The Subtle Terror of ‘The Thing’

(Image Credit: Universal Pictures, taken from: www.Syfy.com)

Spoilers Ahoy! Naturally.

John Carpenter’s 1982 classic remains one of my favourite horror films. It blends subtlety with shock-grotesqueness in an impressive fashion, periods of gore and spectacle are interspersed with a unique tone of foreboding dread and mounting paranoia. Much has already been written about the film’s narrative blurriness: who is taken when is usually left ambiguous and instead unravels as the plot develops. The heart of the film is in its ambiguity. The fully Thingified victims — Parker, Norris and Blair — are never shown being ‘taken over’ as the characters put it. Yet there are hints and visual tips that establish things aren’t quite right.

Carpenter is nothing if not an excellent technician. The Thing boasts a number of impressive images, such as the striking reveal of the giant spaceship, sitting ominously in a deep crater, surrounded by the desolate Antarctic wastes. Foregrounded — huge and imposing — as our tiny human figures climb down in the background of the shot. For a film that is centralized on such close-quarter action and drama, a passage like this adds an air of sci-fi grandiosity, in a rare instance where the ‘unknown’ elements add a degree of wonder as much as fear.

In one early scene, a series of cuts focuses on rooms that are eerily empty, the funky music of Stevie Wonder playing low in the sound-track, overpowered eventually by the assaultive winds outside. The Thing-Dog prowls down a corridor, the camera at its level, as it searches for its first human victim. There’s a sense of unease. The direction of the dog itself is excellent (and no doubt hard to get) as it looks in a room, stops, and lacking an ideal target, moves onto another, the camera panning to split the frame between the dog and a brief glimpse of the room’s wall. A silhouette on the wall of a man sitting in the room, turns, as the dog enters. The person (reportedly intended to be Palmer) remains anonymous. The scene placement occurs before the dog-Thing itself is revealed. A clever narrative staging: the audiences worry only really begins to accelerate after the kennel attack brings an important realisation: someone is likely taken over already. This is one moment, among many, that uses the slow sense of dread to build up an anticipation of what dark events might occur.

The internet has been abuzz for years with theories of the how, when and where in regards to the Thing’s actions and assimilations. One unnerving reality of the creature is its intelligence. It watches and listens. It destroys the blood before they can do the test, suggesting it knows its weaknesses and how to bypass them. It shreds up MacCready’s clothes and plants them as false evidence. In the interactions between Palmer and Norris we see it attempt to isolate, and kill, its most likely threats: by agreeing with each other to leave Mac out in the snow to die, two established unassertive characters begin trying to push the debate in their (its) favour. Likewise, before the Thing’s arrival, they don’t appear overly close, once it begins its attempted take-over of the outpost, they begin to appear more closely knit.

Many subtleties decorate the film, of course. In the scene where Blair performs an autopsy on the Dog Thing, a tracking shot crosses the room, showing each characters reaction. Palmer and Norris stand side-by-side (has it already taken over both of them here?) and in previous scene as they watch the Norwegian’s video recordings both Norris and Palmer are absent (could this be when whoever has been imitated takes over the next?). Palmer himself has a despondent look during the blood testing scene, just before his blood is tested and he is revealed, suggesting that the Thing may realise its outing is coming. At least, an impactful close-up on Palmer-Thing before its blood is tested suggests such a mind-state. Suggestion is pretty much all the viewer has in this film: part of the interest is that neither the audience or characters quite know how the creature works. We speculate. We ponder. We never fully know.

And that, ultimately, is part of where its tension is drawn from. There’s an increasing sense of not fully knowing anything in The Thing. What happened to Fuchs? We can speculate. Are Chiles and Mac both Things, or are they human at the end, as they sit and drink amongst the burning ruinage? We can guess. When did Blair get taken over — did his human attempts to stop the Thing’s flight from the Antarctic instead aid it unintentionally, or was he already an imitation playing a complex game to isolate himself and begin re-building a ship? ? Part of tension and purpose of The Thing is in piecing elements of the text together, pondering what-ifs, and never getting full answers to most of the questions the narrative offers. In a world where mainstream cinema frequently demands neatly tied-up resolutions, the grim uncertain ending of this classic remains efficacious.

