Released on June 25, 1982, The Thing was John Carpenter’s love letter to the 1951 film, The Thing From Another World, produced by his hero, Howard Hawks. (John Carpenter even featured The Thing in his 1978 film, Halloween.) At the time of its release, The Thing was a box-office failure. Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, was released two weeks before, and the movie-going audience at the time was in the mood for kinder, gentler aliens. Thanks to home video and cable, however, The Thing has become a cult classic and a quintessential monster movie in the history of horror.
What elements put a film in the Monster in the House genre? Typically, you have a house, which can be a literal house, a town, or a society. Next, you have a monster, which can be a pure monster like The Thing, Jaws, or Alien, a serial monster like Michael Myers in the Halloween series or Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th films, a domestic monster like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction or Robin Williams in One Hour Photo, or a nihilist monster like in The Strangers or Funny Games. And you need a sin or transgression, which causes the monster to appear like the greedy mayor keeping the beaches open in Jaws or Michael Douglas’ marital indiscretion in Fatal Attraction.
Each month, I’ll be writing a horror classic that fits in the Monster in the House genre that Blake Snyder illustrated in his Save the Cat!® Goes to the Movies, and its recent follow-up, Save the Cat!® Goes to the Indies by Salva Rubio. The Thing is first up, celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. And let’s face it, John Carpenter’s The Thing is simply one of those horrifically cool movies you can pop on and can completely become, uh, absorbed in, within a few minutes.
Written by: Bill Lancaster
Based on the 1938 novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell
Directed by: John Carpenter
MITH Type: Pure Monster
MITH Cousins: Alien, Jaws, The Descent, Frankenstein, Tremors, Jurassic Park, Anaconda, King Kong, Deep Blue Sea, 47 Meters Below, The Shallows, Lake Placid, Cloverfield, The Reef, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mist, An American Werewolf in London, Godzilla, Rogue
Opening Image: Icy stars pierce the infinite blackness of space. Moments later, a flying saucer hurls past, out of control, perhaps, on a collision course with our inviting blue planet. The ship explodes into a ball of flame as it enters the Earth’s atmosphere. Moments later, The Thing title burns into the screen, letting us know that whatever piloted that ship probably isn’t friendly.
Set-Up: A frozen plain fills the screen. First the iciness of space, now the snow-littered arctic. This is a story of coldness and isolation. Like the earlier flying saucer, a machine appears on the horizon, hurling closer. This time it’s less alien—a helicopter. One of the chopper occupants searches for something, his manner urgent, through a pair of binoculars. He spots it and orders the pilot down. A swift-footed Siberian Husky gallops through the arctic wasteland. The dog turns, checking to see if the copter is still approaching. The man pulls out an assault rifle and shoots at the canine. What’s going on here? Is this man trying to shoot the animal for sport or something even more sinister? The Husky retreats toward an American science research station.
Theme Stated: RJ MacReady (Kurt Russell), alone in his shack, pours himself some scotch to keep warm and plays some Chess Wizard on the computer. This is a Stasis = Death moment for MacReady. He will drink himself to death and play this game into oblivion if something in his life doesn’t change. He plays the computer but loses. This sets up a metaphorical game. MacReady will have to play a form of “chess” with his Antarctic comrades, always trying to be several moves ahead if possible. Will he be able to trust them? As MacReady loses to the computer, he pours his icy drink into the circuits and accuses the machine of cheating. The rugged-looking MacReady is not one to play the game by the rules in a thesis moment. He’ll need this skill if he is to survive in this primal story of survival.
MacReady, along with some of his mystified co-workers, including Childs (Keith David), Bennings (Peter Maloney), Norris (Charles Hallahan), and Palmer (David Clennon), throw on their parkas and check out the commotion. The spotter on the helicopter drops grenades at the Husky—he desperately wants to stop this dog. Why? The copter lands and the desperate man shoots at the Husky as it cavorts with the men of the camp. The pilot attempts to throw a grenade but drops it, incinerating himself and the helicopter. The Norwegian man, clutching his rifle, shouts at the Americans. He is the Half Man, the damaged one who has fought the monster and lived to tell about it. Unfortunately, the confused men do not understand the “false mentor” and his warnings about what happened to his people and what will happen to MacReady and his group.
