I have a soft spot in my heart for John Carpenter's 1982 classic, "The Thing." A masterful tale of suspense, science fiction, and horror, "The Thing" touches on our most innate human fears. Who do we trust? Is everyone who they say they are? How does humanity cope with isolation, fear, and paranoia? Who goes there?
For those who haven't seen John Carpenter's "The Thing," the film is set in an Antarctic research base, known as Outpost 31. Early in the film, a pair of Norwegians in a helicopter are chasing, and wildly shooting at, a dog, and eventually arrive at the Outpost. Upon exiting their helicopter, The Norwegian pilot drops a thermite charge, causing the helicopter to explode, and their death. The remaining Norwegian (we'll later find out from the prequel that his name is Lars) screams wildly at the Americans in his mother tongue, and accidentally shoots Bennings, the station meteorologist, when the dog goes to him for comfort. Garry, the station commander, then kills Lars with one shot. The dog is taken into the station, and the American's helicopter pilot, MacReady, (in arguably one of the most amazing hats in cinema) takes several of his companions to the Norwegian's camp to figure out exactly what happened.
Long story short, the dog the Norwegian duo were pursuing was not a dog. The dog is in fact the titular "Thing." The Norwegian camp had unearthed an alien that was over 10,000 years old, and as Clark the kennel master says in the 1982 film,
"I don't know what the hell is in there, but it's weird and pissed off, whatever it is."
This alien creature survives by absorbing and replicating life forms close to it. Upon being absorbed, the Thing creates a perfect imitation of the creature (or human), and places itself in their place. The Thing can also transform into any creature it has absorbed previously. Essentially, "The Thing" is portrayed as a sentient virus, wanting only to replicate and survive in the harsh Antarctic climate. The Thing goes wild at the American camp, absorbing individuals, wreaking havoc, and causing mass paranoia among the remaining humans at Outpost 31. The prime example of this is when Windows, the radio operator at the camp, has an apparent mental breakdown, grabs a rifle, turns on his coworkers, and shouts:
"You guys gonna listen to Garry? You gonna let him give the orders? I mean, he could BE one of those THINGS!"
Each piece of "The Thing" is an individual organism with its own survival instinct. This hypothesis of MacReady's is successfully put to the test when the remaining members of Outpost 31 are tied to a couch. After being tied to a couch, MacReady takes a sample of each member's blood, before placing a hot piece of copper wire into the collected plasma. If there is a reaction, the individual is a Thing, as each individual particle of the Thing has an engrained survival instinct. If the needle just hisses, a person is human, as blood is nothing but tissue to the human organism. The end results are mixed, and regardless, this scene inspired one of the best one liners in cinema. Exasperated at the end of the testing, (and his humanity confirmed by said test) Garry utters:
"I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I'd rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!"
In John Carpenter's 1982 classic, there is only one woman present for the entire film. This woman is a digital chess machine that plays MacReady in the opening shots of the film. Trumping MacReady, the chess machine (voiced by Carpenter regular Adrienne Barbeau) triumphantly utters, "Checkmate, checkmate." Furious, MacReady pours his glass of J&B into the machine, murmurs "Cheating bitch," stepping away as the machine short circuits. Another representation of women is in Outpost 31's rec room, in which a public service announcement poster against venereal diseases is placed. Emblazoned on the poster is an image of a cowgirl. Only in these two instances are women anywhere to be found, or mentioned, in the film.
The representation of women changes drastically in the 2011 prequel, also called "The Thing." This version is set primarily at the Norwegian camp. There are two women at the Norwegian camp, who are ironically, not Norwegian. Although the Norwegians originally discovered the spaceship, and the alien itself, they brought in a variety of scientists from throughout the world to assist them in the excavation of said alien life-form and ship. One is Juliette, a geologist with a Francophile accent, (some sources say Juliette is from Georgia, others say she is from France), and the protagonist of the film, American paleontologist and Columbia PhD candidate Kate Lloyd. This disconnect that exists between the non-Norwegian speakers and those who have Norwegian for a mother tongue is played up to hype up the paranoia in the film. Lars, the character who is shot by Garry in the original film, is explicitly introduced by saying he speaks no English, only Norwegian. Lars also has the best line in the remake, which translates from Norwegian to:
"We found a fucking alien! Cheers!"
