Flicks and Treats: ‘The Thing’

Thursday, October 15, 2020 - 6:27pm

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Design by Shuchen Wei

Halloween is a month-long celebration that spans decades of movie history, from Southern Gothic to psychothriller. The film beat decided to embrace this history, dedicating each week of October to a different time period in horror. This series celebrates every nightmare you had when you were ten, every creak in the floorboards of an old house, every piece of candy stuck to the inside of your pillowcase and everything that keeps you up at night. For this week, we’re tiptoeing our way into the ‘70s and early ‘80s. 

— Mary Elizabeth Johnson, For the Daily

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Hallows Eve approaches, a night and season marked by many a campfire tale and legend whispered in the wee post-bedtime hours. So, let’s tell a story. A story that, if not spooky, is all about the spooky.

If you’re hip with the youths, you may have heard of the online social deduction game “Among Us” that’s recently torn through the internet. 

If you’re not hip with the youths, the premise is simple: Most of you are crewmates on some sort of scientific outpost (the default is a spaceship), and there is an impostor among you. As regular crewmates go about doing general maintenance and repair, the alien impostor slinks around through the vents, sabotages vital functions and surreptitiously murders unsuspecting crewmates. After the murder it’s up to the remaining crewmates to deduce who the impostor is and shoot them out the airlock.  

Bodies fall. Accusations fly. Trust is broken. All at no cost on mobile and five dollars on Steam.

“Among Us” is the product of a nice admixture of classic horror sci-fi and pulp fiction. The influences of “Alien” are made obvious by the vent-slinking and spaceship aesthetics. But aesthetics are simply aesthetic after all. The impetus behind the flashbang popularity of “Among Us” is its “Mafia”-style social deduction in a time when anything of a social nature is deeply in demand. 

What I’ll uncreatively call imposter horror has a long presence in the annals of cinema, from the robotic provocateur of 1927’s “Metropolis,” to 1956’s eminently referenced but rarely watched (like any true classic) “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and most recently with 2018’s criminally underrated “Annihilation.” But of course, the landmark feature in the evolution from robot astroturfers to whatever the hell kind of ending “Annihilation” had, and what “Among Us” draws the most inspiration from, is John Carpenter’s 1982 classic “The Thing.” “The Thing” wasn’t the first of its kind; it wasn’t even the first “Thing.” The 1938 novella by John W. Campbell it’s based on, “Who Goes There?”, was adapted into “The Thing from Another World” back in 1951, to continued acclaim. But it’s “The Thing” that does the thing like nothing else.

“The Thing” features a crew of scientists and technicians at an isolated Antarctic research station. They go about their day playing electronic chess, drinking booze and presumably running tests on … ice or something. Maybe penguins. I dunno, it’s Antarctica. But after encountering some seemingly deranged Norwegian scientists, they come to the unsettling conclusion that there is an impostor among them, an alien lifeform capable of imitating anyone that is dead set on sabotaging, maiming and assimilating its way to the mainland.

The one saving grace? The thing does not care much for fire. So, as only makes sense, they all strap on flamethrowers and begin intently staring each other down. Yes, they are all men. No, I don’t know why a team of researchers have wearable flame cannons. 

In any event, they come in pretty handy, as the thing is pretty monstrous. Prehensile flesh polyps and detachable head-spiders and unfurling jaws within jaws and whatnot. But the real terror isn’t in this landmark exhibition of body horror. It’s the uncertainty … anyone could have this landmark exhibition of body horror hiding just below their skin. These people were colleagues, even friends — a tight-knit community. But soon trust dissolves and paranoia consumes them even quicker than the thing can.

Alternatively, similar to the McCarthyist setting of last week’s “The Birds,” “The Thing” was made during the Cold War. So, y’know. Maybe it’s about being worried that your neighbor is secretly a communist.

It being an anti-communist film or not, it was released during the Cold War, and the Cold War wasn’t a very chipper time. And “The Thing” isn’t a very chipper movie. For 1980s standards, the practical effects are downright obscenities. “E.T.” came out that same year, and, well — the halcyon whimsy of “E.T.” made it very popular; the macabre nihilism of “The Thing” … did not do the same.

It was trashed. Lambasted. John Carpenter, an up until then renowned director (he previously made “Halloween” and “Escape from New York”), lost several directing gigs. Roger Ebert called it “derivative.” It wasn’t pretty. If it had been released now, during this pandemic, it may have received a similar reception: the fear of our closest friends and colleagues carrying an invisible, communicable thing is maybe too close to home.

When “Among Us” hit the App Store in 2018, it sat in relative anonymity. Cheap graphics. Derivative gameplay. It wasn’t until last month that YouTubers and Twitch streamers turned their attention to it and — bam. Its fanbase is now legion. The graphics don’t matter. Its debt to “Mafia” and “Werewolf” doesn’t matter either. The erosion of trust between friends, the creeping paranoia — that’s what makes “Among Us” great. All it took was a paradigm-shifting, globally upsetting virus for everyone to realize it.

Regardless, it owes a lot to “The Thing.” The film, television, books, comics, video games and even tabletop roleplaying games it has inspired are now legion.

You never know what landmark exhibition might be sneakily hiding among us.

Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at luskj@umich.edu   


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