Garry (Donald Moffat), leader of the camp who carries a revolver at his side, ends the assailant’s attack with a single shot to the head. Clark (Richard Masur), the dog handler, befriends the new Husky and takes him inside. Windows (Thomas G. Waites), the radio operator, attempts to report the incident but can’t raise anyone. The coldness and isolation seem to affect communications too. Blair (Wilford Brimley), a medical technician, urges the radio operator to keep trying. Something’s “alien” to all this strangeness. Nauls (T.K. Carter), the roller-skating cook, wonders if the US is at war with Norway.
We know who everyone is in the first 12 minutes.
Catalyst: Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) convinces MacReady to pilot the helicopter to the Norwegian camp to find out what’s going on. They believe that cabin fever caused this strange behavior” from being cooped up in the arctic for too long. Are there any other survivors at the neighboring camp? In true Catalyst form, MacReady vocalizes his reluctance to the journey but then agrees to take the chopper up despite the impending storm approaching.
Debate: Back at the science station, the Husky roams through the empty halls with Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” warning us of bad things to come. The strange canine seems in search of something—or someone. And then the dog discovers a shadowy occupant alone in a room (the person’s identity a mystery) and it enters. Dramatic fade out.
Dr. Copper and MacReady discover the Norwegian camp is a burned-out husk. They find no survivors. The frozen corpses they find died in horrifying ways like something out of Grand Guignol. MacReady finds a huge block of ice. Whatever was in the block was removed. Something large. Then the investigating duo discovers some charred remains of unidentified organisms in the snow. Is it an animal? Human? Both? Whatever it was, the Norwegians tried to incinerate with kerosene quickly.
Back at the US station, the crew examines the smelly, smoldering remnants from the Norwegian camp. They discover that the remains, though not appearing human, contain human internal organs.
Clark incorporates the new Siberian Husky with the other sled dogs in the kennel. Once he leaves, it reveals itself as a terrifying Trojan horse—a thing from another world—tearing itself open and attacking the other dogs. To what sinister purpose?
Break into Two: A terrible noise alerts MacReady and the others. They arrive with shotguns and flamethrowers. They realize that there’s a Thing among them—dripping wet, shape-shifting, and generally disgusting, changing like a chameleon before their eyes. We’re defiantly in the upside-down world , the antithesis of Act Two. Most of the dogs are “absorbed” by the Dog-Thing. Before they can burn the creature, part of it separates from its base form and escapes into the rafters.
B Story: After an autopsy of the remnants in the kennel, Blair explains that the creature tried to “absorb” all the dogs in the kennel and imitate them.
Fun and Games: Blair questions Clark how long he was alone with the dog that was not a dog. Clark says 90 minutes. Blair has concerns, but he doesn’t voice them. The wheels in his head are turning. Blair relays the theme of trust. And there’s some verbal chess play here. Who can you trust when this Thing creates perfect imitations of life forms? Often the B Story character is a “love story” character; here, though, Blair helps drives the theme of the story.
Watching the video footage from the camp, the team learns that the Norwegians discovered something massive buried under the ice. They “dug it up” using thermite charges (which echoes the earlier accident with the helicopter).
MacReady flies Norris and another team member out to the site where the Norwegians were planting the explosives. They discover the flying saucer that we saw hurling toward Earth. Norris determines that the crash has buried the spacecraft in the ice at least 100,000 years. They also discover the hole where the ice block was taken from, presumably where the Thing had either been tossed out or crawled away from the ship.
Back at camp, the team throws out theories about what happened. Nobody knows.
At minute 41, Blair runs some cellular tests using an electron microscope. He finds that the Thing’s cells assimilate with human (and dog) tissue at a rapid rate, imitating the canine, as he holds a ticking time clock. He also runs some tests. He realizes that most of the team is probably already infected, only appearing human but really Things within, and if it’s not stopped, the entire world population could be infected and taken over, raising the stakes. It’s not just the lives of the men at the station—now it’s the lives of every human on the planet if this space invader gets out.
They lock the remnants in a storage room but not before they attack Bennings. For the first time, in a true promise of the premise, we get to see how the Thing takes over a person and absorbs them.
Fuchs calls MacReady into an emergency meeting in the Thiokol snowcat. He’s reading Blair’s notebooks. It’s like the diary of a madman. Alliances are already forming. No one knows who to trust. It’s a match of wits. MacReady’s chess game has taken on a whole new playing field and he’s mentally struggling with his next move.
Windows, Fuchs, and MacReady discover Bennings. He looks like Bennings but he’s a Thing brandishing some unfinished alien talons and screaming unearthly cries. They dump kerosene onto the struggling form and incinerate it. Now they understand what happened at the Norwegian camp.
