JOHN CARPENTER’S “THE THING”

THREE GUYS AND… A MOVIE

series created by Marvin Mercer and Nick Stephenson

JOHN CARPENTER’S “THE THING”

written by Dominick Cappello

Films directed by John Carpenter which star Kurt Russell set the standard for awesomeness. “Escape from New York,” “The Thing,” and “Big Trouble in Little China” are some of my all time favorites. John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is far more faithful to the novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell than 1951’s “The Thing from Another World” produced by Howard Hawks. Sadly, like many John Carpenter’s films, “The Thing” wasn’t appreciated at the time of its release. Screw the Golden Raspberry Awards for nominating Ennio Morricone in the worst musical score category. But, I digress. It amazes me how others can watch the exact same film as me and come to radically different conclusions. That’s the genius of John Carpenter’s “The Thing.”

The film opens with a dog being chased by a helicopter occupied by two Norwegians to an American research station in Antarctica. The Norwegians are trying to kill the dog for some unknown reason, but they are killed before they can warn the Americans that the dog isn’t what it seems. MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) go by helicopter to investigate what happened at the Norwegian outpost. While they’re gone, the dog is free the roam about the American outpost. It creeps up on someone, but we only see their shadow, so we don’t know who the first member of the team to be infected is. The shadow appears to be of someone with curly hair, so that makes Palmer (David Clennon) and Norris (Charles Hallahan) our top suspects as they’re the only characters with curly hair. I use to think that it was Palmer for sure because he’s more conspicuous than Norris for the rest of the film. Palmer is constantly antagonizing Windows (Thomas Waites) whereas Norris is offered the chance to lead the team once the shit hits that fan and he refuses. We know that Norris will be infected at some point, but you have to wonder why The Thing would pass up an opportunity to lead? Once in charge, wouldn’t it have an easier time infecting the others?

MacReady and Dr. Copper discover that the Norwegian outpost has been destroyed by fire. Much of what they find was used as the basis for the 2011 prequel. Much like how “Prometheus” unlocked the mystery of the space jockey from “Alien” (sort of), maybe it was best to leave what happened at the Norwegian camp a mystery? MacReady and Dr. Copper bring back the charred remains of something they found in the snow that appears to either have two heads or one head split in two. Clark (Richard Masur), the dog handler, puts the mystery dog in a kennel with the others and all hell break loose. It’s tough to watch if you’re a dog lover. The dog’s head splits open, it sprouts tentacles and crab legs, and attacks the other dogs with jelly. Rob Bottin, who worked with John Carpenter on “The Fog” and portrayed Blake the lead ghost, was responsible for the effects in “The Thing,” but Stan Winston and his team handled the puppetry for this one scene. Childs (Keith David) torches the dog-thing-creature before it can escape through the ceiling. Blair (Wilford Brimley) performs an autopsy and concludes that The Thing is a shape-shifting organism that can imitate any lifeform it assimilates. Blair is immediately suspicious of Clark because he spent the most time with the dog, but Clark is just a red herring. MacReady flies to the sight of the crashed flying saucer discovered by the Norwegian team. Norris estimates that the saucer crashed 100,000 years ago. so that’s how long The Thing survived being buried in ice.

Instead of burning the infected remains like they should, they haphazardly put them in a storage room. Windows finds Bennings (Peter Maloney) being assimilated. Everyone, except for Blair, surrounds Bennings as he is in mid-transformation. A chilling moment. MacReady burns Bennings and all other traces of The Thing, but it’s too late. Blair has been MIA because he did some research and learned that more than one team member has already been infected and that the whole world is in danger if this organism reaches a populated area. MacReady finds that someone, most likely Blair, has sabotaged the helicopter. Blair goes insane and destroys the radio equipment with an ax. He also killed the rest of the dogs. People have different theories about who’s human and who’s an imitation. I’ve heard one fan theory that claims Blair is an imitation when he goes on his rampage, but I can’t co-sign. Why would The Thing destroy the radio? Why would it not want them to call for help when it needs to infect as many people as possible? It wants to reach a populated area, so why would it destroy the helicopter? If you believe Blair is The Thing at this point in the film, that’s cool, but it’s not my interpretation. I say he’s still human. He knows this organism could mean the end of the world, so I understand why he goes crazy.

After they lock Blair in a tool shed, they plan to use a blood serum test to determine who’s human and who’s not, but the blood in cold storage has been tampered with. Paranoia sets in and everyone starts pointing fingers. Garry (Donald Moffat) and Dr. Copper were the only two who had access to the blood unless someone else stole the keys. One fan theory claims that someone took the keys when Windows dropped them on the floor after he saw Bennings being assimilated, but that was the night before Dr. Copper suggested a blood serum test, so The Thing might not have known just yet that it needed to worry about the blood in cold storage. I won’t dismiss the theory outright, but I don’t think the film gives us enough information to know who got to the blood. Garry is the team leader. The others no longer trust him after the blood is tampered with, so he relinquishes command to put them at ease. This is when Norris passes on the opportunity to assume the leadership role. I wonder if he was already an imitation and declined to avoid drawing attention to himself? Childs volunteers, but the more even tempered MacReady takes charges instead.

