Written by Jonathan Wojcik
Bogleech.com Reviews Thing Transformations
John Carpenter's The Thing isn't just an adorable manga character. It's also one of the most frightening monster movies possibly ever filmed, in concept and in its beautiful, haunting, paranoid final execution, yet we've never talked about it all that much on here until now. Since I'm devoting some of this year's Halloween II to "mainstream" horror, it feels like the right time to offer my opinions on the many forms taken by this incredible being.
The Thing is famously taking the form of an ordinary husky at the start of the film, and I always appreciated the initial red flag of the dog so calmly sitting and stiffly staring forward when brought into the kennel, completely unfazed by the other dogs so disturbed by its presence. Later, the dog's head abruptly peels open into a blossom of red flesh, the skull simply drops off, a flailing tongue and a number of spider-like appendages crackle out of its sides. A great first impression! It's also interesting how it begins to squirt a clear fluid over the other dogs. You could speculate that it's some sort of paralyzing toxin or digestive acid, but it really doesn't need either of them. What we learn over the course of the film is of course that if you touch so much as touch this organism, it will exponentially begin to replace your tissues with its own, so I feel like the fluid needed only be a means of delivering its cellular material.
The "dog" soon loses its fur, and a new, embryonic and highly distorted facsimile of a dog begins to sprout from its sides. The hissing, slimy, earless dog-head is, I think, one of the movie's most iconic images; it has just enough familiarity to us to be especially disturbing, and I love the crackling, woody sound we hear when its new limbs emerge!
I think one of the very next forms we see is highly underrated however; this bleeding pile of swollen skin and very human eyes is quite frankly terrifying to look at even in a still image. The utter wrongness of these recognizable features and tissues in this random arrangement is so much worse than the forms with claws or jaws or tentacles, and it's marvelously complemented by guttural moaning sounds.
The skin-blob cracks open before you can even really take it in, but that was quite deliberate; John Carpenter has said that he wanted the creature to change just rapidly enough that you could never quite finish processing one form to the next. I honestly love how imperfect some of these effects looked, too, by which I mean the way this prop rips open is very plasticy and inelegant, but in a way that I feel is actually more realistic than the smoother, "cool looking" transformations you get with CG effects. I love that network of orange, webby tissue just under the skin!
What emerges from the split is a bizarre, plant-like mouth on the end of a short stalk, and I somehow never realized that the intention here was for this appendage to be formed out of dog tongues and dog teeth! The Thing is experimentally remixing the physiology it has absorbed! This is the most compelling thing about this creature; that its body is like an archive of every living thing it has ever consumed, and it can recall any part of any of them whenever it wants, combining them together in new ways.
It's an aspect of the monster that, unfortunately, doesn't get that much attention in the movie itself either; we never see it take on forms again that feel combined with totally alien species.
The last we see of the kennel form is its burnt remains, or part of it anyway; the part that didn't haul itself up into the ceiling at the last minute. The demonic face of this faux-dog is a bit gauche, but that's part of the fun. I feel like every time the thing seems to be "trying too hard" to be scary, it's the unrealistic comic-book-ish look and feel that actually makes it more unsettling, like it's really perverting and twisting our natural world into something ridiculously wrong.
That said, I think the creepiest form taking in the whole film is one of the subtler ones. It looks exactly like a human, a specific human, but hasn't finished replicating "Bennings" quite perfectly yet, and still has bizarre, chaotic flesh-hands. The way it stares, opens its mouth, and emits a truly unearthly sound is one of the most chilling moments in horror cinema, in my honest opinion, as if it's making a last-ditch effort to communicate but hasn't quite sorted out how that's supposed to work. It is, after all, the first time we actually see and know for sure that it has replicated a human, and perhaps it took some time for it to adopt our actual thought processes and language skills.
The single most dramatic and best-remembered sequence begins when Vance Norris appears to have a heart attack. CPR ends up caving in his chest unexpectedly, which reveals jagged fangs and chomps down on the would-be rescuscitator. I always enjoyed how crude and sloppy those teeth are; they're really just rough shards of some hardened tissue, and they look truly grisly, even a little "disgusting," not a word I ever usually use to describe any biological form.
I love the way this orifice then proceeds to spew bright green-yellow goo while similarly colorful tubes and hoses flail around inside. Our director wanted the forms of the creature to have a pulp B-movie feel with cheesy "alien blood," and felt that this would actually be more frightening to the audience than more human-like gore, and he was absolutely correct. The goofiness of the brightly colorful, alien body fluids contributes, I think, to a sickening sort of dreaminess.