Midpoint: Blair isolates himself from the rest of the group, kills the remaining dogs, and destroys the helicopter and radio equipment, publicly coming out with his concerns. He doesn’t want a Thing to reach the coast and infect humans. It’s here he commits the “sin” against the group, the transgression of cutting off their only hope of reaching the outside world, that will ultimately give the Thing its power over the men, raising the stakes. In a false victory, MacReady and the rest of the group quickly overpower him and lock him in a tool shed away from the main building. A and B Stories cross as Blair tells MacReady he doesn’t know who to trust. MacReady takes a sip of vodka and offhandedly tells him to trust in the Lord. Blair warns MacReady to watch the dog handler, Clark, as he’s had the most exposure with the Dog-Thing.
Bad Guys Close In: Because of Blair’s handiwork, the team is completely cut off from the world. Isolated. They’re marooned in a sea of snow. The time clock starts ticking faster for the men—soon they will die or worse. Dr. Copper thinks a blood serum test would help them determine who’s human and who’s not. Unfortunately, one Thing expected this move and destroyed all the blood in storage. Only two people had access to the key—Dr. Copper and Garry, who is in charge of it. He surrenders his revolver and his leadership to MacReady.
MacReady makes a recording in case nobody makes it. “Nobody trusts anybody now,” MacReady says, stating the theme.
Continuing Blair’s work as ordered by MacReady, Fuchs does some research but the generator blows and the lights go out. As Fuchs investigates, he finds the tattered remains of MacReady’s shirt. The Thing rips through your clothing as it gets to you. Is MacReady, who’s now in charge, one of those things or is somebody trying to frame him? Trust is a real problem out here in the arctic.
MacReady, Nauls, and Windows search for the missing Fuchs. As they do, they check on Blair in the tool shed. Blair pleads his case to come back inside with the others but MacReady refuses. Nauls, Windows, and MacReady discover the charred remains of Fuchs. It appears like he took his own life in a desperate attempt to save his body and soul from The Thing.
Windows returns to report their findings to the others as MacReady and Nauls continue to investigate outside the compound. They head up to MacReady’s shack as the light is on and he specifically remembers turning it off.
All Is Lost: Back inside, the team wonders where Nauls and MacReady are. They determine that the 45 minutes that they’ve been gone is too long. There’s a storm outside and no human can withstand it for long. It’s likely they’re dead, or worse. They decide to board up the entrances. As they do, Norris notices a lone figure struggling his way toward the compound. He lets the man inside—it’s Nauls. The rest of the men gather around. Nauls reveals that he cut MacReady loose from the towline when he discovered a scrap of MacReady’s shirt in the oil furnace back at his shack. It appears to be the same torn piece of clothing that Fuchs unearthed. Does this prove that MacReady is no longer one of them? Can they trust the evidence?
A moment later, MacReady tries to gain entrance. They won’t let him in—they’re sure the Thing has absorbed him into an alien form. If they leave the MacReady-Thing outside, it will probably freeze. A shattering of glass from the supply room alerts them. MacReady, a man who doesn’t play by the rules, has gained entrance another way.
Childs axes down the locked door to the supply room and the men try to stop the half-frozen MacReady but he clutches a bundle of dynamite and a torch. He warns them that if the “lynching party” comes any closer, he’ll blow up the whole camp. He really can’t trust anyone anymore, just like they can’t trust him. Nauls and Norris sneak up behind MacReady but are unsuccessful in stopping the dynamite-wielding helicopter pilot. After being thrown aside by MacReady, Norris appears to have a heart attack, gasping for breath on the ground.
Dark Night of the Soul: Dr. Copper attempts to revive Norris with a defibrillator. However, Norris’ chest cavity opens up and bites off Copper’s forearms, killing him. Norris then transforms into the Thing he really is, but MacReady, who’s ready with the flamethrower, burns the invading alien to a crisp.
In a Moment of Clarity, the attack gives MacReady an idea to figure out who is who. He orders Windows to tie up everyone. The whiff of death is in the air as he extracts some blood from each of them, using a scalpel to slice open their thumbs and expel some blood into a petri dish. He will then heat a strip of metal wire and insert it into the blood. MacReady believes that the blood sample containing The Thing will shy away from a hot needle just as the Norris-Thing had attempted to escape from his flamethrower. Clark, the dog handler, attacks MacReady. He’s shot in the forehead.
