The Thing (dir. John Carpenter, 1982) is one of my favorite films. It also is a film that includes some of the most disgusting images in the history of mainstream cinema. Not only that, but those are some of the most indelible images of the film. A shot of a dog’s face peeling back to reveal the skull and tendrils of a different creature. A defibration scene where the patient’s stomach quickly lurches open to reveal a mouth (at least, I think you could refer to it as a mouth) that crushes and tears off the arms of the doctor. The image of Kurt Russell burning alive an alien that has taken on the form of a man with grotesque, ill-formed hands. These are all images intrinsically tied to the film, even for people who have not seen it. But, why are we as audiences so attracted to the idea of watching such disturbingly heightened violence and gore? More importantly, how does Carpenter justify the use of such violence and how does it aid the film thematically?
The answer to that first question reaches beyond than just The Thing, but Carpenter’s film is an excellent case study for audiences’ love of grotesque violence in film. The viewing of a hideously violent act is usually the worst case result of an intense scenario. This provides the viewer with a sense of incomparable release. Tension works like a spring where you push and push until it gets so tight that it needs to be released. Punctuating that release with gruesome violence heightens the tension release to a point past that of an expected outcome, creating a unique sense of stunted catharsis. The tense moment has ended, but it was ended with a result that stretched even farther than what could have been insulated in the sense of common decency.
But, Something specific to The Thing’s brand of sci-fi horror violence is the idea of escapism through the experience of horrific situations that could never happen due to the fantastical, unearthly content of the film. It’s the adrenaline of experiencing something that surpasses the worst case scenario. It extends beyond the realm of dreadful possibility. There will never be a time in your life (at least I certainly hope there will never be a time in your life) that you will be in a situation where you have to burn one of your coworkers alive as their disfigured human husk lets out an otherworldly scream.
While the violence of The Thing could be considered grotesque or disturbing, it is hard to categorize the violence of the film as overly gratuitous. It’s perverse and extends past the realm of some people’s definition of respectability, but it is not violence for the sake of violence. Carpenter’s film is a nightmare. Not only in the way that the content of the film stretches past real world limitations, but also because it is a worst case scenario in regards to the real world.
The characters of The Thing are in a remote region of the world, away from any sense of the modern world and not in the proximity of any family or friends that have ever cared about them. The only people that you can trust and that you can trust your safety to are the people in your immediate vicinity. Now, the whole station is thrust into a sense of unease after someone commits an initial act of violence against an outsider. This feeling only escalates as more violent acts occur inside the confines of the base and as the situation escalates beyond real world understanding and into the realm of impossibility.
The escalating violence now fosters a palpable sense of distrust among the men (and it is a sense of distinctly masculine distrust). Now they, and we, know that the result of letting your guard down could not only mean loss of life, but also would result in the most distressing conception of that: losing your life in the most painful, garish way with no one around you besides people who already believe you have lost your identity and want you dead anyway.
Carpenter uses the extreme violence of The Thing to heighten the stakes of an already stressful, conceivable situation in order to more hardily define the inconceivable, disturbingly ethereal aspects of the film. It’s this aspect that takes the film from being a stressful potboiler into something extending past the worst case scenario. It extends past the novelty of gratuitous violence and evolves the use of grotesque violence into something that creates a richer cinematic experience. Depending on the viewer, the horrifying imagery of The Thing is either a repellant or an enticing factor. No matter what your stance is, it is definitely integral to how the film works and how it has been able to remain in our culture, and our nightmares, since 1982.
The Thing is available to rent on all major VOD services.