In the film nerd world, the best year in film history is a hotly debated topic that has no clear-cut answer. Some of us prefer 1939. Others prefer 1999. Myself? I prefer to stick with 1974, a year that championed the auteur theory as legendary directors (both foreign and domestic) released one film after another, all of them with their cinematic voice in peak form. It was also a wonderful year for movies that sought only to entertain via suspense and action and several boundary-pushing comedies made the audience laugh to beat the band. Since I happen to love lists, here is a quick sampling of 1974 films that have stood the test of time:
- The Parallax View
- Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
- Blazing Saddles
- Young Frankenstein
- The Godfather Part 2
- The Conversation
- The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
- A Woman Under the Influence
- Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
- The Phantom of Liberty
- The Enigma of Kasper Hauser
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
- The Towering Inferno
While 1974 is the entire year I tend to rep in this particular conversation, I back 1982—the popular opinion, I know, but sometimes the popular opinion is correct—as the best summer of all time. This is partially due to me being a child of the ’80s, but since the Alamo Drafthouse programmed an event to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the movies released that particular summer—continuing to show why they alone are the go-to theater chain in the States, consistently making me wish I lived in Austin—I will assume I’m correct. In fact Alamo takes movies so seriously that they actually enforce movie theater rules and regulations, like no talking or texting, which led to this little incident that, in a perfect world, should have increased their stock by 231.7%:
But back to 1982 and another list (yeah, lists!) to help illustrate why a plethora of fans are on record as backing this summer as the best ever:
- The Road Warrior
- Rocky III
- Conan the Barbarian
- The Wall
- Class of 1984
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn
- Fast Times at Ridgemont High
- Blade Runner
- The Secret of Nimh
- The Thing
Between the trailer, poster, and title of this post, I’m sure you are able to deduce that I’m going to talk about John Carpenter’s The Thing, and since I’ve burnt through roughly 400 words and 2 lists without even mentioning the genius of the film, I suppose at this point we should get right to it.
When it was announced that Carpenter, a life-long fan of Howard Hawks and his production of The Thing from Another Planet, intended to remake the film that had become a staple for monster-movie enthusiasts of his generation, the reaction was akin to anger. How the director of Dark Star and Escape from New York could presume a remake was needed in the first place was sacrilege, ignoring the fact that Carpenter’s decision wasn’t exactly surprising. He habitually mentioned Hawks’s work as a template, one that would shape and inform the now prodigious director’s career: Assault of Precinct 13 was a loving riff on Rio Bravo, and for one segment in Halloween, Carpenter would use a scene from the original Thing on Laurie Strode’s television set. Initially, fans of the classic got the last laugh as Carpenter’s film bombed at the box office. It seemed that audiences weren’t quite prepared for a film as bleak as this, especially two weeks after the release of E.T., a film that was much more optimistic about visiting extraterrestrial life, featuring none of the gore effects, disturbing imagery, and paranoia and distrust that made The Thing such as powerful cinematic concoction, a true masterpiece of suspense and horror.
Wisely, Carpenter elected to go back to source material, John W. Campbell Jr.’s Who Goes There?, the novella the original was based upon, and by extension, made the smart decision of ditching the Frankenstein’s Monster from space special effects, turning the alien back into a shape-shifting body snatcher that can imitate and replace any living organism it encounters and consumes. When the being is unearthed at the ass end of the earth, it encounters a group of men—each one as mysterious to the audience as the alien—allowing the director to explore their relationships in an understated fashion that also serves to ratchet up the suspense to, at times, seemingly unbearable levels. In this manner, Bill Lancaster’s script (son of Burt, who also penned the original Bad News Bears) is a masterwork, giving the audience lots of thoughts and ideas to chew on if they choose to look closely enough. Lancaster makes the correct decision to not flush out the backstory of a single character, dispensing with the common need of having to describe their motivation at every turn, making the movie stronger. The only common thread of the men’s past lives is that they are distrustful of people. You don’t end up in an Antarctic research station unless you are at the bottom of the company totem pole or unless you severely pissed off enough people in your line of work that they decided to send you there, ridding themselves of your existence.
