Back-story – Apocalypse Trilogy Pt.1
John Carpenter’s THE THING is Part 1 of what he has repeatedly referred to as his APOCALYPSE TRILOGY of films. The other two “chapters” in this series are, THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987), and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1995).
Although none of the films contain any recurring characters or direct connection, each features a supernatural force which uses humanity against itself. All three films conclude with the implication that the end of the world is imminent.
In THE THING, the film concludes with the viewer not ever sure if one of the two survivors is infected. Should the alien ever reach civilization, it would only be a matter of time before it would take over the Earth completely.
ANTARCTICA. WINTER, 1982.
The 12 men of U.S. Station #31 in Antarctica discover an alien that has been buried in the ice for over 100,000 years. The creature is able to replicate any life form that it encounters. The Thing has decided that “man is the warmest place to hide”.
Following John Carpenter’s phenomenal success with the low budget features, HALLOWEEN, THE FOG, and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, Universal Studios decided to turn over the reins to their remake of 1951’s THE THING to the now undisputed leader in horror. With a script by Bill Lancaster (Burt’s son) and big studio backing, Carpenter decided that for his remake he would strive to follow the scenario of the original novella, WHO GOES THERE? by John W. Campbell, Jr., which inspired Christian Nyby’s original film. Instead of a hulking creature as portrayed by James Arness, the alien would be a shape-shifting monstrosity that would infiltrate an Antarctic research station. Unfortunately, THE THING would be Carpenter’s first box-office misfire. America wasn’t willing to embrace an alien bent on destroying the human race. Instead, they preferred to help an alien “phone home” that summer of 1982. However, John Carpenter’s THE THING has since gone on to gain a cult following over the years and is now considered a horror classic. It is listed among IMBD’s top 250 films of all time.
Where to begin? Probably with my own recollection of first watching this film as an impressionable 10 year old at the Northgate Theater with my older sister…
Initially, we had gone to this film because my sister was a big fan of the 1951 classic from Christian Nyby, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD starring James Arness. However, little did she or I know that John Carpenter would fashion his version more closely to the source-story, WHO GOES THERE? by John W. Campbell, Jr. In the original short story, the members of the research team in Antarctica discover an alien which assumes the organism of which it devours creating a strong sense of paranoia about who is real, what is real and who the Thing is. Carpenter and his special FX wizard, Rob Bottin fresh from THE HOWLING (1981), take this concept to its maximum potential showing in graphic detail the Thing’s ability to replicate all that it comes in contact with. Even today, some 26 years later, THE THING is a graphically intense experience that overwhelms the viewer. I can honestly remember both my sister and I coming out of that film shaking and my sister repeatedly telling me in the car that the film was just “horrible” and that she would never take me to another John Carpenter film again. I loved it.
In the first shot the film, the camera spies a helicopter in the distance immediately establishing the fact that the setting is distant…far away. As the helicopter moves closer we notice that it is chasing something. Immediately a dog crosses frame and from its look we know/it knows that it is being chased. The pilots move closer towards the dog and begin to fire a gun at it from the helicopter. The viewer is taken aback that these men would be firing at “man’s best fried”. It is in this opening scene that director John Carpenter creates an emotional uneasiness of sensory assault that will permeate throughout the film.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL. The very nature of the alien, the thing, is an assault on the psychological stability of the film’s characters. Because of the creature’s ability to mimic what it devours, the viewer, along with the characters, are forced into a situation where everyone is suspect. With the distrust comes the breakdown of civility between the men of the camp. Each wonders about the other, not knowing for sure if the person standing next to them is actually human, or not. John Carpenter creates such tension with his stylistic approach to the story. Scenes end abruptly, camera movement wanders and pieces of “evidence” are given creating more questions than answers. Much has been said about the lack of character development within the story, but I don’t believe that is Screenwriter Bill Lancaster and Director Carpenter’s true intention with the film. Instead, we know very little about these men which creates the fear of whether or not they are indeed human. Besides, is this not a horror film? Isn’t fear the intent of the film?
THE VISUAL. Much WILL ALWAYS be said of the visuals within THE THING. Rob Bottin’s effects with the creature are unsettling in their intensity. Unlike the 1951 thriller, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, there is no James Arness/Frankenstein creature hiding in the dark. We see the thing transform itself into many horrific mutations of itself as it replicates. Human heads sprout legs and stomachs open up with jaws to tear arms away. The viewer sees all of this and if the eyes are the window to the soul, than that window is shattered by THE THING’s visuals. I know that the graphic effects of the film were what left my sister and me shaking at the end credits. Bottin’s visions leave imprints that stay with you. For better clarification on the detail and precision that went into creating the visuals for THE THING, I highly recommend the documentary, JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING: TERROR TAKES SHAPE, which accompanies the DVD release. In it, you will watch interviews with Rob Bottin and all of the visual effects team and learn just what it took to leave you shaking in the darkness.
THE SOUNDTRACK. A unique feature to almost all of John Carpenter’s films is that he composes all of the music himself. These scores are an essential part of the film. Would Michael Myers be as scary without the HALLOWEEN theme pulsating in the background? I have always been extremely sensitive to music especially as it works within the confines of a film. Music can add so much to the canvas of cinema that it almost becomes a character itself and I know that Carpenter realizes this. THE THING is different. Carpenter did not compose the music to this movie. Instead Ennio Morricone of THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY fame is maestro on this particular feature. However, Morricone’s music for THE THING is unlike any of his scores that I know. The dominant track in the movie is listed on the out of print soundtrack (that I own – yay me!!!) as “HUMANITY” (Part 2). There is nothing to this theme, but it is everything. From its heartbeat pulse to its blatant despair in simplistic tonality, the funeral like keyboard augments the desolation and hopelessness of the characters and their fate. The musical themes of THE THING stay with you always as does the theme to HALLOWEEN. This makes you wonder about why WIKIPEDIA gives John Carpenter an “Uncredited” comment next to MUSIC BY in their entry for THE THING. It should be obvious to the reader…I love this film and I highly recommend it. The psychology, the visual and the soundtrack are all emotional assaults on the viewer imposing a relentless stranglehold on the viewer. I’m sure that for some, this is not an enjoyable experience. However, for those of us that enjoy being emotionally confronted by a film, THE THING is terror worth taking.
For an in depth analysis of THE THING, I highly, highly recommend Robert Meakin’s e-book, ALL ABOUT THE THING. I recently discovered this little treasure (all 132 pages) in my research for this review and have enjoyed every word.
Check out the movie. Check out Meakin’s book. They won’t disappoint.