By PATRICK McCRAY
One of the many elements I like about THE THING is its happy ending. Yeah, they’re going to die, but what were their lives, anyway? They were up there for a reason. See, from what I can tell, MacReady and Childs are still human, because The Thing would have manifested itself. And they both innately trust each other or else they wouldn’t be drinking out of the same bottle. If they were Things, they’d just make wacky sounds at each other. So, enjoy that terrible brand of scotch, boys. Mission accomplished.
I know there’s an alternate ending on a Navy submarine that’s rescued MacReady, and I really wish that John Carpenter had buckled to studio pressure and released that ending.
The reason is that a good Carpenter ending lives somewhere between ambiguity and a total certainty that the worst outcome possible is about to happen. His approach is brilliant that way because it lets the filmgoing process keep happening. In an age when limp sequels were not yet the rule, this would have set up the most exciting tension possible; The Thing gets loose on the boat. Unlike the research station, that vehicle would actually have a heading.
But digressing is the point. Fewer films in the horror genre mean so many things to so many different people. Ironic, the creature itself is formless, morphing and surviving as a situation demands. Similarly, the film containing it is almost kaleidoscopic in the shifting mysteries it presents. I watch it two or three times a year with different groups, and it never gets old — and I never get the same message or feeling from it twice. Sometimes, it’s the ultimate lament about Dealing With Women. Sometimes it’s about the necessity of trust when we’re old enough to know better.
If you haven’t seen the film, the members of an Antarctic research station happen upon the ruins of a station from Norway where the staff has been subjected to unspeakably surreal and dysmorphic carnage. Upon return to their own camp, they realize that an infectious, shape-shifting alien has begun to consume and duplicate their ranks. The film then becomes a game of chess and poker as the heroes try to suss out good from bad, not knowing whether they, themselves, are duplicates.
So these are significant elements that I love about THE THING.
For one thing, it was part of that astounding summer of 1982 that has been written about in volume one. The infuriating part of that summer is that all of the great films that were being released got over shadowed by the obvious, unfunny and saccharine E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL.
Okay, I’m back.
Talk about the finger. THE THING is John Carpenter’s ultimate bird to that love piddling homunculus leering at Henry Thomas and his sister. It’s a manly film. It’s the film that Elliot would have preferred watching to E.T. during a “sick day.” How’s that for irony?
These are men starved for entertainment. There is no such thing as common sense in such a gathering. And they’re scientists. (What are they studying? It’s never clear. Their lines, I guess.) Of course they’d go in. But do they? No. Why? The more I think about it, the more that becomes the central mystery of the film. Unless ...
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See, this is what contemplating THE THING will do to you. CLOVERFIELD can kiss my ass. That’s not Lovecraftian. This is Lovecraftian. Lovecraft fans (and why didn’t we ever have an adult film star named “Linda Lovecraft”?) always talk about how you “go mad just by seeing these creatures.” Hogwash. You go mad by trying to figure out what the hell’s going on to whom and when in THE THING.
That’s the beauty of it. These guys are in totally over their heads, but they never lose theirs. In fact, like me while succumbing to an attack of nausea, the worse things get, the funnier they get. The film has two great laugh lines that I won’t share. But they’re maybe the funniest moments in all of 1982 cinema that are not in a film called VICTOR/VICTORIA. Or TRON.
Have I sold you on this film? Do I care? If you miss it, you’ll miss out on a film that is dark and bleak, but never depressing. Humanity just keeps slugging away. It remains unvanquished by arguably the greatest chess player of a movie monster ever not-entirely-seen. If you haven’t yet seen it, I envy you. If you have seen it, go watch it again. It is an entirely different film than you thought it was. And it will have that same quality each time you watch it. That is an artistic response in full accord with the film that inspires it.
PATRICK McCRAY is a comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.