What can I say about John Carpenter’s The Thing except that the movie features a truly compelling alien… and Wilford Brimley (who is kind of like a supernatural monster in that he’s a talking walrus-man of some sort.)
In the movie, after an encounter with some insane Norwegians hell-bent on killing what seems a hapless dog, a team of American scientists face a horror from beyond time and space. The Norwegians, having earlier discovered a crashed space ship under the ice, have unleashed a shape-shifting monster (the Thing) which the Americans promptly adopt (the monster having taken the form of the dog.) As the movie progresses, the alien shifts form to replace various members of the American team until only two men remain, doomed to freeze to death as their base camp burns.
Two things struck me as amazing about the film. First, the Thing. The alien has no true form. It’s a shape-shifter. It goes from being a dog to being a person to being a person but with a voracious torso-mouth to being a spider-legged-head . It’s also self-similar in that any portion of the being is the Thing itself, which always appeals to mathematicians. (At one point, a Petri dish full of the Thing in the form of blood reacts to having a hot loop of wire shoved into it.) This makes the true monster unseen, unknowable, like the true substance of a thing (if you’re into ancient Greek metaphysics.) This is perfect for an alien: No bipedal form, no head, no eyes, no legs. The Thing is truly alien.
Second, the end of the movie is brilliant. Whether despair is horrific or not has been a key concern of mine lately. But now I am convinced that a bleak, bitter end to a piece works for horror and works as horror. That is, despair is a form of horror.
The alien monster in The Thing also serves as a good example of a Lovecraftian monster while not truly a being of the Mythos. It exhibits all of the traits we expect in a Mythos entity:
- Alien – Given.
- Ancient – At least 100,000 years old.
- Hyper-Intelligent – Hey, even I can’t fly a spaceship.
- Amorphous – It can even be a liquid.
- Inscrutable – Though intelligent and capable of speaking when in human form, the Thing’s goals remain elusive.
- Tentacles – Tentacles galore!
The theme of isolation served the movie well. In the Antarctic, the heroes of the story are effectively cut off from help. They are forced to deal with the monster while growing increasingly paranoid that one of their own is actually the alien in disguise. This lets the tension build without interruption throughout the film. In truth, the ending might seem a let-down to some, but it can really end no other way. What could possibly top that growing sense of dread better than an uncertain despair and the prospect of freezing to death?
The film spawned a prequel also titled The Thing. While I personally found the prequel to be less terrifying than the original, the fact that every detail from the disheveled Norwegian base camp is explained pleased me. (No, seriously. Watch the original and the prequel and notice the ax. Oh, yes. That’s the tell–the ax.)