Even the hero of the story, R. J. “Mac” MacReady (Kurt Russell in a signature performance) is fairly unlikable and, from the first time we meet him, it becomes readily apparent that he has no good will stored up toward the human race. The one thing that this helicopter pilot and loner seems to hate more than people is losing, establishing early on that he has no problem with ripping things down to their foundations in an effort to level the playing field when he pours a glass of liquor into the hard drive of a computer after it “cheats” to win in a chess match. Soon enough, he will be engaged in his own chess match with The Thing, and you can be damn sure he won’t let it win on its own terms, just like the unfortunate chess program finds out in the character’s introduction.
Stationed along with Mac, who becomes their de facto leader in the remote station, is a motley crew of individuals: Blair (Wilford Brimley), the first to detect the grave threat to the camp; Childs (Keith David, never better), one mean fucker who I would imagine pushed too many of the wrong buttons back in the real world, making this the only job he could procure, and as a result having to suffer around all these stupid-ass white folks; Palmer (David Clennon), the pot-head mechanic and chronic whiner; Clark (Richard Masur), a loner who feels more at home around animals than people; and Garry (Donald Moffat), the dependable but in-over-his-head security chief. Without the normal amount of exposition, Lancaster’s script opts for telling bits of action to let the audience in on who these people are, in turn allowing the actors to open it up a bit and bring their own sensibilities to the roles. When coupled with the lean script, the acting choices ensure that the audience has to pay attention to keep up—every mystery isn’t explained away, which some viewers seem to have a problem with. I happen to adore these traits, as they make repeat viewings a must, as there is always something new and interesting to discover, be it a turn of phrase or minor character beat. I’ve seen this movie upward of 20 times and I still have no idea “who gets to the blood” or when the monster gets to Blair or Norris, infecting them. For these reasons, The Thing becomes a film that one takes home with them, allowing the viewer to continue to play with the events of the movie in his or her head or leading to a group of friends sitting down with each other to discuss how they think events really went down.
This helps to ratchet up that aforementioned tension and paranoia, prominently displayed in the first of the film’s two signature scenes. MacReady comes up with an “identity test” designed to find out which of them has been infected. The test itself is simple enough, a blood sample is taken from each remaining member of the camp, and then a hot wire is pulled through it, burning the cells. Since it was deduced earlier that each cell of the organism is capable of acting dependently, if any of the samples truly contains the blood of “The Thing,” it will try and save itself and reveal who isn’t who they seem to be. It’s an incredibly effective scene, soaked in dread as each man waits his turn to be cleared.
If you’ve seen the film, you know the second signature scene is the last one, and it’s also the one that lifts the film into classic territory. Having dispatched the monster and set the compound on fire, MacReady sits down in the harsh storm that is currently pounding the Antarctic. Resigned to his fate, he suddenly notices Childs walking up out of the storm, seemingly the only other survivor. They sit together watching each other closely, full of mistrust and doubt, knowing that as the temperature drops, they will, without fail, freeze to death. The ending is one that has been dissected and speculated on ad nauseam, and due to the ambiguity in which it is shot, the main question on everyone’s mind will forever remain:
Is Childs a Thing?
Not in my opinion, no, he’s human. And instead of deciding to slowly freeze, MacReady and Childs could do something to save themselves or the people who will come to the research site, looking for answers as to what happened there. Only their mistrust and suspicion of one another hold them back, making a partnership impossible. It’s a nihilistic ending, one that fits the tone of the film perfectly as The Thing is chock full of characters whose Achilles heel is the fact that they can’t trust one another, which, fortunately for the alien, is exactly what it needs to not only survive but thrive in its new surroundings. In the end, the humans bring themselves down, stare destruction in the face, and lose. The real horror of Carpenter’s masterwork is not the monster, capable of mimicry so real it becomes nigh impossible to tell who’s real anymore, but in humanity’s failure to relate and trust in one another. The Thing’s screenwriter and director don’t seem to be too optimistic about our chances, but its message remains clear: as humans, we need each other to survive. A simple message we as a society still need to take to heart 30 years later, spun into a landmark creature feature by a master of the medium.