The Thing: The Personal History & The Legacy.

October 6, 2018

Let me say again for the record: I don't watch horror films any more. That may come as an irony to some of you: that a horror author doesn't watch horror films. I've grown up watching them. And the more I watched, the more terrified I got, until I reached the point where I couldn't watch them any more, since they genuinely scare the shit outta me.
 
That said, I've watched and enjoyed a number of horror films, regardless of the scare factor. Salem's Lot, for one: the one with David Soul (of Starsky & Hutch fame) and James Mason. The Exorcist. And, John Carpenter's "The Thing".
 
The Thing gets special mention here, for a number of reasons. To date, it remains my favourite film of all time: in any genre. So I give it a 10/10? No. I'm not sure any film is ever perfect. So I give The Thing a 9. It's the only film I give a 9 - other films get an 8 at the most. That's my call and my prerogative.
 
Let's journey back some 30-odd years. The Thing came out in 1982, before I left primary school. Before I was 11, for those of you not familiar with the educational system on these shores at those times. Anyhow. Like I've said before, I'm the youngest of three sons, no sisters. Fred, the oldest, led the charge, as it were, and so when we had a VCR, there were all kinds of horror films that came our way. He loved horror films. He still does. Anyhow.

 

 

I can't remember how exactly I came to hear about The Thing even before I watched it. But when I heard about it, something just got me amped, all excited. I had to see it. I remember even before seeing it, I'd seen a poster, proclaiming that it was the ultimate in alien terror. Which I thought was fair play. I remember looking at the poster and asking Fred whether the creature was a plant or an animal. I can't remember his exact explanation, but it sufficed at the time. Had me grinning with a sense of goofy childish curiosity. What do you expect? I wasn't that old back then.

 

 

The next poster I saw hit closer to the sweet spot for me. Not 11 years of age, and already having seen a fair number of horror films, many with monsters blessed with some serious teeth, the next poster for The Thing had some teeth too. But that wasn't all. It warned you to look closely at your neighbour and trust no one. That they may be The Thing (with the eponymous title in nightmare font). And then there was the tagline: Man is the warmest place to hide.
 
I fell in love with that sentence.
 
Fred had this thing he would do where, because I was all young and curious, he would tell me what would happen in a film: he'd give me the play-by-play. In this case, he'd only given some of the play, not all of it. At least from what I can remember. He'd actually do this years later when I was a few years older. This was at the point where I had stopped watching horror films, but was still intrigued by the stories, so he would tell them to me. But I digress.
 
Anyhow. Fred had told me some of what would happen in The Thing, like maybe a scene or two: this man does this, you see a man get that, etc. You get the idea. Given how young I would've been when the film came out, watching it at the cinema would've been out of the question. The film was rated 18. I was nowhere near 18 years old at the time. Of course, it didn't take so many years for it to come out on video. VHS - video cassettes back then. And then I got to watch it.
 
The film blew me away.
 
I'd never seen anything like it. You had an all-male cast. You had black people in that cast. A black character made it to the end of the film. There were instances in the film where there was no tension music, like when the antagonist was on screen. The antagonist, when it was revealed, didn't have a specific appearance - but it did have a specific type of appearance. What may be surprising is, given how many people this film appears to have terrified, not once has it scared me. For me, it's more than just the sum of its parts. The direction. The setting, the photography. The cast. The pacing - something truly masterful here. The music. The story. The characterisation.
 
I'd lost count of how many times I'd watched it over the years. I kept an eye on related ...things. I bought the novelisation of the film. I bought the DVD, which had a shitload of bonus features. Interviews, deleted scenes, etc. While I'd seen a downward trend in the number of DVD extras over the years, the DVD for The Thing had a whole lot of them - even by those old(er) standards. I visited the fan website Outpost 31, and drank in all the content. If you're curious about the film and its legacy, it's a good place to start.
 
https://www.outpost31.com/
 
...aside from watching the film itself, of course.
 
One of the things I loved about the site was the fan essay was the fan essay All About The Thing, by Robert Meakin (linked here). As someone who loved the film and had seen it countless times, I thought I had all the angles covered. What the fan essay did was narrate on the film in detail, and had me look at subtleties that I missed before. If you get a chance to read the essay - if you like the film - is it's compelling reading. I'd even dare say that it'll make you watch the film again to look for what you missed before. Because I've downloaded this from the fan site previously, I've posted it here. The 2nd page of the document will cover any issues regarding copyright and sharing. I'm happily sharing this document as a fan of it and the film.

  
The reason why I'm writing this post now, is that a cinema in London had a screening of The Thing today. After countless years watching this film and holding it dear to my heart as my all-time favourite, I finally had a chance to see it on the big-screen. So off to East London I went, where the Genesis Cinema past Mile End had a screening. A good experience. One where I caught something that I missed before. Even managed to get some chilli beef nachos when I was done. No guacamole though.
 
From an author point of view, this is one of those films that drew me to horror. The sense of threat, of hidden menace. For those who are curious: yes, I've seen the 2011 prequel and no, I don't rate it that highly. It's not the worst film, but as per the Empire Online review, "This iteration of the alien arsehole is a nasty bugger, impaling and munching and absorbing with such aplomb you wonder why it feels the need to hide in humans at all." And that is one of the things that works so well in Carpenter's version: part of what makes the Thing so terrifying is its ability to hide. As such, it doesn't need to be a great fighter.
 
That's one of the things that speaks to me as an author: when there's a sense of lurking threat. In some ways, that's more terrifying than an active threat, because what you don't want is to stumble into danger. Not when you could possibly avoid it by doing nothing. Of course, by doing nothing, you survive ...but so does the threat. The sets in the film are hardly exotic, but they don't need to be. This is another source of inspiration for when I write, and I have a more cinematic view in my work as a result. You'll see parts of the narrative that will pan across a setting like a camera does. Much like it does in The Thing; especially after MacReady's line, "Any place but here."
 
Some years ago, John Carpenter was in Toronto for a Q&A at FanExpo. Which I got to see, and was fully booked, as far as I could tell. I remember asking him why he didn't have any tension music during those monster moments in the film, to which he said they just weren't needed. The man's just cool and engaging. At the end of the Q&A, he got a standing ovation. I got to meet him that weekend as well: shake his hand and all that.
 
So. 30 years on, I still give the nod to my favourite film of all time, with my favourite tagline of all time. 'Man is the warmest place to hide.' Here's to many more years at the number one spot.
 
 

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