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Beneath the Ice: John Carpenter’s The Thing

The British Antarctic Survey screen this Antarctic horror movie every midwinter – and if that’s not enough to make you interested, I don’t know what is!

Featuring an isolated, icy environment, good old-fashioned special effects, and a Hitchcock-style score, what’s not to like? This is siege drama at its finest.

While the front cover makes the Thing look like the Abominable Snowman, the reality is nothing of the sort. There’s a bit of a spoiler alert here, although I will try not to reveal too much.

We start off in an isolated American outpost in East Antarctica. Inexplicably, a dog races into their base, being chased by Norwegian men from a nearby outpost, who are trying to shoot it. As expected, a fight happens. The American folks rescue the dog, and are reeling in the aftermath of this sudden and illogical incident.

The obvious thought is that the dog is diseased. But it’s an easy thing to miss – the assumption would be that a dog who made it onto the continent would have passed quarantine regulations as per the Antarctic Treaty’s environment protocol, and with men injured, it’s no wonder the team’s attention was diverted away from the animal. It’s interesting to note that in real life, the Treaty changed in 1994 to not permit any kind of dog on the continent.

Back in 1982 it would still have been commonplace for dogs to exist in Antarctica, but even still, the treaty recommends you wash everything down between visiting different localities, and missing something as obvious as a dog would probably lead to a few stern tellings-off!

In the film, it turns out the dog is infected, but they don’t find out with what until later, when they discover what it was the Norwegians were excavating in the ice. I sometimes think that this is the source of all the “Polar Alien” myths you find flying about the place today. It’s been done to death in various media, from Stargate to Dan Brown.

Harsh, pitching strings cut in when things start to go awry. At other moments there is nothing but a thudding bass keeping the tension alive. All in all, the music put me in mind of a Hitchcock production, which is not surprising, since some staff members had previously worked on famous Hitchcock features such as “The Birds”.

Now, I need to make a note about the special effects. Material-based, textured, non-digital: they are the very definition of classic.

Slimy, silly genetic mutations! Image © DVDTalk.com
Slimy, silly genetic mutations!
Image © DVDTalk.com

They start off being absolutely grim, especially the autopsy scene early on, and it turns out that the effects artist ordered in KY Jelly (the Hollywood favourite) by the bucket-ton, and slopped it on everything. Disgusting, but it really works to add that extra slimy effect! Later on the effects get absolutely ridiculous, but that just makes it more entertaining.

Was anybody else really freaked out by the way that infected dog acted? The thing I love about the dog was the fact that in real life, he was a dog/wolf mongrel, and because of this, he reacted differently to certain things. Apparently during filming, he was very cautious of the actors, and the general busyness of the scenes. He was not an experienced animal actor, and got creeped out by bizarre things all the time. Now, when wolves get freaked out by things, they don’t bark, and they don’t make a fuss. They stare. In the creepiest way possible. This natural wolf reaction made it into the final cut of the film, and helps make it even scarier.

Image of the infected dog staring creepily...
“Good doggy…”
image © Destroyer’s Editorials and Reviews

The other thing I love about this film is that it does, to a certain extent, reflect reality. The facility is sterile, metal and bare, and I don’t feel that this is the result of a low budget. It’s pretty accurate, because in Antarctic bases you want to keep the heat indoors but you want things to be easy to clean, to lessen the risk of disease multiplying.

The fear of disease is more significant than the fear of freezing, to an extent. Closed-off environments really do lend themselves well to contagion taking hold, and I have been on the receiving end of such an event in the same part of the world: it’s not fun! So, even though The Thing takes this fear to the nth degree by making it about aliens and crazy replicating infections, the core fear is still there.

In such an environment, the second most dangerous thing after contagion is human paranoia. As Nauls says early on in the film, “Five minutes is enough to put a man over down here.” Cabin fever is something oft-talked about in film, to the extent that it has become a trope in its own right. But it’s a fully justified one. Interpersonal stress skyrockets in isolated environments such as this, even when the folks you are placed with are the most amicable of sorts. It’s just unavoidable, and the film pulls this off wonderfully and accurately, even if it does once again take the paranoia to ridiculous levels!

The film features an all-male cast, which reflects the was operations in the Antarctic used to be run (and in some cases, the way Antarctic operations are still run, sadly). But on closer investigation, it turns out the casting director made this decision so they did not have to deal with the complications to the storyline that would arise from having love interests, and so they could just focus on paranoia. This is a real shame as this indicates women were only thought of as per their relevance as love interests. It also shows the age of the film. Luckily, things have changed: in the recent 2011 prequel, women were not only cast in the film, but were also given normal, meaningful roles as scientists, without the need for any love-interest story elements.

Another less serious thing to note is that, on the map it shows where both the American and Norwegian outposts are based. They are smack bang in the middle of Kemp Land, East Antarctica, which is actually owned by Australia in real life. And furthermore, the distance between these outposts and the burial location of the Thing itself is well over 1000 kilometres, which is a pretty unrealistic distance for a small outpost team to drag a huge chunk of ice, whether they had helicopters or not.

Having said this, I do love the end implication that all the characters die, whether or not this is actually true. I also love the fact that a large part of the film’s budget went on getting all actors and crew proper cold-weather gear!

This is a story that is destined to be redone for eternity, and like the titular Thing, the story itself takes on a number of different guises each time. Originally a novel written in 1938 by John W. Campbell Jr., it was first known by the name “Who Goes There”. Made into a film in 1951 by John W. Campbell, it was then known as “The Thing from Another World”. The 1982 remake, and the subject of this article, was made in 1982 by John Carpenter (of “Halloween” fame), and was called simply “The Thing”. More recently, the 2011 prequel, confusingly also called “The Thing”, was made by Matthijs can Heijningen Jr., and follows the story from the Norwegian camp’s point of view.

The reason the John Carpenter movie was so great is simply because it was more faithful to the original book. In the 80’s and 90’s there was a general shift back towards making horror movies that were faithful to the books they originated from. This can be seen in other movies such as the 1993 remake of “Dracula”. The Thing follows suit, more accurately portraying the book’s events, and also including the titular monster’s propensity for shapeshifting, something the 1951 version left out completely.

John Carpenter’s The Thing will forever remain a classic horror movie, and is still a joy to watch. As mentioned before, the British Antarctic Survey do like to screen this movie every year, at either their Rothera or Halley VI stations, and to be quite honest, I cannot think of any legacy more fitting than this.

 

main image © fact.co.uk

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