By: Aaron AuBuchon
As the thing that had been Norris burned, its neck stretched, bursting sinew, shredding bone and ligament, oozing to the ground on long strings of alien and abhorrent viscera. The vile thing touched the ground and a long prehensile ropelike appendage thrust impossibly long from its unholy mouth, wrapping around a nearby chair leg to right itself, whereupon it revealed long spidery legs and horrid eyestalks burst forth. The scuttling thing emerged from behind the table, intent on shuffling back into the loathsome darkness and regrouping.
One can pretty easily imagine Howard Philips Lovecraft having written the story that eventually became The Thing (1982). The film has a lot of the characteristics that Lovecraft liked to write about: an indifferent cosmic terror, isolation, mutation, mutilation and the helplessness of science in the face of a vast and uncaring universe. Lovecraft liked to have his characters deal with things that were Other- vastly, horrifyingly Other:
I cannot even hint what it was like, for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable. It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and desolation; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation; the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide. God knows it was not of this world—or no longer of this world—yet to my horror I saw in its eaten-away and bone-revealing outlines a leering, abhorrent travesty on the human shape; and in its mouldy, disintegrating apparel an unspeakable quality that chilled me even more.
-The Outsider, 1921
Lovecraft was a man obsessed with the things that repulsed him. He delighted in examining that which was abnormal to him, that which he found fundamentally and wrongly different than himself. And for him, the Other wasn’t just something heretofore unknown, it was something pathologically gross. Lovecraft seemed to want to find and talk about the things that gave him the willies. He wrote about the foulness of backwards people mutating into fishy oceanic human hybrids not just because of his own geographical proximity to the ocean, but because of his overwhelming disgust at the consumption of seafood- rumor had it he would leave a room if he found someone eating shellfish there. The horror genre is usually concerned with mortality, and the short stories of Lovecraft are no different, but in his universe the murderous aspects are secondary to that which makes the skin crawl. The average horror story metaphorically recounts what happens when you go for a walk in an overgrown and darkened wood, round a corner, and find a slavering wolf waiting for you. Lovecraft’s stories are more like being compelled to wade into an ancient and abandoned lake and feel something slimy swim between your legs.
In at least three films, Carpenter has his characters face Lovecraftian weirdness and both men have used body horror in at least some of their narratives. It’s not just that the creature has tentacles, it’s that the creature has tentacles and legs and a human hand (is that a dog’s face weirdly in there somewhere?) and the whole slimy thing looks like it’s made of human intestines and vaginas. In his film The Thing, the monster is a shape shifter and mimic, and through the visionary makeup work of artist Rob Bottin, the monster is a terrible amalgam of all the creatures it inhabits, exhibiting this and that characteristic, creating a ghastly gestalt that is that much weirder for the mashup. Lovecraft also liked to make creatures out of different parts, such as his most famous creation, Cthulhu, which he describes as “A monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.” Much like Lovecraft would do, Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey are careful to keep the details of the Thing in shadow some of the time as it flails and bubbles, and then also bring those heretofore shadowed details into the harsh light for up-close examination. Also much like Lovecraft, one iteration of the titular Thing benefits from a long scientific dissection so that we can get a feeling for just how very alien it is. Lovecraft devotes a significant portion of his novella “At the Mountains of Madness” (also a story of an ill-fated trip to Antarctica) to the careful dissection of the alien specimens, going into extreme detail about the nature of the creature’s organs, and ultimately telling the story of the alien world that spawned them.
Far from helping to place the strange entity, this provisional dissection merely deepened its mystery. All guesses about its external members had been correct, and on the evidence of these one could hardly hesitate to call the thing animal; but internal inspection brought up so many vegetable evidences that Lake was left hopelessly at sea. It had digestion and circulation, and eliminated waste matter through the reddish tubes of its starfish-shaped base. Cursorily, one would say that its respiratory apparatus handled oxygen rather than carbon dioxide; and there were odd evidences of air-storage chambers and methods of shifting respiration from the external orifice to at least two other fully developed breathing-systems—gills and pores. Clearly, it was amphibian and probably adapted to long airless hibernation-periods as well. Vocal organs seemed present in connexion with the main respiratory system, but they presented anomalies beyond immediate solution. Articulate speech, in the sense of syllable-utterance, seemed barely conceivable; but musical piping notes covering a wide range were highly probable. The muscular system was almost preternaturally developed.
