“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? A perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” ~ Ash, Alien
Two films defined big-budget sci-fi horror in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
Alien (1979) and John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of the 1951 film, “The Thing From Another World”, which was itself, loosely based on John W. Campbells’s story, “Who Goes There?”
Both films pitted an isolated number of humans in a hostile environment (Antarctica in Winter and deep space) against a previously unknown alien entity that was intelligent, but non-communicative and aggressive.
Alien proved that with a big budget, a visionary director and a great story – a sci-fi horror could touch a wide audience. It tapped into our most primitive fears. The terror of the unknown, of being hunted and no longer being the apex predator in a closed environment.
Where Alien showcased the sole-survivor female in the form of Lt. Ellen Ripley, and it had a mixed gender cast, with men and women both featuring in the story. The Thing was an accurate depiction of life on the Antarctic continent, and had no credited female roles. Though Adrienne Barbeau (who was married to Carpenter at the time) has an uncredited cameos as a man in the Norwegian video footage and provided the voice of the chess computer.
The first women to winter on the continent, half a century after the first men, were Americans Edith Ronne and Jennie Darlington, wives of Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition members. Writing about her 1947 adventures in My Antarctic Honeymoon, Darlington lamented: “Taking everything into consideration, I do not think women belong in Antarctica.” Source
1982 was the year of Steven Spielberg’s ET, a family film with an adorable alien. The Thing was a great antidote to that, being the polar (haha) opposite in terms of target audience and themes of horror and hopelessness.
The Thing also tapped into the paranoia that was so much a part of the culture of the 1950’s. This central premise of Campbell’s original (1951) story where no one could be trusted. If the Alien xenomorph had been a creature that took on the shape and form of the crew and effectively hid in plain sight, the terror factor of Alien would have increased exponentially.
With input from the master of monstrous sculpture, H.R Giger, Alien created a unique and iconic pair of monsters. The initial Face-Hugger stage and the offspring, being the Xenomorph. The Face-hugger was designed to represent sexual assault on a male. A subtle way of making the male audience unsettled.
It could be argued that the Xenomorph with it’s thrusting mouth parts is also phallic, and the battle between the female Ripley and the phallic Xenomorph is a metaphor for a whole range of masculine vs feminine tropes and social commentaries.
The Thing was also revolutionary in it’s effects. The visuals of the metamorphosing alien parasite as it twisted living tissue into horrific new forms, was the most terrifying thing ever seen. What gave both creatures depth however, was the sound effects. For Alien, the hiss of its breath, not heard until it was ready to strike. For The Thing, the ripping, crunching sounds and eerie wailing it made as it wreaked havoc. Both sounds were truly alien and utterly horrific.
The characters of Ripley and MacReady, both displayed similar characteristics which made them a focus for the audience as central characters to the narrative.
Both were competent at their jobs, experienced and used to working in the harsh and dangerous environment of their work. Both had good relationships with their peers and were genuinely concerned for the health and well being of those around them.
When things went wrong, as they must, both characters showed resourcefulness and intelligence in taking the lead on hunting the threat.
In the end only Ripley succeeded in defeating the monster. She made the world safe for the audience, leaving us with a resolution that we could sleep on. There were no real unanswered questions in the film.
Ultimately, this is why The Thing will always stand above Alien as the greatest horror film of all time.
Alien and The Thing shared outstanding special effects, and excellent use of lighting and shadows to create tension.
But only The Thing ended with a deep sense of unease and final paranoia that the audience could take away with them. This is why the story haunts us over thirty years later.
The final question of whether The Thing was still alive – either as Childs or MacReady, is never answered.
To me that is what makes it true horror. The story ends and you are free to use your imagination to continue the story. This means that we dwell on it, we probe it like a loose tooth. Turning the ending over and over in our minds until we realise that this was some deeply fucked up storytelling and we will have to watch it again.