MacReady tests the blood of Windows, Copper, Clark, Nauls, and himself. Each of them is human. Childs accuses MacReady of being a murderer because he killed Clark who wasn’t a Thing. With Palmer and Garry still tied to the couch, MacReady tests Palmer’s blood, which immediately reacts. Palmer reveals his true self as Palmer-Thing and transforms. MacReady’s flamethrower goes down so he orders Windows to torch Palmer-Thing, but the creature splits open its head into formidable jaws, lashes its “tongue” around Windows neck, and pulls him headfirst into the menacing jaws.
MacReady retrieves Windows’ flamethrower and torches Palmer-Thing, and then tosses a stick of dynamite and finishes the burning alien with an explosive coup de grâce. MacReady then burns Windows who, infected, is transforming. MacReady then tests Childs and Garry and discovers they’re both humans. Now he has those he can trust—and who can trust him. For the moment, the playing field is level.
There’s only one member left in the team to administer the blood test to…
Break into Three: MacReady, Nauls, and Garry head to the tool shed to test Blair, the remaining member of their dwindling team. They leave Childs on guard with a flamethrower. However, when the group arrives, they discover the door to the toolshed wide open and no sign of Blair. Under the floorboards, they discover a corridor leading to a cavern. Within, they discover a ship, smaller in scale but similar to the one at the beginning of the film. Blair-Thing put it together from parts of the helicopter. Ironically, Blair, who was all about trust, turns out to be the most untrustworthy and insidious member of the group (A and B Stories cross again).
MacReady bundles some dynamite together and blows up the Blair-Thing’s craft, along with the toolshed, sky high. The generator to the compound quits, presumably turned off by Blair-Thing. Childs is now missing.
1. Gathering the Team: The former leader, Garry, asks MacReady what’s the next move. The helicopter pilot-turned leader tells him and Nauls that they’re not getting out of this alive, but neither is Blair-Thing. MacReady speculates that it wants to become frozen so a rescue team can find it (just as the Norwegians did) and it will resurrect itself when thawed. This is a moment that separates heroes from cowards. They’re willing to risk their own lives for the greater good of humanity. Armed with kerosene and dynamite, MacReady wants to “warm things up” for the space monster that always seems to be two chess moves ahead of them.
2. Executing the Plan: MacReady runs the Caterpillar into the compound. Then he, Nauls, and Garry heat the place up with dynamite and Molotov cocktails, destroying every room on the main floor. It’s a hot time in the cold town tonight!
MacReady orders them down the last place—the generator room. This is where Blair-Thing turned off the power and likely where it will be lurking. Garry discovers the generator has vanished. Blair has most likely taken it to build his escape ship.
MacReady orders the men to help him rig explosives to bring the entire place “down into the ice.”
3. High Tower Surprise: As Garry is setting his charges, alone, Blair-Thing attacks him, and takes over his body. Nauls goes to investigate and vanishes. MacReady finds himself alone when the Blair-Thing attacks him from under the floorboards.
4. Dig, Deep Down: The attack knocks MacReady out of the way… separating him from his burning dynamite stick. Blair-Thing destroys the detonator. It seems like the Thing From Another World has taken over another camp. It’s won.
5. The Execution of the New Plan: Not a man to play by the rules and call it quits, in an echo from his earlier chess game in his first scene, MacReady—the synthesis man—does an action-man roll and grabs the burning stick of dynamite. Like the explosive coup de grâce to Palmer, MacReady shouts an explicative at Blair-Thing and throws the dynamite stick. The entire compound goes up in a fiery bloom that lights up the night sky. The Blair-Thing’s eerie, dying howls echo through the dark.
Final Image: In contrast to the Opening Image, and because All Stories Are About Transformation, the American science research station is now a fiery hulk, much like the Norwegian station in Act One. It’s dark and fires burn everywhere, complete destruction on an apocalyptic scale. Freezing and battle-worn MacReady, toting a blanket and a bottle of Scotch, ambles through the ruins. He’s a sad and wiser man, struggling to stay alive using primal instincts. Childs appears out of the darkness. He claims he was chasing Blair and got lost in the storm. They won’t last out here in the frigid temperatures for long. And if either of them is a Thing, they’re both too exhausted to fight one another—a game of social chess that each is too tired to play. Instead, they share a bottle of Scotch and wait. Can they trust one another? Time will tell.
NEXT MONTH’S MITH: THE SHINING BEAT SHEET