HOT Day 1: John Carpenter's The Thing

thing_poster_01Every time I watch John Carpenter’s The Thing, one particular element stands out to me: the all-male cast. There’s plenty that’s effective about The Thing — the Antarctic setting, the themes of paranoia and nihilism, the practical special effects by Rob Bottin. But the thing I find myself thinking about every time is Carpenter’s decision to cast the movie with twelve men. It’s a deliberate choice. John Carpenter’s The Thing is a remake of a 1951 movie called The Thing from Another World, the cast of which included Margaret Sheridan as a secretary named Nikki and Sally Creighton as the wife of one of the doctors serving at a U.S. Air Force outpost in the Arctic. The 2011 prequel (also titled The Thing — not confusing at all) stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the lead. But in 1982, Carpenter saw fit to cast men only.

From IMDB:  “There are no female characters in the film. The only female presence in the movie is in the voice of MacReady's chess computer and the contestants seen on the game show that Palmer watches. A scene containing a blow-up doll was filmed and then left on the cutting room floor. According to John Carpenter, only one crew member was female but she was pregnant and this forced her to leave the shoot; she was replaced by a male.”

Norris thingThat pregnant crew member sparked a thought in me as I re-watched The Thing last night. This is ultimately a movie about a parasite. It finds a host, devours it, becomes it, and integrates itself into the population. Not to imply that babies are parasites (they are), but the Thing in The Thing is as close to pregnancy as a man can get. Each of the men in this movie knows he could be carrying something strange inside him, and each one worries how it might change him. When a man is impregnated — er, infected — with the Thing, he suffers aches and pains and cramps. When the Thing is “born,” it comes out covered in blood and goop and tissue. Just worrying that he might be playing host to a foreign being sends emotions running high in each of the men. Once the parasite has infected one of the men, his body is transformed. And the only way of knowing for sure that someone’s carrying a Thing? A blood test.

Sounds an awful lot like pregnancy and childbirth to me.

Oh, snap, MacReady, look behind you!

The thought that there could be some Other growing inside them is terrifying to these men. But women have been playing host to Others practically since time began. No big. The terror of pregnancy and childbirth is a familiar horror-movie theme (see: The Brood, Rosemary’s Baby, Demon Seed), but it’s not a fear men usually have to contend with. Would the presence of a woman in the cast of The Thing lessen the terror of playing host to a strange creature? Maybe not. But by stacking the cast with men, Carpenter ramps up the terror of what it means to grow something unknown inside of you.

Part of what’s fun about watching a smart horror movie — and I would argue that The Thing, in addition to being a great deal of fun as well as a major gross-out, is a very smart horror movie — is interpreting the meaning, both intentional and unintentional, of what’s on the screen. I don’t necessarily believe that John Carpenter set out to make a movie about pregnancy horror; so many other themes (like paranoia, self-doubt, isolation) are much more at the forefront of the film. But the interesting thing about a creative work that’s made for an audience is that the audience brings its own interpretations to that work. Carpenter may not have intended for his movie to evoke pregnancy horror, but for this viewer, at least, that’s what happened.

Stray observations:

  • For a thoughtful discussion on The Thing and paranoia, diversity, and the movie’s ambiguous ending, check out this recent episode of The Canon.
  • A fun bit of trivia, courtesy of IMDB:  “In the DVD commentary, John Carpenter said Wilford Brimley was the only cast member not initially grossed out by the autopsy scene where they used real animal organs. Brimley had been a real-life cowboy, and gutting animals and removing organs was a normal experience for him.”

Wilford Brimley: Not afraid of guts.

  • Here’s an article from The Paris Review, if you can believe it, about a viewing of The Thing at a horror retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music just this year.
  • Apparently, Ennio Morricone’s score was up for a Razzy the year The Thing came out. Wha? I honestly think the score to this film is one of the more effective horror movie soundtracks, on par with the score from Halloween or Jaws.
  • Has anybody out there seen the 2011 prequel? I just couldn’t bring myself to, but I’d be interested in hearing what others think of it.

There is some seriously gorgeous fan art for The Thing.