Furthermore, Carpenter understands visual storytelling; he knows how to use the frame. He established this ability at the beginning of his career with Halloween. There he evokes a terrifying sense of being watched, not only in the extended long-take such as the one that opens the film from Myer’s point-of-view, but also in the numerous glimpses of him appearing briefly in the distance, or appearing at the front of the frame, watching his potential victims, before vanishing. He’s around, for a moment, but always fades swiftly away, as though he was never there: his spectre-like aura expressed through clever visual staging. In The Thing, he knows what to accentuate in the foreground and what to keep off-screen. For example, the blood-bank mystery is partially resolved to a careful viewer upon realising that, seeing Bennings mid-assimilation, Windows dropped the keys. Likewise, as Bennings moves things in the background, out of focus, the camera tilts down to reveal the Things-remains are still alive. Another use of the foreground in such a way is Clarke’s attempts to murder Mac when it seems he’s finally ‘gone crazy’ to them. A low-angle shot with a lower part of Clarke’s body at the bottom left features him taking, hiding, and bringing into striking position: a scalpel.

These offer examples of using the shot composition to reveal and accentuate elements of the unfolding story. The foreground becomes a clue-in to the audience to see things that the characters in-text are unaware of. It creates an interesting balance: for a film where the central dramatic tension is usually not knowing, it allows us a few moments of external knowledge apart from the rest of the characters. Much like the aforementioned dog shot. We naturally build anticipation waiting to see what will occur next: Bennings being attacked, Clarke potentially taking out MacCready. It’s often noted that suggestion is more frightening to a viewer than outright scares. The Thing offers a solid example of that philosophy: its tonal impact is in the nods, hints and suggestions that make us alert to the threat, but never give us the full picture. On a first time viewing, it’s a powerful unravelling. On rewatches, one looks at it, with high appreciation.

At other points the connection to what we know is not so direct. Windows dropping the keys is implied by a sound-effect, during the shocking reveal of Benning’s half-assimilated corpse. Later on, as the argument over who sabotaged the blood grows, the camera tracks-in on him looking distraught as he realises he unwittingly contributed to their dilemma. This aspect is never directly commented on, or explained, as he never fesses up to anyone. The inference is left to astute viewers to piece together. The film has a number of such details, many of them never fully being explained. The subtlety adds a rich texture to the world the film depicts. The viewer can always seem to find something new, something to add to the evidence for their preferred theories.

The practical effects are rightfully praised; they are fantastically crafted. But beyond those moments of insane visual wizardry there is a beating heart of fear, of anxiety, of terror. It is born from the film quickly establishing this group of men as likeable collective, it is born out of the sense of unease being drawn so well. Given, moment to moment, glimpses of threat, of danger, all situated in such a way as to keep the “but what’s really happening?” question in the forefront of our minds. To this day, many wonder if a throwaway scene of Plamer sharing a joint with Childs could be a sign of him being a Thing at the end.

That’s paranoia!

The most obvious scene where this effect can be observed is, of course, the ending. The excellent final images, the wearied survivors huddling in the snow, surrounding by the burning debris of their destroyed Outpost. The foreboding bassy synth-note beginning to play, leaving the viewer on a note of vague fear. It’s a near-apocalyptic view, framing certain death and sacrifice, and balancing it all on a gesture of trust: sharing a bottle of good drink. After almost two hours of distrust, learning to fear that which we have not seen directly, this small usually comforting gesture can upend the poignant displays teamwork and sacrifice that gave us a rousing climax.

The Thing’s horror exists from a state of not-knowing. We are thrown immediately into a bewildering situation: a helicopter chasing a dog, shooting at it, men shouting in fraught Norwegian. As the story progresses we are given some hints and answers as to why such an event occured, we can piece together a broad explanation of the events at the destroyed Norwegian base, but its overall story is still shrouded in many mysteries. This is why, ultimately, the 2011 prequel was a mistake: not knowing fully is a key trait of the original; explaining overmuch loses the paranoia such a film should evoke in our minds. Many fans of the original lamented the use of CGI over practical effects, but in truth, such a change would be unlikely to save that film. The ‘premake’ relies too much on banal scares; the creature is devoid of its intelligence; revealing itself, chasing victims down hallways screeching, murdering and assimilating its next victim in broad daylight with plenty of potential eye-witnesses, leaving the scenes of its violence uncleaned. The remake has no real mystery, everything is upfront and obvious.

The original film is horror done well. It blends the subtle with the overt. Scenes of slow, eerie tension carry the it, a creeping sense of unease building up through limited comprehension about what is happening. Interspersed throughout this are effects-driven scenes where the alien creature is revealed in spectacular fashion: screeching, clawing, howling, spraying green-ooze and blood all over the setting, killing its attackers brutally. The Thing is never fully explained, not the creature — where did it come from, is it a lone being or part of a race; we’ll rightfully never know — nor the situation the film depicts. The ending can either be a sad but relieved ending, with two men dying having saved the Earth, or a depressingly cynical view as one will be an alien creature, perhaps ready to take the other over and prey on the spring rescue team.

And that’s deliciously terrifying.

My passions include cinema, literature, fantasy, psychology, music/guitar, photography and ancient/medieval history.

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