In a 1985 review of The Thing (1982) in the horror and fantasy journal CineFan, issue 3, Peter L. Winkler described John Carpenter’s film — an update of John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? and a remake of Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s 1951 The Thing (aka The Thing from Another World) — as simply designed to “showcase as many alien transformations and other gruesome scenes as possible”. Predictably, the film’s downbeat, ambiguous ending came in for the most criticism (“totally senseless”). This is a typical example of the critical reaction to the film in the 1980s. During the 1990s, however, opinion began to shift dramatically. The film’s primary themes of paranoia, identity, alienation and mistrust would finally receive long-overdue recognition, and so too would Rob Bottin’s still-extraordinary, surreal, nightmarish make-up effects (no silly CGI in the early 80s, of course). Anne Billson’s 1997 monograph, published as part of the BFI’s Modern Classics series, marked the first serious analysis of the film in print, and was followed four years later by ‘Outpost #31’, an authoritative, comprehensive fan website which is worth visiting.
Jez Conolly’s book (an entry in Auteur Publishing’s ‘Devil’s Advocates’ strand) certainly isn’t intended to eclipse Billson’s superb study, rather to serve as an extension to it. Conolly examines the film’s subsequent critical re-evaluation, its various releases on VHS, laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray, the homages, parodies and video game spin-offs, and the 2011 Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. directed prequel/remake (which merely reconfirms how powerful Carpenter’s film really is). Conolly doesn’t ignore the film’s antecedents, noting how both the 1982 film and the Campbell source material share thematic connections to the work of H. P. Lovecraft, particularly At the Mountains of Madness (1936). Interestingly, Conolly also examines the similarities between The Thing and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980): both films feature characters stranded in isolated locations who are driven to extremes by circumstances which are frightening and uncontrollable; both feature subjective camerawork which increases not only the mood but the tension (from whose POV are we prowling through the rooms and corridors of Outpost 31? We never do find out).
Although Conolly doesn’t dissect Carpenter’s film in quite the same way as Billson, this book remains an excellent study in its own right, well researched, informative — have you ever considered how the positioning of the characters in the frame is an indication of whether they are human or Thing? — and intelligently written in a clear, presentable style. Most importantly of all, however, it does Carpenter’s once-vilified film the justice it fully deserves.
The Thing (Devil’s Advocates) is available now