MacReady rightly assumes that the humans still outnumber the imitations because the imitations won’t strike in the open. He orders that Clark, Garry, & Dr. Copper be quarantined because they’re the most likely to have been infected. I like that he’s using logic to solve the problem, but (spoiler alert) none of those characters are imitations. With Blair and Dr. Copper out of commission, Fuchs (Joel Polis) is the brains of the operation, but he makes the mistake of going outside to investigate a jump scare after the lights go out. This is when we’re lead to believe that MacReady might be an imitation because Fuchs finds MacReady’s tattered clothes in the snow. This was right after MacReady made a tape recording explaining how The Thing tears through your clothes when it attacks you. Nobody knows what happened to Fuchs and there’s more finger pointing. MacReady goes to the tool shed and asks Blair if he’s seen Fuchs. This is when Blair comes across as shady. He fashioned a noose as if he’d rather commit suicide than be infected, but begs to rejoin the group. MacReady is wary of him and rightfully so. I’d say that Blair is now an imitation. The remains of Fuchs are soon discovered. He burned to death, but we don’t know exactly how it happened.

With MacReady being the prime suspect after Nauls (T.K. Carter) also finds his tattered clothes, MacReady is locked outside to freeze to death. I don’t get their logic as it’s been established that The Thing survived 100,000 in the ice, so they should know that cold can’t kill it. It’s also interesting how Palmer is the one who suggests they torch MacReady because Palmer is an imitation. He must know that MacReady is a dangerous adversary and I wouldn’t be surprised if Palmer was who framed MacReady by planting the tattered clothes. This brings us back to the question of who was infected first? Palmer or Norris? I say it was Palmer even though the shadow looks a bit more like Norris because of the collar of his shirt. Palmer comes across as duplicitous whereas Norris went with MacReady to investigate the flying saucer earlier and didn’t try to assimilate him. I was never sure who the third person was who went with MacReady and Norris to the saucer because he’s wearing a hood and goggles, but according to The Thing Wiki page it was Palmer. Okay, that seals it for me. They couldn’t both be imitations or they would definitely assimilate MacReady. My money says Palmer was infected first. Norris was probably infected around the same time the lights went out and Fuchs went missing.

MacReady breaks in and threatens everyone with dynamite. During the commotion, Norris has a heart attack. I guess The Thing did too good a job imitating him because it imitated his heart condition. Dr. Copper attempts to revive him only to have his arms bitten off by The Thing. MacReady burns The Thing, but its head dislodges and sprouts legs. As it tries to scurry away, Palmer has the best line in the film. “You gotta be fucking kidding.” Yes, Palmer is an imitation, so it doesn’t make sense why he’d draw attention to it, but it’s still a classic line. MacReady wants to tie everyone up for a makeshift blood test. Clark rushes MacReady and MacReady shoots him in the head. With the assistance of Windows, MacReady tests everyone’s blood sample with a hot needle, under the assumption that alien blood will react to the heat. Most everyone agrees that this is the film’s best sequence. Palmer is revealed to be The Thing in grand fashion. MacReady’s flamethrower won’t fire and Windows, who’s been the most timid character, is too scared to react in time. Palmer’s head splits open like a Venus-Flytrap and tries to swallow Windows. MacReady gets his flamethrower working and torches The Thing. It runs out into the snow while on fire similar to James Arness as The Thing in the 1951 film.

Childs, Garry, an Nauls are revealed to be human by the blood test. Childs stands guard while the others go to give Blair the test, but Blair has vanished from the tool shed. He tunneled underground and constructed a flying saucer. I always found this a bit far fetched. He made a flying saucer out of the spare parts? I actually think the film loses a little momentum after the blood test. Childs leaves his post for reasons unknown and The Thing destroys the generator. The remaining characters know they will freeze to death in a few hours, so they opt to burn the whole outpost down, leaving The Thing nowhere to hide. Blair returns and assimilates Garry. Nauls just disappears. I think his death scene wasn’t filmed for budgetary reasons. The Thing appears in its final form, which is a Blair-snake-dog creature. MacReady does an unnecessary commando roll before grabbing the dynamite and blowing The Thing to pieces. The outpost burns down and MacReady seems accepting of his fate, but then Childs returns. Is Childs an imitation? Is MacReady an imitation? Who knows? To say the film has an ambiguous ending would be an understatement.

Who’s The Thing? What are the theories? Well, some say Childs is an imitation because you can’t see his breath, but you actually can see his breath in a couple shots. Some say he’s wearing a different coat than he does in the rest of the film. It’s hard to tell because of the lighting, but I think he is wearing a different coat, so that lends credence to him being an imitation. The most popular theory is that when MacReady hands Childs a bottle of whiskey and Childs takes a drink, MacReady snickers because the bottle was really filled with gasoline and by Childs not spitting it out, The Thing has given itself away. But, even this theory has its naysayers because it looks like MacReady is about to drink from the bottle himself right before he sees Childs. Childs wears an earing. Pierced ears were a major plot point in the prequel, but don’t let the prequel spoil your enjoyment of this film. Does anyone think MacReady might be an imitation? And he snickers when Childs takes a drink because he has just infected Childs? Or does Childs drinking the bottle without fear of being infecting let MacReady know that Childs is already an imitation?  Maybe they could have done something like “Clue” and have multiple endings? I think we’ll just keep going around in circles. We’ll never no for sure. I’ve heard that the script says MacReady has a flamethrower under his blanket and is ready to torch Childs just in case.

– Dr. Jelly

Author: Dominick

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