Dismembrance of the Thing’s Past
March 4, 2015 | by Dave Tompkins
The Thing scampers across the Antarctic tundra in a dog suit. A Norwegian helicopter gives chase with bad aim and incendiaries. It’s in humanity’s best interest to kill the dog before it transforms into a “pissed-off cabbage” made of twelve dog tongues lined with thorny dog teeth. (Taking over the world requires imagination, psychedelic detailing, and a little hustle.) The dog, referred to by Thingsplainers as “Running dog-Thing,” is smart; it will go on to perform incredible feats. Like helping oatmeal cowboy Wilford Brimley build a spaceship. Like sticking Kurt Russell inside a fifth of J&B. Like replicating the frailty of the human mind in conditions of paranoia and subzero isolation. All of these, unbearable likenesses. Running dog-Thing has earned its customized bass lurk, composed by Ennio Morricone, which, in fairness to your ears and mine, could be an expensive John Carpenter imitation.
This opening sequence for Carpenter’s The Thing prompted cheers at BAM last month, as part of a retrospective of the horror director’s work. I whooped for my own dread, maybe rooting for the thirteen-year-old version of me who saw The Thing with my dad in 1982, after my parents’ divorce. I relished those early quiet moments at U.S. National Science Institute Outpost 31, before the dog exploded and everyone started side-eyeing each other’s ratty long johns. Before, if you’ll forgive me, things got messy.
Thawed by a team of Norwegian researchers after being entombed in ice—with some 85,000 years on McMurdo’s volcanic barrel sponge—the Thing makes its living by assimilating and copying other organisms. The Thing seems to be all for biodiversity, at least by appearances, while also making a convincing argument for keeping the permafrost intact. The Carpenter adaptation hewed more closely to the John Campbell story “Who Goes There,” rather than remaking the 1951 classic The Thing from Another World, directed by Carpenter’s hero Howard Hawks and starring Gunsmoke lawman James Arness. Carpenter once called the Arness Thing “a blood-drinking carrot from outer space.” This fiendish carrot could later be seen in Halloween, on a TV set next to a sewing basket, just before some lunatic in a William Shatner mask ruined babysitting for the eighties.
Carpenter’s Thing, for its part, discouraged the future of dog whispering, if not mankind in general. Running dog-Thing was played by Jed, a half wolf that neither growled nor barked. Richard Masur, who played the station dog handler, remembers how Jed would just give you “that look” when he grew uncomfortable on the set. That Thing look. So watch Jed closely. Watch Jed pad down empty hallways. Jed nosing the door open, looking out of windows. Jed listening to Stevie Wonder.
Early in the film, Jed visits a shadow sitting on a bed, causing much speculation among Thing viewers. Who was first to be infected? The geologist? The chef on roller skates? Some believe it was the stoner helicopter mechanic who gives a shout out to Erich von Däniken. This means, as Carpenter once joked, the Thing was high for most of the movie. (And subsumed the memory of reading Chariots of the Gods.) When I spoke with Carpenter last month, he would only tell me it was Kurt Russell’s stunt double—the shadow of a mimic—sitting on a bed.
The film poses a series of existential questions, the first one being whether it’s even possible to discuss the Thing without sounding totally high. Can one be the Thing if one is worried about being the Thing? Or does the Thing fake-worry about being the Thing, so as not to reveal its cosmic sloppiness? I can see how easily the Thing can take over one’s entire life, an unstoppable force assimilating and mimicking one’s existence—like the Internet. One look at Thing message boards confirms the theory that the Thing should be just as freaked out by humans as they are by it. In the film, Wilford Brimley’s Dr. Blair supposes this while performing an autopsy on Norwegian Two-faced Thing, his eraser head traveling directly from an astro-parasitic entity to his own bottom lip. A clear violation of Thing health code.
Carpenter made nineteen films besides The Thing, many of them great: from the yuppie capitalist satire They Live to the lo-fi goof Dark Star. While working on this story, I attempted to get away from The Thing by taking inventory of every other Carpenter memory within reach: one shock-haired ghoul on bicycle, with cards flapping in spokes; one ax-wielding book agent; one Ice Cube on Mars; two Eyes of Laura Mars; one inflatable pet alien named Beachball trying to tickle one Dan O’Bannon to death in an elevator shaft; one existential yet failed attempt to talk one bomb out of detonating itself; one film that pits Superman, Luke Skywalker, and Kirstie Alley against six telekinetic children; one script, unused, with Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” as the sound track for a nuclear meltdown; one case of birder outrage concerning validity of “bullshit binocular shots” used in Assault on Precinct 13; one canister of ancient liquid evil that allows you to transcribe end-times code at lightning speed; one Fog doctor, identified in the closing credits as “Phibes”; one Rowdy Roddy Piper, identified in the closing credits as “Nada”; one kid at summer camp who was kind of a dick, which could be related to the fact he was actually named Michael Myers; one childhood friend who turned the Halloween theme into the new “Chopsticks”; one Carpenter sound track collaborator, Alan Howarth, nodding in headphones with eyes closed while I played him MC A.D.E.’s Miami Bass/Halloween classic “How Much Can You Take?”; one time sneaking back into Escape from New York just for the opening credits, when words appear on the screen as images to be watched, not read, so as to commit one nasty keyboard riff to memory; one Snake Plissken recital (“I don’t give a fuck about your president”) in the fifth-grade gym locker room, unaware that Coach Frank Zerbinos was present, resulting in disciplinary one mile “fun run” on the track in front of the cafeteria on pizza day; one obligatory mention of “Carpenter synths” when referring to music that may or may not remotely sound like “Carpenter synths”; one e-mail from a friend confirming yes, his ten-year-old son did indeed march in a Chewbacchus parade in New Orleans while carrying a sign declaring, I CAME HERE TO KICK ASS AND CHEW BUBBLE GUM, ETC.; one roommate singing the chorus to Big Trouble in Little China; one stranger happily informing me that the Psychokinetic Energy Meter (PKE) used in Ghostbusters was recycled for law enforcement in They Live; one Brooklyn record store called The Thing that contains one original copy of Donny Hathaway’s Everything Is Everything; one (and only) Donald Pleasence.
