Isolation. Icy tundra. Science. Survival. And an alien on the loose. What is it about The Thing (both Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another Planet from 1951 and John Carpenter’s The Thing from 1982) that taps into American cultural anxieties?
A brilliant mix of horror and science fiction, The Thing pits man against the unknown. In an almost an almost ‘non-place’ an invasion (a monstrous other) occurs that destabilizes the routine, security, and trust built up amongst men (and in Hawks’ version, one women). Made nearly thirty years apart and book-ending the post-modern horror initiators Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby, The Thing(s) re-position this notion of the “outside” via the scientific and via outer-space rather than our family and friends.
In Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture, Kendall R. Phillips argues:
The Thing brought horror out of the Gothic past and place it squarely into the continuous world of the near-future. The monster was not some creature of lore and superstition but one based, however loosely, on the possibilities afforded by science. By bringing the monster into the realm of the continuous world, the points of resonance between the elements in the film and the broader cultural anxieties seem to become more accurate. Wrapped up in the fantastic horror of The Thing were American fears of invasion, communism, Fordism, science, authority, expertise, and gender displacement.
Interestingly enough, the reception of each version of The Thing was also related to the cultural context in which it was produced…
…Then, in 1982, as Carpenter prepared to release his most accomplished film to date – a remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing – the filmmaker become concerned. As Carpenter explains, “I was sitting in my office at Universal a few weeks back before the movie came out, and I got to read a little study, a demographic study…and they discovered that the marker for horror movies had shrunk by 70% over like six months.” Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982) had been release to unexpected success only a few months earlier, and it was clear that the country’s mood had changed. Carpenter’s apocalyptic, pessimistic, and graphic tales of paranoia and alien invasion was met with lukewarm box-office receipts and an almost overwhelming critical condemnation. Spielberg’s film of a charming, benevolent, father-figure alien had captured the spirit of the times. Carpenter’s shape-shifting, blood-letting alien appeared in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Reagan era was for a time Frank Capra-esque fantasties, not doom-laden Hawksian tales of invasive threats…
Now I think we can safely pull John Carpenter’s The Thing back into a positive critical framework that, while different than Hawks’ vision of a united team of trust versus scientific greed, allows for a more realistic (if we can say that) look at what happens when the unknown happens. Try as he might, man doesn’t always succeed. This dystopic vision, coupled with Kurt Russell’s enjoyable swagger and gleefully gooey special effects, makes The Thing a must watch in consideration of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Related trivia: in Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), little Lindsey and Tommy are watching Hawks’ The Thing from Another Planet.