Monster Mixtape: The Thing

It’s that time of the year again. There’s a slight chill to the late summer evenings. Leaves are starting to bring out their fall colors. Each day is just a bit shorter than the last. We can all feel what these changes signify. No, not going back to school, but that it’s the season for monster movies! Between now and Halloween I’ll be highlighting ten of the best toothy, sharp-clawed, and mutated aberrations to shred the silver screen. Some are old classics, others are newcomers, but all are awesome.

“I dunno what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.” Let’s talk about John Carpenter’s The Thing.

There are certain moments from my childhood that immediately seared themselves onto my gray matter. The first time I saw The Thing is one of them. While channel surfing through the basic cable offerings one weekend afternoon the TV flashed the image of a dog’s head bursting open into a bloody flower, the canine immediately transformed into a writhing mass of legs and tentacles. I was shocked, and I stayed transfixed for the duration of the gory spectacle, listening for the sound of approaching footsteps so I could change the channel quickly if needed and avoid the dreaded parental question “What the hell are you watching?”

Given what I’ve heard from other creature feature fans who now have kids of their own, children seem to have a preternatural ability to walk in right at the moment that the “dog” first reveals itself to be The Thing. It’s common enough to be a horror movie rite of passage. And bloody though it is, the moment gets to the heart of what makes the alien abomination one of the most frightening beings ever conjured up from the darker recesses of human imagination.

Carpenter-Thing02

Inspired by the John W. Campbell novella Who Goes There?, and a sort-of do-over of 1951’s The Thing From Another World, John Carpenter’s movie is a legend. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading here and go watch it (or wait until dark, if necessary). The post will wait. While initially panned by critics and sci-fi fans, the tale of an Antarctic research crew beset by an otherworldly being that assimilates them one by one has withstood the test of time and actually delivers of its tagline “The ultimate in alien terror.”

The isolation and paranoia are critical to the movie’s success. How do you defeat a creature that may be hiding inside you without your knowledge? The tone Carpenter sets, right up to the cliffhanger ending, is what sets The Thing apart from the innumerable other movies featuring cabins in the woods or space stations where a monster starts chewing through the cast. But this series is about the monsters themselves, after all, and what I love most about The Thing is that we have no idea what it looks like.

Whether moribund or writhing around as a mass of crazy alien limbs, we see a lot of The Thing. Special effects artist Rob Bottin’s monstrosities offer us a constantly-shifting array of forms, throwing out new appendages as the alien tries to subdue its victims or scuttle to safety. There are familiar elements to each incarnation—like the demonic dog that bursts out of the “Blair Thing” at the movie’s climax—but those pieces are constantly reshuffled with the goo-drenched elements of other alien species. The Thing is an anatomical mashup artist.

Carpenter-Thing03

But none of the on-screen abominations really represent the alien species itself. As R.J. Macready (Kurt Russell) explains to the rest of the team while about to administer an improvised blood test, each piece of The Thing seems to be an entire organism. The grotesque assimilation process is visible to the naked eyed, sure, but it happens at the cellular level—that’s why the only semi-dead bodies of the creature remain so dangerous. Even the slightest contact can mean assimilation. So even though the movie is famous for the “dog thing,” the spider head, and other bodily bastardizations, the alien itself is probably a single-celled organism, completely self-contained but creating its own kind of colony when given the raw materials to work with. Blair (Wilford Brimley) noted that the alien could have visited and sampled who knows how many different alien species before crash landing on Earth. All the terrors the research team faced were only a fraction of what The Thing was capable of.

We’ve seen other forms of body snatching on the big screen before. To be totally taken over without your knowledge or consent is a fear that always has been, and always will be, with us. But what makes The Thing so awful—in the best sense of the word—is that it goes one step further. You’re not simply taken over or replaced. Every part of you, every last cell, can be broken and transformed into something totally unrecognizable. A constantly-shifting amalgamation of teeth and claws and legs and tentacles recombined over and over. The thought alone is enough to make me want to cut my thumb and stick a match to it, just to be sure…

Brian Switek is the author of My Beloved Brontosaurus (out in paperback from Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Written in Stone. He also writes the National Geographic blog Laelaps.

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