I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Spider-Head, Spider-Head, Friendly, Neighborhood Spider-Head... John Carpenter’s The Thing


by Ryk McIntyre
May 15, 2011

This movie brings up a lot of metaphysical questions and considerations. First among which is, that I get to review this movie is both proof that God exists and that my editor loves me.

An adapted remake of the 1951 original, Thing From Another World (which, in turn, was an adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. story “Who Goes There?” So, in other words, you have to go back a bit to find “original.”), this movie succeeded in allowing John Carpenter to ratchet-up the “OMG!” factor in Horror/Sci-Fi special effects, and simultaneously, helped cement the tough-guy image Kurt Russell finally achieved with Escape from New York, after a career of diminishing returns, following all those Disney comedies he was in when he was younger.

The film starts out with a sequence that echoes Sarah Palin’s reality show: a shot of a dog being chased by a helicopter that is alternately shooting at the dog and throwing grenades at it, neither to any effect. Which also echoes Sarah Palin’s political career. Of course this all leads to tragedy with the helicopter crashing, pilot dying, and the gunner shot by personnel at the base the dog was running toward. Yay! The dog is saved! I love when that happens!

Except, uh-oh, the dog is saved. Turns out it’s some alien biomorph that takes over host bodies and turns them into John Carpenter special effects. All this is happening at a U.S. base in Antarctica, so added to the alien menace is the ever-present isolation and growing paranoia as people are killed. Stir in hellish weather conditions, and the presence of a black actor as the funky cook, for diversity. Forgive us, this was the early 1980s. Things were awkward back then.

Determining that the crazed gunner came from the relatively nearby Norwegian base, Kurt goes to investigate, only to find it ripped to shreds, everyone dead – some by suicide – along with evidence that something was found in the ice that isn’t in the ice anymore... ooh! Spooky!

A strange, partially burned body is brought back for autopsy (which mostly creates questions, rather than answering them) and then the dogs go wild. I don’t want to reveal more about this movie, because if you haven’t seen it, i don’t want to give away one, single, horrifying special effect. And if you have seen this film before, then you already know how awesome it is. You’ve probably watched it as many times as I have. Unless you didn’t like it, and then, frankly, there’s not a lot that I, or anyone really, can do for you and your sad, sad world in which you live and don’t like John Carpenter movies. I mean this movie has Wilfred Brimley, for God’s sake! How could anything like that be less than awesome!? The film also has cameos of John Carpenter and his wife, Adrienne “Fantasy Woman of My Childhood” Barbeau. Bonus points if you know where and how they appear.

For its time, this was a special-effects wonder and still stands up as a psychological/action thriller, in my humble opinion. At the time, it was swamped by the saccharine cheeriness of Steven Speilberg’s E.T. which, with it’s gnomish main character, had more mass appeal than a terrifying mutational alien bent on world domination. Call me weird, but I like my aliens on the horrible side, not interstellar gardners, for Predator’s sake! I suppose there’s some justice in the fact that The Thing has become a cult film amongst the sort of fans that also like his Lovecraftian In the Mouth of Madness and the more Satanic Prince of Darkness, which form the second and third of Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy.”

With its themes of paranoia, this film echoes The Thing From Another World’s Cold War tensions as well as today’s terrorist paranoia. How do you know when one of us, might not be “one of us?” How do we know the secrets that dwell in the minds, or in the cell structures, of those around us? Throw in the adverse living conditions and being cut-off from civilization, and you have a perfect microcosm of hate, distrust, pleaded innocence and secret agendas. Plus, the infamous Runaway Spider-Head sequence has got to be one of the best gruesome special effect of all time. I mean.... you can’t make this stuff up. Unless, of course, you’re John Carpenter.

 

Ryk McIntyre is a Multi-Hyphen sort of person. Poet, critic, performer, workshop facilitator and co-host at both GotPoetry! Live (Providence) and Cantab Lounge (Cambridge,MA). He's been living in RI for the past 6 years, with his wife and daughter. Ryk has performed his work at Boston's ICA, NYC's New School, Portsmouth, NH's Music Hall and Lollapalooza, to name just a few. He has toured the US, performing in countless Poetry open mics and festivals.  He turned down Allen Ginsburg once.