The nervous system was so complex and highly developed as to leave Lake aghast. Though excessively primitive and archaic in some respects, the thing had a set of ganglial centres and connectives arguing the very extremes of specialised development. Its five-lobed brain was surprisingly advanced; and there were signs of a sensory equipment, served in part through the wiry cilia of the head, involving factors alien to any other terrestrial organism. Probably it had more than five senses, so that its habits could not be predicted from any existing analogy. It must, Lake thought, have been a creature of keen sensitiveness and delicately differentiated functions in its primal world; much like the ants and bees of today. It reproduced like the vegetable cryptogams, especially the pteridophytes; having spore-cases at the tips of the wings and evidently developing from a thallus or prothallus.
Carpenter has his camera tell a story of juxtaposing realities in The Thing’s dissection sequence: the dead creature they find has a completely alien body and a very terrestrial set of internal organs. The alienness is made so much more pronounced by the combination. Lots of other genre work has anthropoid alien creatures, standing upright on two legs but with huge heads or pincers for hands, but still shaped basically like a human. The Thing was something else, something that didn’t naturally stand on two legs or talk out of a mouth, but still managed to have human hints tucked here and there into its decidedly not human outer form.
Well what we have here is what appears anyway to be a normal-looking set of internal organs. Heart, lungs, kidneys, liver… intestines. Seem to be normal.
The Thing’s Otherness is made more pronounced by the fact that it has a series of attributes that look to be normal at a glace and are anything but when examined at length- and vise versa. In this case, the strange dichotomy is that the outward appearance is so very odd, but inwardly, it seems to have the same plumbing as we recognize from other animals of earth. Later, as Blair performs an autopsy on the dog-Thing, we have seen it take on the shape of the dogs, but it also has human eyes and claws that are at least passingly anthropoid. What he uncovers beneath that girth is something that can’t be accounted for, something inhuman and unearthly.
In the equation that balances the Lovecrafian universe there is that which is normal on the one side and things that are emphatically not normal on the other and they give Lovecraft every single one of the willies. That characters regularly go insane as a result of brushing up against one of these nasties is a common trope when Lovecraft is manning the word crank. Lovecraft’s characters are normal and sane and as a result their reaction to abnormality is to become not-sane. The notion of sanity vs. insanity is so baked into what we think about Lovecraft that the Call of Cthulhu role playing game famously has a Sanity attribute that has near-equal importance to a character’s hit points, and are tremendously easy to lose. Your character might make it out of the adventure alive, but odds are pretty good she won’t make it out sane.
So here’s the fork in the road: Carpenter’s characters are Exceptional Americans, post-John Wayne, hard-as-nails archetypes who are capably violent, surprisingly calm, perpetually ready to carry on even though they have been touched by the slimy thing just below the surface. They are rational and unflappable in the long run, though they can experience hysteria in the right contexts. In The Thing there is a crushing paranoia that sits like a shroud over the doomed Antarctic Outpost 31. The film posits a monster that can be any of us, that can be a perfect mimic and that anyone could be the monster. But underpinning that paranoia is the utter alienness of the eponymous creature in this film. When we see it the first time as it comes bursting forth from a pup in the kennel, we see it through the eyes of dog wrangler and general burlyman, Clark. When the rest of the men at Outpost 31 run to find out the nature of the hubbub in the dog kennel, Clark preps them for what they are about to see with “It’s weird and it’s pissed off, whatever it is.” The Thing is a classic Lovecraftian creature: tentacles and claws and mutated forms. But rather than gibbering and walking on all fours in isolation, the men of Outpost 31 make black jokes and keep on going. Gibbering and walking around on all fours may sound like some nonsense made up for this article, until you remember that this is exactly a Lovecraftian response to the Other: poor, afflicted Mrs. Garder does just this after being infected by whatever unholy thing radiated from the meteorite in The Color Out of Space. Lovecraft’s characters lose their minds when the Other touches them. Insanity isn’t an option for Carpenter’s characters if their survival and the survival of the human race are still on the table. These men are not the wilting dandies of Lovecraft with their fragile sanity and their minds like a spewing thesaurus of their own paralyzing fear. These men are the fantasy of toughness in the face of that which is impossible to comprehend.