This joy is short lived. Soon after the crew begins celebrating, the Thing breaks loose, and terror takes shape.
Kate Lloyd proves to be a character with a strong scientific ethical foundation. When Doctor Sander Halvorson wants to take a tissue sample from the unearthed alien immediately, Kate speaks out, saying that is not the best idea, as they don't have the proper equipment or sterilization materials. Furious, Sander takes Kate into a back room, ordering Kate not to chastise him in public in front of the crew again, and insinuates that she does not get paid to "think." Whether or not this decision by Sander to chastise Kate as if she was a petulant child was in any way influenced by Kate's gender is up to debate. Kate has agency, and is not there to solely be a sexual object for male audience members to gawk at. Kate focuses solely on the mission at hand, and once the Thing reveals itself, Kate is dedicated to exterminating The Thing at camp. In fact, Kate is the first scientist in the group to accurately predict that the Thing is replicating life forms. Kate also realizes that the Thing cannot imitate inorganic material, which is a vital observation that allows her to create a test similar to MacReady's to determine whether someone is human or not. In lieu of testing blood, Kate checks to see if dental fillings are located in the crew members teeth. There is no tawdry romance between Kate and another crew member; instead, Kate is all about business and exterminating violent forms of alien life. The writers of the prequel were evidently taking a page or two from Ripley's book when constructing the character of Kate.
The same cannot be said for Juliette. Juliette has a weak stomach, running outside of an autopsy room and vomiting upon seeing a fellow crew member being absorbed by the creature. Juliette also has typical feminine reactions to violence, upon the death of crew member Henrik, Juliette tearfully explains that he had two small children.
Juliette's transformation into "The Thing" is also of interest. Juliette transforms into her Thing form in an attempt to absorb Kate. Juliette gets Kate alone by claiming she saw Colin, the Norwegian station radio operator, cleaning up blood in the bathroom (blood everywhere is a side effect of Thing absorption) and encourages Kate to locate keys for the snowcats to prevent anyone else from escaping. Juliette and Kate enter the room alone. Juliette transforms into a Thing, sans breasts, a massive, gaping, raw maw opening from her rib cage to her abdomen. Juliette's upper body remains human. The Juliette-Thing attacks Kate, who flees. Unfortunately, Kate passes by her scientist teammate, the Norwegian geologist Karl, during her flight from Thing-Juliette. Juliette-Thing attacks Karl instead, with Kate retreating behind a door into a different hallway. When Lars arrives with a flamethrower (in these films, all Antarctic research bases have flamethrowers for some inexplicable reason), the door opens again to the hallway, in which the audience sees the Juliette-Thing moaning, hovering over Karl, while penetrating him with multiple tentacles. The scene is akin to watching a sexual assault, as it is absorption of the unwilling. Lars, unflinching, burns them both.
Although females with agency when battling extraterrestrials is nothing new (see 1979's Alien) one of the few "things" the 2011 prequel did right was provide a woman as the lead; and not just any woman, a woman who is a leader in her scientific field. Unfortunately, the remake also succumbed to some less positive horror film stereotypes as well. The most definitive of these is the transformation of Juliette into a sexless, breastless, horrifying "Thing" that feasts on men against their will. "The Thing" can literally transform into a myriad of creatures at any time, if one thinks about all the worlds the Thing has travelled to, and all of the creatures it has absorbed. Why did the directors rely on the trope of women turning into monsters with a gaping maw akin to a vagina with teeth? This continual reliance on horror directors on female monsters who penetrate men against their will in order to frighten the viewer is a topic worthy of further examination. Regardless, each has more women with agency than Carpenter's original classic, which shows a progressive step forward.
John Carpenter's "The Thing" from 1982 is an undeniable classic in the science fiction and horror genres. Although Carpenter does have representation of people of color at Outpost 31, women are noticeably absent in the American camp. The prequel is nowhere as good as the original film, but does include women. As a feminist and a horror fan, I'd recommend that viewers watch both and draw their own conclusions. Leave the lights on while you watch them; the Thing strikes in the dark, and (wo)men are the warmest places to hide.