And another important question for John Carpenter: What was the fog machine used in The Fog?
They have a machine that takes this grease oil base—called it “fog juice.” Big thing. [Starts making fog-machine noises]. They have a giant one called the Valley Fogger and they just fogged everything up. Then they had a handheld device you could walk around with—it’s like a leaf blower only it blows out fog.
Rob Bottin, who played the ghost of a vengeful seagoing leper in The Fog, was in charge of special effects for The Thing. During filming, he joked about the geologist’s stomach ripping open and turning into “a big mouth that bites this guy’s arms off.” Carpenter took him seriously. Bottin would do such a thorough job—literally ending up inside the Thing, for the finale—that he’d check himself into a hospital after the shoot completed.
For Bottin, exploring the imagination of resemblance was a matter of catching this creature in the act of sorting itself out (or as Lovecraft once wrote, “correlating its contents”). The Thing may have been gross, but the reality was downright disgusting and could be sourced from the grocery store. Ingredients included creamed corn, Jell-O, mayonnaise, microwaved bubble gum, and five-gallon pails of K-Y Jelly—all supervised by a twenty-two-year-old, high on candy bars and cola, wearing an “I Love E.T.” shirt.
For all of Bottin and Carpenter’s efforts, The Thing did a box-office face-plant on release, having the misfortune of debuting on the same weekend as E.T.—outgrossed by an alien with a beer gut who flew a bicycle into the face of a full moon. (Kurt Russell and E.T. both drank Coors.) But unlike E.T., the Thing deserves its own diorama among the frozen animal impressionists at the American Museum of Natural History. Right next to the snow wolves. As Bachelard once wrote, nature went mad long before man did. Just consult your local lobster guts: in Reverend Thomas R. R. Stebbing’s History of Crustacea (1893), an illustration of a lobster’s stomach “opened up to show the teeth, the central one of which has been supplied with eyes, nose and mouth to represent the lady in the chair.”
Despite The Thing’s reputable excess—having been revived in a decade not known for its restraint—the idea of vodka-infused Wilford Brimley–Thing assembling a UFO out of helicopter scrap (in an expertly carved ice tunnel, no less) is allowed to play out in our heads. At the BAM screening, I gauged the audience during the infamous scene where the geologist’s disembodied head sprouts spider legs and gets torched by a flamethrower for its trouble. One kid over from me, maybe thirteen, just shook his head. Big whoop. Not even a chuckle for the Lash LaRue bullwhip tongue. But did he catch a glimpse of Brimley dragging someone along the floor by his face? (Watching Brimley work the film’s Not-It nerves is a real pleasure.) The biggest crowd response was saved for a more human act near the end—Kurt Russell’s stunt double executing a dive roll when the Thing, in an uncharacteristically boneheaded move, grabs the dynamite plunger.
For me, it was when the camera, accompanied by the Morricone theme, revisits the empty rooms and hallways of the station, those old dog haunts. This memory trek also served Halloween well, as if foreshadowing a survivor’s nightmare. It becomes part of you. An alternate Thing ending shows another dog, Jed 2, running across the snow, on to another station. Next stop: Global Seed Vault? Canadian Forces Alert Signals Intelligence Station?
Though we’re left with more hope for a sequel than for humanity, it’s encouraging that, against Hollywood odds, 50 percent of the black characters survive. And should a proper sequel materialize, there will be no lack of cogitation about how the Thing should resume business. Carpenter referred me to a follow-up that appeared in Dark Horse Comics: “It’s unbelievably great. It involves a submarine. But I never did anything about it. Nobody asked me to! You have to get it and while you’re reading it you have to be singing into a vocoder.” (Thing in a sub! Who wouldn’t?) Meanwhile, I’m left wondering if the Thing can retain the dream memories of those it absorbs, turning to Freaks and Geeks for answers. For it was the great leveler Millie Kentner who once cried, “Life is not that dog’s dream!”
* * *
It’s currently nine degrees McMurdo outside my apartment. Wind: feral. Optimal Thing conditions. I’ve been assimilated by my own couch, in danger of becoming the Blob while reabsorbing the film that nearly sabotaged Carpenter’s career. (Who’s the Thing now!) At the moment, the film is paused on Garry, Outpost 31’s station manager. He’s still tied up after spending an eventful blood test sitting right next to the Thing, on the verge of bursting not into the Thing, but into an angry man with snowy eyebrows. I’d rather not spend the rest of the winter tied to this fucking couch!!!
John Carpenter’s Lost Themes, an album of new music, is now out on Sacred Bones Records.
Dave Tompkins is writing a book about Miami. His first book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, is now out in paperback. Audio mixes and more can be found at Howtowreckanicebeach.com.