The Thing was originally a failure both critically and commercially when it first hit theaters. Since then it has come to be seen as the gold-standard of not just cosmic horror, but horror in general, as has already been mentioned by nearly everyone commenting on this film within the modern context of its greatness, but is that greatness earned?
The “story” of the ‘The Thing’ is…Well, it does not technically have a story. MacReady is one of the main characters we focus on, but he has no real developments within the film, remaining a stubborn asshole throughout. The alien serves as the primary antagonist, but does no real antagonizing, as we find out it just wants to escape, using the character’s bodies to blend in with its surrounding. Everything in-between is less of a structured, compelling, narrative, and more of a recounting of events and how they transpired. There are calm, quiet, disassociative scenes such as the dog roaming the base or Fuchs alone with his notes before the power goes out and sees someone, or some”thing”, in the dark. It all has a very direct and unapologetic direction, trying to convey more of an atmosphere than trying to contain a message, which I think is the primary difference between something “plot-driven” and something “story-driven”, and the primary compelling reason behind why cosmic horror is so effective.
Story-driven media has a clear and present purpose. Whether teaching a moral lesson, sending a message about social issues, or reflecting on the current political climate, it wants to teach or inform the viewer in some way. Plot-driven media is less concerned with compelling the audience, and more concerned with explaining, or showing, things to the audience. What ‘The Thing’ shows is the thought, the idea, that humanity is a blip within the cosmos, and shows the potential for if an alien life lands here. Consciously or unconsciously, it does not matter, as it is never explained, even in MacReady’s own words, all that matters is the thing’s reaction to humanity and the humans reaction towards it.
‘Alien’ would be another example of a film that gets cosmic horror right, and a film with a similar premise to ‘The Thing’. An alien being hiding initially in the body of an unsuspecting victim, who is entirely disconnected from the alien’s existence, which it then spends the rest of the film hiding on their ship and, slowly but surely, killing everyone. We do not see a particular story unfolding, but a plot; events transpiring in a particular order. We do not know what the alien wants, we do not know what it desires, we do not know its purpose, name, or even its gender; we only know one thing, that it is, and that Ripley, similar to MacReady, simply wants to survive.
Gone is the heart-warming feel-good story of ‘E.T.’ where a peaceful and approachable alien is used as an analogy for acceptance and friendship, in ‘The Thing’ we see the raw unfolding of events from an indifferent alien who does not care about humanity and how it reacts to humanity. It waits in secret, plotting its next move, hoping not to be discovered, and when it is, it defends itself, violently if necessary. This, I think, is the core of cosmic horror and what separates it from other horror. It abandons notions about teaching morality and giving lessons to the viewers and instead extrapolates upon these bizarre and unearthly encounters with a disconnected view from humanity, because it is this humanity which these encounters are precisely lacking, and which makes them horrifying. The idea that we are not the center of the universe, that our existence is not wholly important to the grand scheme of it, and that if things went poorly, we could be snuffed out in a moment.
This is where media that tries to emulate Lovecraft and cosmic horror, such as ‘Lovecraft Country’, fail. They try to contain moral messages, they try to tell the audience a story about human-level concepts when this genre is designed from the start as being not about humanity at all, but about showing humanity’s irrelevance and insignificance. The reason the thing does not have a singular face, or some original form which the audience can use to capture the essence of what the thing is, is because it would undermine the aspect of the alien which makes it most interesting, and undue the purpose of its horror. The horror of how it views the human body. Humans are only necessary for it to use and then discard as it blends in. When it is discovered, we see how it views this tool, as nothing more than a parody gone to waste; splitting open, exploding outwards, tentacles flying and blood spewing everywhere. The visceral nature of these transformations is meant to be the true horror, but in a subversive way, it is not about the gore, but about how it profanes the human body.
So in regards to its genre ‘The Thing’ gets an A+. But what about its other aspects? The writing is believable and the characters take actions that are not only logical, but also insane, but making complete sense within their own insane logicality. When we see Blair going crazy and destroying the radio equipment, firing his revolver at everyone, we are meant to think he has lost his mind. But has he? Before that scene we are shown that he runs a simulation that shows in only a few years after first contact, the thing has the potential to completely engulf the planet. The actions Blair takes by destroying the radio equipment and attacking his co-workers is a greater attempt at sabotaging the thing’s potential for contacting the outside world, and killing his co-workers is the safest bet to limiting who it can imitate, thus trapping the creature. This initial insanity is reacted upon by everyone else by them subduing Blair and then containing him, only to become aware much later that he was right, as they proceed to blow up the entire outpost to try and corner the thing.
MacReady is written to be a relatable but stubborn character who drinks alone. Perhaps it is this antisocial behavior that gives MacReady the edge to staying uninfected throughout? We never know, as the ultimate fate of the thing is hidden from the viewer, lending the viewer a taste of the paranoia that engulfed the small Antarctic outpost. These subtle hints allow for innumerable rewatches, giving viewers the opportunity to shift their ideas with every new detail discovered, or perhaps their own personal changes in who they seem to favor. There is only one character that we ever know the exact time and place of their infection, and that is Bennings, who serves as the example for what we can expect for the rest of the film. A haunting foreshadowing of how characters will be destroyed from the inside-out.
And what better way to punctuate this carnage than with a restrained score? Most of the film is filled with ambient sounds of the outside Antarctic wind, sheering against the roof and walls of the outpost. Long, deliberate, lock-down shots of characters’ reactions and actions. Slow dollies of movements and shifts in focus. Everything is delivered as if we are watching a documentary, occasionally the soundtrack creeping in with a mellow, rhythmic thumping, almost like a heart-beat, followed soon by elongated whinnying from synthesizers. The Norwegian camp theme is particularly haunting because there is a melancholy melody overlaid by a sinister one, portraying the sadness of the scene while simultaneously lamenting the horrifying nature of what is soon to befall them. The theme is also very slow and deliberate, lingering on the sounds just as long as the film lingers on the images. It’s a score that is just as memorable as the film, until the very end where you are left with the same rhythmic thumping as it started with.
The camera-work, as mentioned, is nothing else but slow and deliberate, almost methodical. Even when the action is intensifying and you see the thing flying up towards the ceiling, you have long shots of the creature and the effects, not shying away from showing the viewer everything, showing the creature from the same perspective as the characters in the film, as if we are them. The use of blurring the background in foreground shots, such as when Clark is planning on stabbing MacReady is executed with near-perfect precision, with near-perfect timing. It shows character motivations without a single word, it highlights foreshadowing in only a few seconds, and is quite possibly the pinnacle of Carpenter’s expertise behind the camera. No shot is wasted throughout.
The actors, last but not least of all, portray their characters with a casual believability. There are no long, teary-eyed, speeches. There are no dramatic betrayals. It is all portrayed as average people succumbing to their paranoia, as realistically as possible, showing the continued descent into unhinged lunacy, with only a few characters holding on to a few shreds of sanity before being eclipsed by sudden irrational decisions, such as Windows being frozen and seemingly helpless as the thing confronts and then consumes him, or Nauls, who wanders off after seeing something, caught within his naive curiosity despite all the events that have unfolded thus far, only to be taken out off-screen.
‘The Thing’ is a testament to horror, and a film which will serve as the basis to many fruitless discussions about the truth of its ‘message’ and the ‘morality’ of it, as it continues to terrify viewers from acknowledging the stark reality of its true cosmic horror; the idea that humans are disposable, and that if there is alien life, perhaps we should keep it as isolated from ourselves as possible.