The notion of aliens replacing humans and humans being somewhat uncertain of who they can trust in the wake of said action is nothing new. Invasion of the Body Snatchers invented the notion of “pod people” and injected it into the popular culture’s consciousness back in the 1950s. I’m not certain if the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr. was particularly imagining aliens which popped out of the chests of the human shells they had recreated through infection, but Carpenter certainly uses the inspiration of Hawks’ 1950s adaptation The Thing From Another World as a jumping off point for a gory special effects extravaganza.
Kurt Russell is R.J. MacReady, a modern cowboy relegated to duty at an Anarctic science research outpost with a motley crew of other detainees, including Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat and others. Unfortunately for MacReady (and really, for everyone), as the film opens a dog is being chased by a Norwegian helicopter crew with guns firing at it. They kill the Norwegian who tries to kill the dog, and the infected creature soon assimilates into the culture of the other dogs in the camp and evolves from there to take over most of the science crew.
Carpenter is pretty adept at stories of paranoia and distrust among a small group of isolated individuals (see In the Mouth of Madness). The first two times I saw The Thing, it didn’t work for me. Overwhelmed by gory special effects and a lack of characters I liked/cared about, I had trouble seeing it for anything other than a gross-out extravaganza. What happened to the Carpenter of Halloween, I thought? That film, while violent, was never too terribly graphic but was more about what the mind can imagine. So: Why then, with a larger budget, a big studio behind him, and a story given over more to paranoia and cabin fever, would he cheapen it with big gory effects (or affect)?
Seeing it a third time, I began to realize that The Thing is what it is – a gory parable about invasion from an outside force that one cannot comprehend. In a sense, that’s what all of Carpenter’s films (or most, at any rate) seem to come down to. If Assault on Precinct 13 is about a siege from a gang bent on revenge for unknown crimes, and Halloween is about someone who may or may not be pure evil stalking and killing a group of seemingly random teenagers whilst reenacting a past trauma, and The Fog is about a group of ghosts seeking revenge for betrayal from a small town over a century earlier, then perhaps The Thing is about just that – something that wants to survive and propegate its species, except in this case it is not merely the space that is invaded but rather the people themselves occupying said space. That is a Carpenter plot if ever there was.
Note: In 1993, during its first season, TV’s The X-Files did an episode called “Ice” largely considered to be a classic. The plot concerned an Alaskan research station that sent a video out of one of its crew saying “We’re Not Who We Are” before killing himself. Foolishly, the FBI agents and some other scientists go up to Icy Cape to investigate and soon find that at least one of them must be infected with the worm found in the ice by the previous research crew. Similarly, their first clue to the infection is a dog.