My Top 8 Horror Films: The Thing (1982)

Let me start off this one by saying that John Carpenter is one of my favorite directors. I love this movie, Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and They Live (1988). If Alien and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) had some sort of mutilated baby, it’s The Thing. An of adaptation of a 1930’s novella, Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, and following in the footsteps of an earlier adaptation, The Thing from Another World (1951), Carpenter’s version doesn’t stray too much in terms of plot: researchers in Antarctica encounter an alien life form that not only assimilates other organisms, but morph into masses of blood and claws and gore that violently kill; the researchers are stuck on the base with the alien, unable to trust each other as they aren’t sure who has been assimilated.

Encountering alien life that doesn’t seek to enhance humanity, but rather eradicate it, was nothing innovative at the time. As mentioned before, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alien had already come out, including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). These films continue to this day: the Alien film series has a latest installment with Alien: Covenant (2017); same with the Predator series with The Predator (2018); Annihilation (2018); 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016); etc. What sets The Thing apart, for me, is that it contains a more nihilistic message. Whereas Alien has the monster defeated and the problem effectively solved in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing ends with the idea that humanity can’t survive on its own merits. The humans defeat the alien, but at the cost of everything: friendships, lives, hope.

What makes The Thing especially great are the effects and music. Carpenter is a master of placing music in his films for tension, so I don’t think I’ll have to prove anything there. It’s the effects. Oh man, the effects. Part of the horror in this film is that once the alien has been discovered, it mutilates itself into a killing machine. In one scene, as the researchers watch an autopsy on a recently slain friend, the corpse’s torso rips open to reveal large teeth made of bone; from within the body, a large tentacle bursts out and latches onto the ceiling; the corpse’s head detaches and forms its own being. Roger Ebert hated this: "’The Thing’ is basically, then, just a geek show, a gross-out movie in which teenagers can dare one another to watch the screen… it seems clear that Carpenter made his choice early on to concentrate on the special effects and the technology and to allow the story and people to become secondary. Because this material has been done before, and better, especially in the original ‘The Thing’ and in ‘Alien,’ there's no need to see this version unless you are interested in what the Thing might look like…" Fuck all that. Go ahead. Watch the ‘original.’ The monster looks fucking dumb. And Alien was just going for its own thing, that Jaws (1975) effect where ‘less is more.’ But you can only play that game for so long. Shit, Aliens (1986) is literally more aliens and Ebert said the “special effects are professional” {1}. I think the gruesomeness and spectacle of horror movies have been looked down upon for too long because they form an integral aspect of the horror itself, inseparable from the work itself.

Aristotle, in Poetics, outlines the following elements, in order of importance, that are necessary for a good ‘tragedy:’ plot, character, thought, diction, song, and spectacle. Spectacle, or opsis, is least important because: “The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry. For the power of Tragedy, we may be sure, is felt even apart from representation and actors. Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.” Of course, Aristotle is referring mostly to the writing of poetry {2} but still considers the production/performance relevant to the work. However, this line of thought seems to pervade modern criticism of horror films in general. Even though horror films are critically lauded and popular, you won’t see many win reputable awards. That doesn’t matter, but it kind of does: it creates a hierarchy of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. In this case, it’s this idea that the higher emphasis on spectacle, the ‘lesser’ the art is. You see this in film with the separation of animated pictures and the lack of horror films from ‘serious’ movies at major film awards; the separation of spoken word poetry from academic institutions; it’s maybe why video games aren’t considered art by many. Sure, ‘good’ art is ‘good.’ And, as said before, ‘spectacle’ can be severely exploited in horror films (plus, there are just shitty movies that coast on spectacle alone) {3}. But the inherent exclusion of certain genres or forms from recognition because they do not fulfill preconceived and conventional notions of what makes art ‘good’ is pretty fucked. Fucking La La Land (2016) rode its spectacle and nostalgia to several Academy wins and nominations {4}. The spectacle in that film just so happened to be the right kind. The Shape of Water (2017) used its spectacle to say something ‘deep,’ but that seemed to be an exception, based on being an homage to old school horror films rather than being a horror film {5}. In many ways, “representation” and “effects” play of an importance than ever in revolutionizing today’s art and aesthetics.

I think that’s why I love The Thing. It taught me that spectacle can have large and equal value in horror and other genres and art forms and still be great. Sometimes, you just have to hold the “masters,” particularly of the white, European variety, in contempt to enjoy something. Plus, the craft and imagination to take the body and push it to its extreme grotesqueness remains one of the most dystopic visions of extraterrestrial encounters. It’s so gross and horrifying, but you can’t look away.

Perfect .

Perfect.


  1. I respect the shit out of Ebert. I just disagree with him sometimes. Says the nobody…

  2. Which can mean anything, ranging from verse to plays to epic poetry.

  3. *cough* Transformers (2007) *cough*

  4. It sure as shit wasn’t the story or “charm,” was it? Oh…

  5. Not that it’s not deep. It’s just inconsistent to me.

Reyes Ramirez