John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ Is a Paranoid Classic

John Carpenter’s 1982 movie The Thing, about a group of scientists battling a shape-shifting alien, is a classic of sci-fi horror. Humor writer Tom Gerencer is one of the film’s many fans.

“This movie is woven through my life in so many ways,” Gerencer says in Episode 506 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I watch it every five years—maybe every three years—and I love it every single time. I love the feeling, the mood, the aesthetic, the chemistry between the actors. I love the schlocky parts of it. I love the paranoia. I just think it’s fantastic.”

TV writer Andrea Kail agrees that The Thing is one of Carpenter’s best films. “It’s a great movie,” she says. “It’s scary, it’s creepy, it’s all about paranoia. The monster stuff is great, but I just think as a film, it’s a really great example of how to build tension. So if you are a fan of good filmmaking, I would watch it, definitely.”

The Thing is based on the 1938 story “Who Goes There?” written by legendary magazine editor John W. Campbell Jr. Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley initially preferred the subtle paranoia of “Who Goes There?” but has come to appreciate the gory violence of The Thing as well. “There have been so many paranoid stories where it’s like ‘Who’s the alien?’” he says. “It’s even a party game—’Which one of us is the alien?’—so just the creativity of the special effects captures my imagination more now.”

A prequel film, released in 2011, largely failed to connect with fans. Hollywood is slated to try again with an upcoming adaptation of Frozen Hell, an expanded version of “Who Goes There?” that was discovered in 2018. But science fiction author Matthew Kressel thinks it might be better to give the franchise a rest. “If they do it right, if they give it a proper treatment, who knows?” he says. “But it’s going to be really hard to beat the Carpenter version.”

Listen to the complete interview with Tom Gerencer, Andrea Kail, and Matthew Kressel in Episode 506 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Matthew Kressel on pacing:

We’ve been watching a lot of ’80s films on this podcast, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that the patience of the audience in the ’80s I think was greater. There are a lot of these films where you watch them now and you’re like, “Oh my god, this is so slow.” I never felt that with The Thing. I think that was the greatest difference I felt with the prequel. With the 1982 movie, I was on the edge of my seat the whole time—I was riveted, I never looked away, I don’t think I got up once to go to the bathroom or get a snack. I was glued to the TV, and that’s hard to do.

Andrea Kail on The Thing (2011):

I thought it was a great idea—great concept—but the execution was [lacking]. All you made was a monster movie. There was nothing special. It didn’t have that same dread, that same claustrophobia as the Carpenter movie. Everything in the Carpenter movie is dark and claustrophobic and scary. But the 2011 version is so much brighter, and it just took away a lot of the fear that I felt from the ’82 movie. It also uses a lot of the same beats: [characters] escaping through a hole in the floor, shooting the guy in the head who attacks them, the flamethrower malfunctioning. [They’re in] both movies.”

David Barr Kirtley on “Who Goes There?”:

[“Who Goes There?”] is more serious science fiction and intellectual because they have all these interesting conversations. First there’s a conversation about “Can an alien disease infect humans and what is the biology of that?” Then they have this conversation about “Can an organism come back to life after being frozen?”—and how simple organisms can but complex organisms can’t. Then there’s this interesting conversation about “This thing looks like it has an evil expression on its face, but maybe that’s just your human chauvinism speaking, and maybe this is an alien smiling. How do you know? It’s an alien.” And so there are just interesting things that make you think, and I kind of missed that in the movie adaptations.

Tom Gerencer on special effects:

They sent the director of photography home and they were like, “You’ve got to make the opening title.” So he was in his trailer, and he was thinking and thinking what he was going to do. He took an aquarium, and he painted the inside of the aquarium black, and then he took a razor blade, and he scraped the letters “The Thing” out with the razor blade from the black paint. And then he hung a black trash bag over the inside of that lettering, in the aquarium, and he shined a spotlight through the aquarium from the other side, at the camera, and he lit the trash bag on fire. So the trash bag burns away, and you actually get the shining light coming through at you with the letters “The Thing.” It’s so cool to me. That was just some creative guy, and they gave him a camera and said, “Go do a cool opening.”


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