finding it familiar? Indeed, if the exterior shots look a little too familiar to what we have seen earlier, it is because Carpenter reused the smoldering ruins of the destroyed American camp at the end of the movie as the Norwegian one.[7] The effect is a rare and wholly effective case of cyclically subconscious terror creeping into the mind of the viewer; horror at its finest.

  MacReady and Copper discover an abhuman husk that they freight back to Outpost 31. They bring notes too, but written in Norwegian they are next to worthless. The tension is at its peak now, with Windows, the radio operator, being unable to reach other camps (“We’re a thousand miles from nowhere, man!”): no help is coming.

  Back at the American camp, the newfound dog bears an ever wary countenance throughout the autopsy of the charred behemoth. Its game might soon be up. In hindsight of later revelations, it might have explored every cranny and nook of the installation by now, learning the habitat and habits of its prey, and knowing the camp in detail so as to prevent any need to undergo a full-scale rampage similar to what occurred at the Norwegian’s base (a battle that it almost lost); it might even be listening in on the dialogue between the characters and learning their language.[8] It is planning its next move.

  Come nightfall, Clark, the dog handler of the camp, escorts the infiltrator away from the group and into the kennel for the night. The canine settles hesitantly amongst its numerous fellow huskies and Clark exits. It sits unerringly facing the dogs in front of it with a padlocked door behind it. It is jeopardized. It starts hissing. Dogs howl in unison as its face unfurls like petals, its cleaving basiliscan visage unveiling miasmic matter within. Grizzle plasma snake finis from aeons past. Tentacles sprout from its chaotic coat making way for antennae protruding mid this writhing oozing figure flailing feelers from faroff fungi. The dogs go mad.  Few would not, seeing such endless forms most malignant. It spews sludge from its myriad appendixes, pacifying its bellowing prey, and starts absorbing the dogs.

  Cut to MacReady, in the kitchen. While never mentioned in the film, MacReady was envisioned by Carpenter and Russell to be a disenchanted Vietnam veteran, which would explain his general cynicism and solitudinous nature. It is this instinctive inability to let his guard down that sets him apart from his now sleeping colleagues, keeping him awake, wandering the compound, and ends up alerting him to the cacophony coming from the kennel, resulting in him setting off the fire alarms.[9] MacReady’s quick thinking results in a flamethrower to the dog-Thing, which has now assimilated so many huskies as to become a compounded alastor, all flashlight-litten in its leprousness. The special effects used here rival most modern CGI-schlock in its technical naturalness: organic and textured, rather than digital and polished. It is matter, not pixels, which have been accumulated and assembled to form the fright that is the Thing.

  Upon the film’s release, most reviewers reluctantly agreed on the competency of the film’s special effects, while still condemning them as being too gory and over the top. However, as is speculated by Fuchs later in the film when reading from Blair’s notebooks (”it could have imitated a million life forms on a million planets”), the Thing comes across as a dark nomadic puppet master, journeying from galaxy to galaxy whilst absorbing its prey along the way. This means that, story-wise, no matter how gory the special effects might have been subjectively perceived, critics had no reason to dub them gratuitous, as what we are dealing with is an otherworldly shape-shifter unfettered by biological boundaries in its ability to metamorphose itself. It is exactly the critics who would complain about the extravagance of the special effects that should understand what Carpenter is trying to accomplish, which is to shock the viewer out of his sense of complacency.[10] The Thing is a Lovecraftian effigy to the uncertainty of existence in the cosmos, and this ability to imitate anything to each molecular cell makes it a cataclysmic adversary; the Ultimate Monster; and the special effects perform an exceptional task in supplementing not just the aesthetics of the film, but the story; as every iota of the Thing is a hint to its powers, nature and origins. The gore is therefore not gratuitous, but in perfect harmony with the film and its themes.

  The true reason for a man to fear the Thing however, lies not in its mere physical appearance during the morphing stage, but its intentions in its finished imitated form. The Thing has proved itself a master strategian, and its ability to perfectly replicate living organisms puts it in a position to hijack any human being and use his body, his voice and his clout as a trustworthy moral man in order to kill and imitate other humans. The film is approaching the realization amongst the group that the dog could have infected other team members while it roamed the camp all day; Clark admits to having been alone with the dog for over an hour, and we the audience were lent in on an earlier scene of the dog striding purposefully into a team member’s room showing a man’s shadow on the wall (who this shadow belonged to is never revealed). The team at Outpost 31, as well as the audience, is horrified when realizing that at this point, no one is certain of who is human and who is a Thing.