Carpenter has been vocal about his love for Howard Hawks, and significantly his love for Rio Bravo, a film where Hawks puts his foot down firmly on Gary Cooper’s town marshal character in High Noon, who spends the entire film running around begging everyone who lives in Hadleyville to help him in a gunfight that neither he nor they want. According to Hawks, you do not ask non-professionals to do the job of professionals, and then you expect those professionals to stand up and do their job in the face of whatever adversity comes from that. The men at Outpost 31 are all professionals, but often so were Lovecraft’s characters. However, Carpenter seems to be scolding Lovecraft a bit in The Thing. “No you assholes,” you can almost hear him saying, “quit whining! Get the fuck up! You’re strong, you’re professionals, DON’T YOU GO TO PIECES ON ME NOW!” Carpenter’s characters in The Thing, and his other Lovecraftian works (especially Prince of Darkness and At The Mouth of Madness) seem to be balking at the easy slide into insanity, seem to be spitting into the face of the hysterical academic who wilts like an overwatered salad when the going gets tough.
Carpenter was channeling Lovecraft when he had Kurt Russell’s R.J. MacReady spill his guts into a tape recorder, relating the horrors that had befallen the camp. Lovecraft’s stories were often diaries written by participants in eldritch horror after the fact. But, again, the starkness of the difference couldn’t be much more complete. In Lovecraft, the very stories themselves are often the result of a narrator who felt it important to leave not only a record of some horrific events, but also a longwinded recounting of how utterly it had disgusted, horrified, repulsed and several other adjective-d him. MacReady too, seems to want to unburden himself about the events befalling himself and his compatriots, but his delivery would have made Dragnet blush with pride, as he seems hell-bent on delivering just the facts. We’re not sure what came before we cut into MacReady talking into the mic, but the setup seems to suggest that he was there for a while- partially drained glass of scotch, slumped posture, tired delivery, etc. But whatever he was saying, you get the impression that he was explaining the situation in the same straightforward and emotionless tone as he is when we pick up his recounting of the events. When he cracks a little and tells the unknown audience (who, as he knows, will find the tape after his and everyone else at Outpost 31’s horrific death) that nobody trusts anybody anymore, he immediately thinks better of it, backs the tape up, and records over that section. Lovecraft’s characters want you to STOP AND THINK ABOUT HOW IMPOSSIBLE, HORRIFIC, AND TERRIFYING MY SITUATION IS AND HOW I’M RIGHT ON THE EDGE OF INSANITY! Carpenter’s hero doesn’t want to express even a moment’s doubt to outsiders, though he and his compatriots are falling apart as the Thing’s abilities makes them question every look, every movement, every word. Interestingly, we never get a look at Kurt Russell’s face as he erases that section of tape and records more facts over the confessional section. We only see MacReady’s fingers rewinding, playing, and pressing record. It was emotion that brought us here, but it is only actions that count. This is Carpenter as Howard Hawks: no rousing speechmaking here. Words are for what you do in between the important stuff.
Carpenter’s characters walk a fine line. On a good day, they are everything that you want from a protagonist: gravitas, depth, strength, conviction. However, they can also become bullying jackasses (see John Carpenter’s Vampires for the impossibly terrible Jack Crow, played by the recently terrible James Woods. Or don’t. Probably don’t.) But they are human beings through and through. They experience that which is impossible, but they tuck away that impossibility, and do their job. Sure, MacReady is a bundle of nerves after everyone assumes he’s the thing, and sure Clark’s paranoia carries him to a fatal decision, and sure everyone howls like terror-mad children when the Palmer-thing clamps down on Windows’ head, but those are natural reactions. Both Carpenter and Lovecraft introduce you to that which is unnatural, that which is impossible to comprehend, and both do it with similar palettes and tools. But how they show you, and how their characters react is where the fairly vast gulf opens between their messages. Lovecraft and his narrators recoil, run, and relinquish control of their minds while Carpenter’s characters, especially in The Thing, bellow like banshees and then set their jaw and get back to the grim, thankless, and generally futile business of trying to save the world.