There are many movies when you are young that you just never get around to see. Perhaps your parents aren’t into that kind of movie. If it tanked at the box office, then there are probably not any friends that are going to secretly show you the film while their parents are out of the house. But often there are films that we discover in college and wonder where the heck this movie has been all my life. Such brilliance, such deep of thought, this is fantastic. For me, that movie was John Carpenter’s The Thing.
(*please note that there are spoilers all over this thing, if you haven’t seen the movie…go buy it from the Amazon link. Then watch it and get back to this article, it will be a much better ride*)
The Thing was released in 1982. It was a remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks film named The Thing from Another World. It opened two weeks after the mega box office hit, E.T.. That movie showed aliens all nice and pretty. The Thing didn’t. The sad fact is that the movie tanked at the box office, earning 3.1 million (good enough for #8) in its opening weekend, $13.7 million overall. Even 30 years ago, that number was dismal.
Many critics lambasted the movie. They called it everything from foolish to depressing to nauseating. People at the time would actually walk out of the theater, either to go see another movie or perhaps to lose their lunch. Even Universal would suggest to theaters to place the production in a theater close to the bathroom for this very purpose. So what exactly happened to turn this movie around from awful and nauseating to one of the greatest horror movies of all time?
Well, it mainly had to do with a few factors. In general as horror movies gave way to more gore and CGI effects, the audiences went back and found that some of the older movies weren’t so bad after all. So when Wilford Brimley who played Dr. Blair started to pull out internal organs or we witnessed a dog splitting apart to reveal the alien organism, we are simply thinking hey that’s not so bad. Okay, maybe that whole dog thing is still a bit creepy.
It also helped that John Carpenter (the director) and Kurt Russell (RJ MacReady) experienced a great bit of fame after the production of this movie for other projects. We know John Carpenter would later become appreciated for flics before this movie like Halloween and The Fog as well as pictures after like Christine & Big Trouble in Little China. So it was only natural that people would take a look at the ones in-between.
We know the story of Kurt Russell, best remembered as Snake Plissken of “Escape” fame or his inspiring portrayal of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone. Before The Thing, his best credits were arguably being a used car salesman, Elvis impersonator or a kid who used to do Disney movies. But again, when you start to be known as an action movie superstar, well people tend to become interested at even the smallest piece of your film history.
The Thing is the tale of the impossible fight. There is a shape shifting organism that can assume the shape of any living being it encounters. It has infected your camp of merry men and the inevitable is that nobody will leave this camp alive. Your only hope (and a small one it is) is to kill off its form and burn the remains. Furthermore, you better hope that you burn all the cells as they can each act as their own separate alien organism.
The movie starts out in Antarctica in the winter of 1982. A helicopter drops into view following a husky-bred dog. Then surprisingly, a gun is aimed and shot in the direction of the animal. We ask ourselves why is somebody shooting at a dog? The dog finds his way to the American site to seek shelter. The camp of people comes out to investigate as the helicopter stops to land. The husky instinctively goes towards the people for protection as the man continues to hunt the dog.
Naturally, the people protect the dog and in the process two men are dead and their helicopter is blown up. We find out that the men were Norwegian and people decide that they should go explore the camp to see if they can find out the reasons. Mac Ready (Russell) and Dr. Copper (played by Richard Dysart) decide to carry out the mission.
Here is where things start to get interesting. The husky we all know is some sort of evil, we just aren’t sure what its true intentions are. He’s been allowed full reign of the place, something that the other dogs are not allowed to do. He can pick any life form and take them over if he so chooses. On the other hand, Mac Ready and Dr. Copper are visiting the Norwegian camp and find a burned humanoid corpse as well as somebody who committed suicide.
The pilot and the good doctor are alone and it can be easily thought with the mess going on there, one of them could have been affected and traveled back to camp with the infection. They are carrying a corpse after all which might still have something alive inside of it. However, we are pretty sure that the dog is still bad news as some began to question why the husky has been allowed to run loose all this time.
Once Clark (played by Richard Masur) puts the husky into the kennel with the other dogs, this is where we get our first taste of the alien life form alive and well. It should be noted that it was Mac who was the one who actually tried to kill the alien first. Of course, somebody gets the bright idea that this corpse should be inspected as well. More importantly, this is when Dr. Blair (Brimley) starts to realize what is truly at stake.