  Another source of fear caused by the Thing is the mystery surrounding its origins, motivations and goals. We know from the cryptic intro sequence, as well as from the crater discovered by the group following the night of the kennel attack, that it crash-landed a space vessel into the Antarctic, hibernating in the ice for millennia until the Norwegians unearthed it and thawed it up to disastrous consequences. But what role did it even play in the crash? Was it a pilot, a stowaway, a prisoner, a saboteur, some kind of biological weapon like the monster in Alien? It is never revealed, and this lack of insight into the Thing’s nature only serves to demonize it further. MacReady, being a man of common sense, accepts that the Thing’s intricacies simply cannot be dissected with the blunt tools of human reason (“Because it’s different from us, see? Because it’s from outer space.”).

  The Thing’s origins aside, enough fright is to be taken in its infinitely gluttonous appetite. Blair theorizes that should the Thing escape the station to civilization, it could assimilate the entire world population in a manner of weeks. This apocalyptic scenario could not have swayed many critics in its favor given its bolstering by the film’s oppressively bleak ending. Where the monster in Alien was indeed a serious threat to the crew of the Nostromo, it was not a threat to mankind. There was no way for it to inflict Armageddon on earth, even should it get there. The Thing however shows us a creature that defies the natural principles of evolutionary biology, and that, given the chance, could easily spread its eldritch shapes like locusts, covering the earth as a dark pall covers a casket. The End times loom over the rest of this picture forthwith, with each and every man at Outpost 31 aware of the possible presence of other Things in the group. When Bennings grows pinchers stalking forth from his screaming frame, the group stares in disbelief as MacReady takes action and burns it (“But MacReady, I know Bennings, I’ve known him for ten years. He’s my friend!”). Is it MacReady’s emotional detachment to his colleagues that allows him to disregard any semblance of humanity in the Things, or is he simply a sore loser, intent on besting the Thing at its game? The film has now become a story of pure survival, the all-male known against the all-unknown other.

When Fuchs disappears and Nauls finds a piece of shredded clothing with MacReady’s nametag on it, the group turns against the only character we have fully trusted throughout the film. MacReady was the last person seen alone with Fuchs before the lights went out, so could he really be a Thing by this point? With every member, especially Palmer and Norris, now keen on burning him, he is forced to hold the group back with a flamethrower, eventually having to kill Clarke in self-defense who attacks him with a scalpel. Norris has a heart attack, but this turns out to be a bluff as his toothed stomach opens up and devours Copper’s arms during defibrillation whilst its head disroots its self from the body sprouting legs for scuttling athwart the floor. The bulging Norris-Thing and its arachnid progeny is subsequently destroyed, and the film, moving at a briskly pace now, shows MacReady congregating everyone into the recreation room to tie them down at gunpoint. His plan―explained only when everybody is securely bound―is to draw a small sample of their blood in a petri dish and dip a hot wire into it, awaiting its effect. If the blood is that of a Thing, the cells should react like an individual organism, giving some kind of defensive reaction. He tests himself, Windows, and the corpses of Copper and Clark; all coming out positive. Garry is still skeptical about the test, but as MacReady brings the baking wire to Palmer’s blood to see it leap from the dish like ichor aroused, Palmer’s face erupts with volcanicity. The scene ends in Ragnarök: a burning base, a pulverized Palmer-Thing, and a doomed Windows in the thralldom of assimilation. MacReady is forced to set him alight as well to the soundtrack of his panicking co-workers.