What erupts from the body is another spider-limbed form, but it also has a fuzzy, chitinous attempt at human legs and a thick, worm-like neck topped by a monstrous exaggeration of Norris's original face. I always liked the tissue dangling between this and the body on the table, and how the whole shape of this form really does feel like some spur-of-the-moment slapdash transformation once the monster has been "found out." The spidery legs are even oriented especially for it to cling to the ceiling! It's honestly fascinating how well the Thing can pretend to be a normal person, but kind of "panics" and gets its anatomy scrambled up once it's been found out.
I also love just how ridiculous this face is up close. Again, I don't like to call any creature "disgusting," but the wet, veiny skin here is extremely unpleasant, the walleyed stare is nightmarishly uncanny and I must again praise the "hokiness" when it comes to those monstrous fangs. It may be a bit much, but that's what makes it feel like even more of an unholy parody of the human form.
This is also why I so love the next scene, when what seemed to be Norris's original head just stretches away from the body, neon green ichor spattered all around. It was this scene that I came upon on TV as a small child and, at that moment, found almost traumatizingly horrendous. I didn't even see what happened next, which I'm not sure my young mind could have handled. No, I just saw this puppet of a human head stretching and distorting for a split second, tongue waving about mindlessly, and I screamed bloody murder.
I would have been truly sickened and probably damn near inconsolable had I watched long enough to see the stretched, rubbery neck start to snap, spurting more of the green slime until it basically dripped down from the body, lashed a long tongue out and dragged itself away. Absolutely. Horrific.
...Which is how we get the single most iconic scene in the whole movie, one of the most famous moments of any monster movie, when the head not only sprouts spider legs but a pair of goofy, snaily eye-stalks out of its neck stump! The decision to keep the head upside-down was commendable, as there is no reason the creature would need to keep it in a human orientation. This moment is so whimsically twisted and the design so fun, I'm not sure this movie would even have been quite as fondly remembered without it. Still a good movie, obviously, but sometimes the general public's capacity to really remember a movie, good or bad, all comes down to a particular moment you couldn't forget if you tried.
The movie's only sudden "jump scare" comes when they decide to test everyone's blood with a heated wire, hoping that the blood of the monster will avoid the head of its own volition. They are correct, and I always remember that glob of blood shrieking and leaping in pain. An unofficial short story, The Things, would later propose that the entity didn't actually need to feel pain if it didn't want to, but played along with this test to hide the fact that it had already taken one of the other men.
With the blood revealed, "Palmer" begins to convulse, and soon his head splits completely open into a pair of jaws! Nice! It even has another tentacle-tongue just so it can drag someone else into its maw. The Thing may easily panic, but it's still a master of improvisation.
The way Palmer also springs straight up, back-first, and sticks to the ceiling is just weird as hell. It's not just the designs, but the abnormal things the creature does that really sell it.
Are we really at the end so soon? There isn't really all that much Thing in The Thing, but every moment we see it on-screen is so memorable, we barely need to see much more.
Blair is the last person proven to have been The Thing by the end fo the film, and the final form it takes is largely unseen, with a fleshy trunk that continues all the way under the floor and presumably deep into the ground, but what we do see is a mush-mash of Blair with the dog forms from earlier! It really feels by this point like the monster is trying to blend in better with our world, practicing humans and dogs - the only two Earth species we know for sure that it encountered! Unless, of course, it picked up the arthropod legs from a cockroach or a house spider or something.
We've now covered every iteration of The Thing in the original film, but we've still got a bit more to go over...
If you're here, you probably know that The Thing had a poorly received 2011 prequel, and if you've seen both movies, you probably already know what I'm about to say.
AMALGAMATED DYNAMICS' THING
These clips demonstrate the phenomenal animatronics made for the film by the studio Amalgamated Dynamics. As the tests progress, I think you'll agree that their puppets show an astonishingly life-like array of believable, organic movements that would have looked especially convincing as an abnormal, shape-warping horror in the darkness of the final film. Unfortunately, company higher-ups thought otherwise, disliking the puppetry and having it completely covered over with brighter, smoother, more fluid and more over-the-top computer animation.
It honestly makes me sad enough that I don't have it in me to review the forms from 2011 scene-by-scene; I just wanted to at least momentarily touch on what could have been. Speaking of which...
In the earliest drafts of John Carpenter's own film, The Thing was a remarkably different foe conceived by the late effects artist Dale Kuiper. A shocking turn of events involving a physical assault, unrelated to the film's production, landed Kuiper in the hospital with no hope of returning to the project, and his successors have said that they retired his designs out of respect for him, rather than any dissatisfaction with them. This, unfortunately, did not please Kuiper at all, who spent the rest of his life openly resentful that his vision was scrapped.
