Movie Monster #10. The Thing, when paranoia takes shape

A sled dog runs through the snow, a helicopter hot on his heels. From the sky, a shooter tries to shoot the animal. Ennio Morricone’s heavy notes weigh down the scene. Why such a deployment of means and violence for a simple mutt? A few scenes later, the viewer discovers the horrible truth. What was believed to be a dog, which the unfortunate heroes of The Thing rescued, writhes, disarticulates, loses skin and flesh. We discover the Thing, one of the most atrocious creatures in the history of the seventh art. Shapeshifter, the alien parasite can be anyone or anything. And in Antarctica, no one will hear Kurt Russell and his comrades scream.

Released in 1982, The Thing feeds on the two most formidable breasts of horror: the “body horror” and the cosmic horror. The first subgenre, which could be translated as « body horror » and whose Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was one of the pioneers, tormenting the flesh and working the motif of the alteration of the body: it is the oozing realm of buboes, tumors, entrails and open wounds. The creature of The Thing is a most messy representation of it: the sum of the victims it has absorbed, it is an aberration of raw bones, appendages and excrescences, borrowing at the same time from man, snake, dog or even to the spider. On screen, the rendering, which has not aged a bit in forty years, owes a lot to Rob Bottin, 21 at the time, a little genius in special effects and make-up. « I don’t want a guy in a suit »had warned John Carpenter before accepting the production of the film, adapted from a short story by John Campbell, published in 1938. Never mind, Bottin therefore created several latex puppets, which could be animated using cables, which overflowed fluids of all kinds: Bottin mixes mayonnaise, cream corn, chewing gum melted in the microwave and lubricant to obtain the purulent side of the monster.

The Thing, an offshoot of the Lovecraftian pantheon

A formless mass of arms, legs, mouths and faces, the Thing has no meaning, from a rational and biological point of view. It thus also borrows from cosmic horror, as invented by the writer HP Lovecraft ( the Cthulhu mythos) at the end of the 1920s. With Lovecraft, man’s quest for universal knowledge leads him irremediably towards madness, because we only discover a little more our insignificance in the face of the orders of magnitude of the universe and its forces. rules that are beyond our understanding. These are embodied, in the author, in monstrous divinities whose appearance and power escape human comprehension (including the famous Great Old Cthulhu, who would sleep in the center of the Earth) and would be right mind of any observer. Unearthed in the depths of the Arctic by researchers who would have done better to look elsewhere, the Thing could very well be an offshoot of the Lovecraftian pantheon.

But its deeper meaning is elsewhere. Beyond its staggering appearance, the Thing functions as an embodied metaphor for paranoia. The film was released in the early 1980s. Ronald Reagan was in the White House and his frenzied anti-communism reactivated the memory of McCarthy (the red fear), which still haunts the American imagination. It’s the Cold War, a time of mistrust, spies, trickery and secret intrigues. “Trust is a hard thing to find these days”, loose MacReady, the main character played by Kurt Russell, as a summary of the time. The parasitic modus operandi and the process of assimilation of the Thing, that is to say the negation of all individuality in favor of a unique and monstrous whole, refers to the delirious vision of a communist society in the eyes of Washington . Contagious, the Thing must be contained, stemmed, like the Soviet ideology whose epidemic America fears. John Carpenter is not the first to embody this problematic in this way, there was for example before him Don Siegel in 1956, with the invasion of the grave robbers. The blood test, the only way to prove that you are indeed who you claim to be in The Thingreinforces this analogy between the monster, the disease and the fear of otherness.

The social body, seized with panic, is falling apart

Fun fact, across the Atlantic, The Thing hits theaters on June 25, 1982, the same day as another sci-fi masterpiece, Blade Runner, by Ridley Scott – where it is also a question of discovering who is human and who pretends to be. The presence of the Thing in the scientific complex will thus lead each protagonist to be wary of all the others, and the spectator to suspect everyone. On screen, the social body (here reduced to a small group of individuals, which makes the parable all the more effective), seized with panic, is falling apart. The parable works for the Cold War but is a warning for our post-9/11 era of all-surveillance.

This is perhaps what will be worth The Thing late consecration. Was John Carpenter right too soon? The commercial failure of his film stems from a more trivial explanation: the release of AND the alien a few weeks earlier. The public, it seems, preferred the sympathetic version and » for the whole family « from the otherness proposed by Steven Spielberg to the adult terror of The Thing. “I have been called “the pornographer of violence”regretted John Carpenter in a 1985 interview. I did not think at all that it was going to be received in this way (…). The Thing was too strong for his time. I knew he was strong, but I didn’t think he was too strong. I did not take the tastes of the public into consideration. » A late blockbuster rescued by VHS and video stores, the Thing ended up being rehabilitated by audiences and critics alike. It is perhaps Quentin Tarantino who will pay him the most beautiful tribute, beyond drawing inspiration from him for his paranoid western Les 8 Salopards: “I’m not afraid of movies. I was afraid in front The Thing.»

To discover all the monsters of this series

Pan’s Labyrinth, the ogre of Francoism

Monsters & Cie, monstrous capitalism

Godzilla, child of the bomb

The Joker, victory by chaos

Edward Scissorhands cuts out conformity

Ghostface, the killer with the codes

The xenomorph, phallic panic

King Kong, what the Gorilla King says about us

Predator versus Ronald Reagan


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