  The blood test scene, which remains one of the most well-directed and well-scripted scenes in the history of horror cinema, finally discloses to us that at least Palmer, along with Norris, have been imitations throughout a major course of the film. Whether they have been conscious of this remains a mystery; did the Thing lie dormant within them, waiting to strike at the first sufficient opportunity; or did it have complete control over mind and matter from the moment of takeover? Exactly how does a Thing which has been spawned from another Thing think? And taking Norris and Palmer’s fluctuating behavior throughout the course of the film into account, what tactical manipulations might the Thing truly have inflicted upon the group? It is next to impossible to approach these enquiries without having seen the film at least twice. Following the kennel attack, as the men discuss the nature of the Thing, Palmer stands out as a foil to the other team members as he rattles on about UFO conspiracy theories and the possibility of the U.S. government being involved. This could be the Palmer-Thing butting into the discussion with irrational conceits in order to further confuse and derange the group.[11] Palmer also expresses an accusing animosity towards Windows at a time shortly before the blood test when he himself was most definitely an imitation, again doing his best to sow seeds of paranoia in the men. When Childs burns the dog-Thing in the kennel, it is noteworthy that Palmer and Norris are the first two people to enter the kennel and extinguish the charred remains. Various other instances, as when Palmer, also a helicopter pilot, offers to fly Copper to the Norwegian outpost instead of MacReady (which would have given him an ample opportunity to assimilate him), adds a whole new layer of malevolence to his character and the overall feel of the film that one is simply not able to conceptualize on the first viewing. Norris, who throughout the story appears to be a meek and humble geologist, abounds betwixt a xanthic explosion into his hellishly disfigured transmogrification. As Rob Ager points out, the special effects used here are once again not just for aesthetics. The Norris-Thing has seen what strategic opposition MacReady is capable of, and could with its deformation be threatening him personally by “showing him a nightmare vision of his former colleague” as “a kind of psychological attack.”[12] Earlier in the film, when Garry relinquishes his firearm due to stress and fatigue, he offers Norris the revolver along with the position as leader. Norris, who is surely a Thing at this point, quietly declines (“I’m sorry, fellas. I’m not up to it.”) While it seems his position as leader would be a golden opportunity to spread chaos in the group, Norris has clearly been staying out of the lime light of his watchful team mates so far, and might have refused to take leadership responsibility so as to further infiltrate the group unnoticed.[13] Before the Norris-Thing sacrifices itself to kill Copper, which it may have done so as to prevent the blood test, we see a lone Norris on guard duty as he suddenly suffers from chest pains, much to his surprise and dismay. Why would the Norris-Thing keep up the act of Norris’ heart condition with no people around to see it? This suggests that either a) Norris is not aware that he is a Thing at this point; or b) The Thing is so capable of perfectly assimilating other organisms that it receives all biological flaws along with its strengths. It is understandable―though not excusable―why many critics failed to detect these rich subtleties permeating the film. When one is prejudiced towards any work of art simply because of its violence or dark themes, it is difficult to care about its story and characters. Biased critics and reviewers exposed to these scenes in theaters would have by then already switched off their brains, sitting simply waiting with hostility on the next effects event, rather than asking questions of who and what would be causing those effects and events.

  At the end of the movie, only MacReady and Childs remain alive, lying broken and battered in the snow amongst the burning ruins of the camp, awaiting death or worse; despite clues, it is impossible to say to a certainty who is an imitation or not. The whole world’s fate rests on the outcome of the next few minutes. And with that, Carpenter ends his film.


The Thing was released to an indifferent audience in 1982, and failed to gather accolades from the critics. The film has since gained, thanks to its release on home video and a devoted cult following, an increased recognition over the years as a sci-fi horror classic, and continues to be an enriching cinematic masterpiece; aesthetically invigorating, epistemologically perplexing and fiercely intellectually stimulating. Like Blade Runner and The Shining, which similar dark themes and unconventional complexity also ensured initial hostility from critics and viewers upon release, The Thing is a bold cinematic achievement by John Carpenter; a helter skelter kaleidoscope that leaves the viewer marooned alone in Antarctica, facing possible Armageddon. Questions remain legion, but perhaps this is best. It is after all the uncertainty of the Apocalypse that makes it all the more imposing.


[2] Quoted by Billson, p. 8.

[5] The dilapidated interiors of the Norwegian base is a darkly Romanticist marvel of set design, with its disharmonious angles and heavy contrast of  light beams penetrating the fragmentation holes shining through the darkness left behind by the Thing so creating a luminous dreamscape harking back to the style of German Expressionism, of which Carpenter was a fierce admirer. See Boulenger, 273.

[6] Billson, p. 39. ”It suggests that whatever is about to happen is inevitable because of the nature of the parties involved.”

[9] Ibid.

[10] To quote Carpenter: “We had to be brutal. It’s a brutal story. Evil hides in the light in this movie.” Boulenger, p. 136.

[12] Ibid.

[13] <http://www.outpost31.com/movie/faq.html>

Works Cited

The Thing. Dir. John Carpenter. Universal. 1982.

Ager, Rob. ‘The Thing Review/Analysis”. Collative Learning. 1 June 2010. <http://collativelearning.com/THE THING analysis.html>

Billson, Anne. The Thing. London: British Film Institute Press, 2009.

Boulenger, Gilles. John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 2003.

Ebert, Roger. ‘The Thing’. Roger Ebert. 1 June 2010. <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19820101/REVIEWS/201010349/1023>

‘Frequently Asked Questions about The Thing’. Outpost 31. 1 June 2010. <http://www.outpost31.com/movie/faq.html>

’John Carpenter’s The Thing: Trivia’. Outpost 31. 1 June 2010. <http://www.outpost31.com/movie/trivia.html>

‘The Thing’. Box Office Mojo. 1 June 2010. <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=thing.htm>

‘Trivia for The Thing’. IMDb. 1 June 2010.





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