If you talk to anyone who loves horror movies these days, you're bound to hear John Carpenter's The Thing brought up. I think it might just be the most well-respected and admired horror film released in my lifetime...and I was barely a year old when it was released. However, it was originally panned by critics and viewers, who threw around phrases like "foolish, depressing, overproduced" and "the quintessential moron movie of the 1980s" and "a wretched excess". One critic even went so far as to say that John Carpenter's film was "sacrificing everything at the altar of gore". Today, I view all these quotes as examples of why film criticism is often a worthless exercise in snobbery.
I must admit that The Thing is a film I never really understood in my younger years. As a student of cinema, I read reviews like those and dismissed the film as something I should wait on. When I finally did see it, with my Fasha, I was more confused than anything else.
The film offered a simple enough premise...twelve men trapped without rescue while an unseen force terrorizes them. But what really left me baffled were the characters in Carpenter's film. Aside from Kurt Russell and his beard, and that guy from the Quaker Oats ads, I had a ton of trouble keeping tabs on who the heck they were inside The Thing's world.
As the poster behind Kurt and beard states above...they aren't labeled. We learn that one of them is the doctor, and that one is the pilot, and that one is in charge of the radio. We learn names, but never through introductions. After all, these are twelve guys in a confined environment, and why would they have to introduce themselves? They already know who they are. It's as if the movie just happened upon their camp, and they went on with their daily lives. As a viewer, I was kind of baffled...and sometimes I still am. I looked at the photo below just now and quickly realized that - even though I've seen the movie at least a dozen times in the last twelve years - I'm not exactly sure who the guy over Mr. Quaker's left shoulder is. (If I had to guess right now, I might say Fuchs.)
Not only are the characters nonchalantly referenced throughout Carpenter's film, but the viewer is never given any background information on any of these characters. This really baffled me. Why should I care what happens to Bennings if the only thing I know about him is that he plays cards? I know Russell's R.J. Macready (who, unlike most of the cast, is at least given initials as a first name) is cool because of his beard, but shouldn't I know a little more about him? Is he married? Does he like cats? Has he ever beaten that "cheating bitch" of a chess computer? (Note from the "cheating bitch" chess computer: I'm afraid I can't let him do that, The Mike.)
But with a few more viewings (because each attempt to figure out who was who left me feeling more wonderful about the film), something struck me like a hammer to the temple. Others had been trying to tell it to me, but I was as dense to this fact as Keith David is when being told to wear sunglasses.
The thing about The Thing is that we need these men to be on an equal playing field. For the film to live up to the question of "Who Goes There?" once posed by author Joseph Campbell, we can't have any hints tipping us off as to who is on either side of The Thing's infection. If the film had added extra personality to these characters, we might have had an easier time spotting changes in characters' behaviors or emotions. We might have become upset when a character who we liked became a victim. We might have made human connections - but that's not what the movie is about. By not providing this data to the viewer, the film leaves us wondering more about the force that's after these men than the men themselves. This allows Carpenter's film to sacrifice nothing - and to become one of the most unpredictable, open-ended horror films of all-time.
We like to think we know what's going on when the credits finally do roll, assisted by Ennio Morricone's subliminal score, but there's little in the film that gives us reason to believe one party over the other. Many have offered commentary about the characters' actions, the characters' locations, and even the characters' races; but the fact is that none of us can really know "Who Goes There". John Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster never give us enough information to really know anything about the characters and the Thing that is after them. While that might be frustrating to someone looking for a human drama, like those critics (and I) were, it allows The Thing to become a paranoia filled bit of unease that will keep any viewer thinking.
If that's a "moron movie", I'm afraid I'm a proud moron.
(By the way, if you're looking for more Thing-ness, check out The Paradise of Horror, where it's The Thing Week!)