DALE KUIPER'S THING
The idea that the creature could disguise itself as anyone or anything was already central to the story, but Kuiper felt it needed a "true" or "original" form, and one vulnerable enough that the audience could hold out a little more hope for the humans, something he felt would increase the film's excitement.
For this "true" Thing, Dale imagined a small, globular, arthropod-like form almost like a "floating head," with long crustaceoid limbs. Within this central body was the fluid the creature chould shape into any additional appendages or tissues it desired, to the point that it could even grow a complete body around itself in any form imaginable...or merge itself into the body of another creature, lying in wait as a parasite until ready to strike. Even the dog kennel scene was already scripted in this version, the parasite hiding inside and controlling a normal dog until it chose to consume its host and explode into a ball of weird, alien appendages and flesh.
You could be harboring this version of the monster without knowing, and instead of the blood test scene of the final version, our protagonists would have realized that they needed to compare everyone's weight to their last medical record.
Carpenter himself had, at the time, also requested a creature "with no Earthly means of mobility," and so Dale concocted an entity with a biologically impractical but nonetheless fantastic mechanism of locomotion. Completely covered in what Dale called "projection tubes," the monster would have constantly shot a web of "light-propelled pseudopods" from its body, like energy beams with a living tissue core. These beams would have "solidifed into tempered steel-strength and then dissolve to powder in the next instant," creating a latticework that held the creature off the ground but dissolved and re-formed rapidly enough to propel it at lightning speed.
How this effect would have even been achieved at the time, I can't even imagine. Perhaps the web would have been an animation effect, resembling a field of crackling energy bolts connecting the entity to the architecture around it? According to Dale's notes, what appeared to be the monster's "eyes" were "solar collectors" that took in every variety of energy in order to fuel its "multiviscous life fluid."
Things didn't nearly end there, either, because Dale's Thing was also an illusionist. Yes, it could already change shape and disguise itself as anything imaginable, but it could additionally warp the perceptions of other beings in ways indistinguishable from reality. Imagine, then, a scenario almost like a ghostly haunting, where your friends are warping into monsters and even the scenery around you is distorting in impossible, confounding ways...but some of it is real. The physical monster, the thing actually capable of touching and killing you, could be lurking anywhere within its own funhouse of nightmarish hallucinations.
It's all a truly fascinating idea, I have a lot of respect for what Dale wanted to accomplish and I'm as disappointed as he is that his psychic, parasitic, flesh-molding nightmare-bug from space didn't go down as one of our culture's famous movie monsters. However, I do feel that the simplicity of the final Thing - a straightforward "intelligent infection" that can re-shape its host - is actually a lot easier for audiences to swallow and, yes, much more frightening. Maybe one of the most frightening monster concepts ever put to cinema.
Dale felt instead that this being was "confusing," even senseless, without having a "true form" or mortal core of some kind, and he believed this was why The Thing was inititally a box office failure. Of course, as a 1982 film, it was also up against E.T, Blade Runner, The Road Warrior, Conan the Barbarian, The Wrath of Khan, Tron and even Poltergeist. Seriously?! Those were all the same year?!
I feel that, as cool as Dale's monster was, it might have felt just slightly more like Alien than the formless being we wound up with, and while its design could have certainly become iconic and the movie likely would have at least gained a cult following, I daresay it might have held back The Thing from the level of esteem it has today; that as much as I'd have disagreed with such an attitude, I can easily see it going down as a "cheesier" and less menacing monster with that comprehensible "true form."
Still, it would have certainly left a better impression than the "true form" described in the original story, Who Goes There?...a bright blue, three-eyed humanoid with tentacle hair. Cute, but nowhere near as terrifying as either the Dale Kuiper vision or formless, infectious flesh.
And then of course we have the first film adaptation of the story, "The Thing From Another World," which dropped all mimicry and shapeshifting entirely for a somehow "plant-based" humanoid that drains the blood of its victims, and is finally found to be vulnerable to electricity.
The Thing went through an odd journey of concepts before someone finally said "what if it didn't look like anything at all?" And as much of a fan as I am of creature design, I really admire the move to basically not even have one. I do wish that the creature's transformations in the final product got more alien, less like the same pieces of human, dog and nondescript arthropod we kept seeing, and it's a shame that the 2011 film was seemingly going to rectify that. Still, I stand by my statement that film has never before or since had a biological monster so frightening; a truly "all purpose" monster complete with an aspect of invasive body horror and paranoia.
One detail also bears mentioning: that as with Dale Kuiper's version, production information has confirmed that people replaced by the Thing don't always know it.
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