31 Days of Fright

Paranoia and Duty in The Thing

John Carpenter‘s affinity for Howard Hawks is always apparent in his work. Hawksian women fill his filmography, especially when one thinks of The Fog with Adrienne Barbeau or Jamie Lee Curtis‘ characters. It is only natural, then, that he would be the one to remake The Thing from Another World. While not credited to Howard Hawks as director – Christian Nyby is the director – it is a credit that has been the source of much debate over the years with Hawks producing and possibly directing (depending on which castmate you ask) the picture. No matter the answer, Hawks had considerable influence on the picture. Carpenter’s remake is his own spin on it, especially when it comes to the horror, paranoia, and gore, but at its core and in its characters, it is a Hawksian film.

One can think of Only Angels Have Wings as perhaps the best example of Hawks’ approach to male characters and life. The characters in the film are pilots flying off a dangerous and remote landing strip to make important deliveries. They have a job and they do it, no matter the risk. Other pilots die and yet, they continue to take off and face any inclement weather they must to get the job done. In Carpenter’s The Thing, there is a moment when pilot (naturally) R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) looks at the other surviving men and tells them that they will die, but they must stop “the thing”. While they fear the end, what has happened in their remote outpost in the Antarctic could happen on a larger scale and these men must do what they can to prevent this from happening, even if it means their own demise. It is a noble and natural fit for these characters. Throughout the film, paranoia runs rampant as they fight to identify who has been overtaken by this alien being and who has not. Show any sign you have become “the thing” and you will be burned alive. No matter one’s affinity for their fellow co-workers, if they get in the way of the job (in this case, killing “the thing”), they must go. One can see this in the character of Blair (Wilford Brimley), who goes mad and is locked up by the crew. No matter his pleading, he is kept away. He wasted the opportunity he was given to help and will be offered no second chance to distract their efforts. Even the choice of weapon for men like MacReady or Childs (Keith David) feels geared towards job efficiency, not messing about with small weapons but going right for the flamethrower. Any living thing in the way will simply be collateral damage, but it will, without a doubt, kill the enemy.

Of course, The Thing’s lasting power as a horror film rests on its sense of paranoia. Right down to its final moments, one never knows for sure. It is why the scene in which they test the blood of all of the men to see if it reacts to being burned (if it does, it means they are “the thing”) is so tense, a moment that brings the paranoia into tangible results. Carpenter, smartly, goes down the line and shows the results for every man remaining but even then, it offers little relief. They may out someone, but the situation changes by the minute. Somebody goes away from the group for a little too long and who knows whether they are still who they were originally. No individual even knows about themselves, watching their results from the blood test as intently as they do the others. This alien being is so dangerous that one cannot even trust themselves. It is an incredible villain, one with fantastic thematic ramifications and a paranoid mood that The Thing carries from the very onset. There is a pervading sense of unease that finds its way into every moment, whether it is as a Norwegian pilot tries to shoot a dog, as the Americans explore their camp, or as they sit around trying to pass the time. It can strike anywhere and at any time, coming from anyone. Carpenter plays on this uncertainty with some of the attacks delivering jump scares for the ages, but its appeal is not necessarily in the gore or shock alone. It is in the reality that everyone is a suspect, always capable of being “the thing” no matter how normal they may seem.

It is impossible to discuss The Thing without also discussing the power of its gore. It is not just here to shock or gross out the audience, but to add a palpable terror to the film. At any moment, a character could be turned inside out, chewed up, and converted into the alien species. It could be any of the men or even the dogs that are impacted with each interaction carrying a paranoid weight, but it is not just a theory. Carpenter puts it into practice, bringing the characters and the audience face-to-face with the fate they so dread. The great gore effects, thus, have a great impact on the film as they not only provide shocks and the gross-out impact but they also bring to life the unknown danger lurking within. They bring it out in such horrific detail with bits of human meshed with alien and being consumed by one another that it is enough to make one want to lock the door and never interact with someone else…just in case. The execution of the effects is incredible, but it is that thematic weight that gives them such power.

Paranoia and duty are at the forefront of The Thing, a horror-thriller about characters who never mess about from completing a task or finding the right tool for the job. Some of it is driven by their own fear over what could be occurring, but as it pays off, the men never deter from fighting fire with fire. The excellent cast led by Kurt Russell, the always reliable Wilford Brimley, and Carpenter favorite Keith David add to The Thing’s very humanistic terror as these hard working men come face-to-face with unimaginable horror in the most remote place on Earth. This is a classic that has only grown in power over time, capturing something about humans that is not easy to shake after viewing: the fear that not only could there be something out there, but that it could be more deadly than one could ever imagine.

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