Dr. Blair is also marked as the first person to start to accuse others might not be as they seem. Clark is the first one tagged as possibly “inflicted” with the organism. The joke here is by the end of the film, Clark is never technically inflicted with anything. However, he meets his fate because of paranoia and that not one person can trust another.
Blair also makes the realization that regardless of who in the camp is actually the alien (or multiple people) that it can not be permitted to leave the camp. If it does, it could take over the earth (according to the simulations drawn up by Blair, 27000 hours once it hits densely populated areas). This is also unfortunately where Blair becomes mad and starts to destroy his surroundings to cut off communication to the outside. The crew sedates Blair and banishes him to the tool shed.
This is also around the time that people start turning into the alien or rather he takes over their body. Bennings (played by Peter Maloney) and Norris (played by Charles Hallahan) are the first to turn. Norris also delivered a double whammy killing Dr. Copper by severing his arms. In addition, MacReady shoots Clark under the assumption the he is the alien. Paranoia has truly taken over.
So now we come to the test. Originally brought up by Dr. Copper and put to work by MacReady, the test was devised under the assumption that each cell of the organism can live on its own. If struck by fire, the blood of the individual would react violently. Eight people in total are tested by the method. Seven pass, one fail. The fail is Palmer (played by David Clennon) who morphs before their eyes and also takes out Windows (played by Thomas Waites) in the process.
However, a couple of the passes are actually more interesting than the inevitable fail. Clark, shot earlier by MacReady passes. So does Garry (played by Donald Moffat) who was blamed earlier in the film for sabotaging some blood and possibly being the organism. The crew also realizes that Blair is still in the tool shed and that he needs to best tested as well before being let back into the main quarters.
Of course, by the time they get there it is much too late and Blair has escaped (do we really blame him?). This is when the crew finally comes to the same realization that we have been sitting in our chairs and not wanting to admit. Everybody is going to die and the only way to make sure that the alien does not get out of the isolated area is to set fire to everything.
The climax of the film comes quickly at this point with the crew torching the place and a few bodies falling by the waste side. Blair makes a re-showing as he absorbs Garry and possibly Nauls (played by T.K. Carter). That’s one of the things the movie never explains and perhaps is done on purpose. We never see Nauls get killed or become the alien or anything in between. In fact, the last we see of him is that he hears a noise and decides to investigate. We have to assume that he met his fate at the hands of the Blair “alien”.
Then there were two. Childs (played by Keith David) and MacReady. Was the alien finally gone (doubtful), one of the two remaining crew members (likely) or perhaps both of them (just as likely)? The movie at this point fades to black. We are left to guess what will happen or the next chain of events. We can easily see one of them flinching at the wrong moment and the other mistaking that for the alien and executing them.
We can also see the Hollywood movie sequel scenario where all of the sudden a helicopter arrives and rescues them both. The problem is that they will spend the next hour and a half arguing over who is the alien when we know secretly that Nauls is in the background executing people left and right. Maybe we can get Chris Tucker to play Nauls and shout something all hip and trendy. Nah, he would want too much money.
Instead, I offer the following combination of ideas that isn’t including Chris Tucker). Childs flinches and twitches. MacReady mistakes it for the alien growing inside and eliminates Childs. A helicopter looms above and arrives on the ground. He is taken to a camp on a remote island (as opposed to the ice) for questioning. There people start disappearing and we find that MacReady is blamed. It’s only in the closing climax that we find out that Nauls had stowed across the helicopter and found his way onto the island.
Truth is that there are talks of sequels or even prequels (dealing with the Norwegians). Either scenario would be welcome in my eyes. I just really don’t want anything to do with a remake. Many of John Carpenter’s films have met the remake wagon and did okay at best. Heck, I’d probably want to see a sequel to Ghosts of Mars before I saw a remake of The Thing. Oh wait, that might require Ice Cube to grace the screen again. I so enjoyed his sequel of XXX.
Anyhow, laughs aside The Thing is truly a great film. It took a lot of risks and bombed at the box office primarily because of the risk (and because of that cute alien who wanted to phone home, do you have any idea how much roaming charges were back then?) it took. Arguably, fifteen to twenty years passed before people realized how much ahead of its time it was. But hopefully with a good prequel and maybe even a little help from this article; today’s youth can enjoy it again. Rent it, buy it, heck steal your friend’s copy when he isn’t looking…it will be worth it. Take care.