The 1982, all-male John Carpenter monster film came with a sexual subtext. The new prequel features females—and ends up playing like a more-conventional slasher flick.
Above, Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 2011's The Thing. Below, Kurt Russell in 1982's The Thing (Universal/JohnCarpenter.com)
John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) is famous for oozily gruesome special effects, impressively tight plotting, and for one of Kurt Russell's most iconic paranoid-tough-guy performances. What truly distinguishes it from the toothy horror film horde, though, is something it lacks: women. The film is set on a research base in Antarctica, and the entire cast is male.
Scriptwriter Bill Lancaster explained the lack of women in The Thing like this:
In reality there aren't any women in these kinds of situations. I remember thinking as a kid that the obligatory love scenes in horror movies interrupted the action.
Fair enough, but there's a reason that all those other films have those obligatory love scenes and, indeed, those women. The Thing is basically a sci-fi slasher, and an important part of the appeal of slasher films (as Halloween director John Carpenter well knew) was that the R rating gave the (mostly) male audience a chance to see some T and some A. For that matter, The Thing's most direct precursor was surely Alien—a film that suggested strongly that slasher/sci-fi audiences would pay good money to see a hot female protagonist kicking alien ass. Horror films aren't about reality in the first place, they're about genre requirements. And the genre requirements for slashers generally include women not just as love interests, but as the main protagonists (a la Halloween, Friday the 13th, and on and on.) So why write them out?
Part of the answer is John Carpenter, a director who, in Christine, They Live, and many other films, has been particularly interested in male-male relationships. And part of the answer, perhaps, is provided by queer theorist Eve Sedgwick. In Epistemology of the Closet, Sedgwick argued that Western culture is "structured—indeed fractured—by a chronic, now endemic crisis of homo/heterosexual definition." Basically, for Sedgwick, male identity always inevitably collapses into an agonized, shapeless horror. Strong, manly men who are male-focused and uninterested in femininity are in danger of becoming homosexual not-men. On the other hand, men who are too women-identified are also in danger of becoming not-men—a.k.a. things.
Thus, women in The Thing would be out of place, as would male-female love. This is because The Thing can be read as being obsessed with the fear of failing to be a man—and, concurrently, with homosexual panic.
The Thing of the title is an alien protoplasm that devours and mimics other organisms—it passes, if you will, as human. One by one, the men on the base are devoured and replaced. That replacement often has a queasy sexual component; one of the researchers, for example, is covered with slithery, bondage-like tentacles. In the film's most spectacular scene, another scientist reveals his Thingness when a replica of his own head bursts from his stomach in a twisted all-male mockery of birth.
The men in The Thing are constantly examining each other for evidence of the Thing, the spreading contagion that may make them not-men. The hero, MacReady (Russell), is heroic precisely because he is the most paranoid and the least subject to emotional attachments. To give him a female love interest would both undermine the source of his strength and ruin the apocalyptic, eroticized, male hot-house orgy of Thingness.
In the new The Thing, a prequel to the 1982 version, director Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr., jettisons this dynamic quickly and thoroughly. Not only are there two women in the film, but one of them Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is the hero.
If you like slashers, especially sci-fi slashers like Alien, the prequel is a thoroughly entertaining genre exercise. But what's really fascinating about it is watching how the female protagonist changes the film. Carpenter's movie was an ensemble piece; the men all behaved like lovably bitchy character actors, strutting about, fighting for dominance, and generally getting on one anothers nerves in their arctic clubhouse. In the prequel, there are still interpersonal tensions—but they're all funneled through Kate. She has a sort-of sexless romance thing with cute lab assistant Adam (Eric Christian Olsen); she's got authority/daddy issues with Halverson (Ulrich Thomsen), the scientific leader/soulless Vulcan character; she has a female-bonding partner in Juliette (Kim Bubbs).
As that suggests, having Kate be the star pushes the relationships towards more stably stereotypical forms. Not coincidentally, it also works to undo the aura of paranoia—or at least, to de-eroticize it. When Kate gives someone a searching look, it reads (ahem) straightforwardly as a woman trying to determine if a man is a threat, rather than as a man checking another man out. Moreoever, despite nationalistic tensions between the Norwegians and Americans on the base, Kate consistently establishes the kinds of relationships that no one in Carpenter's film could manage. She forms a bond of trust with Lars (Jergen Langhelle), and later with American Joel Edgerton (Sam Carter). These aren't sexual relationships—like many a slasher heroine, Kate has no discernable sexual interests—but they do seem predicated on the neatness of male-female pairings. Kate interlocks with others in a way MacReady could not.
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This is natural enough. MacReady's strength was his paranoia; his refusal to trust anyone. Kate's strength is her empathy; her ability to figure out whom to rely on. In the first film, MacReady (in a perhaps deliberate nod to the AIDS epidemic) figured out a macabre blood test to tell who was Thing and who wasn't. Kate develops a much more ad hoc method, relying not on science but on careful everyday observation. Effectively, Kate knows her companions better than they know themselves. MacReady ends his film locked in paranoid tryst with a rival/colleague, freezing together in a cold tableau of mistrust. Kate sees and feels more clearly, which—spoiler alert—is why she gets to be that happy slasher staple, the Final Girl.
That ending suggests the biggest difference between the films. The emotional point of slashers, as Carol Clover argues in her 1993 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, is the extended rush of masochistic terror and the final thrill of cleansing, righteous violence. The protagonists are so often women because women are weaker and more empathetic—and thus the thrill is all the greater when they turn the tables and triumph. Slashers are about cathartic victory.
Carpenter's The Thing was not. Instead, it assiduously scrambled hero and villain: Even MacReady seems like he could be a Thing at times. Men can't be trusted, and so none of them can escape. Add a woman, though, and suddenly there's someone to care about and to rely on. Nearly thirty years after Carpenter's The Thing, and Hollywood still has trouble imagining men knowing each other. Trust between men, or love between men, is still a hard thing to come by—at least in the movies.