John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing is best known for Ralph Bottin’s flamboyantly disgusting special effects and Kurt Russell doing a better John Wayne impression than John Wayne. And those are great reasons to love The Thing!
But if you’re willing to take your eye off the ooze for a second, you’ll notice something odd about the film. It’s an ensemble performance—but none in the ensemble are women. Everyone in the film is a dude.
And contradictorily, noticing the thoroughgoing dudeness changes the film from a FX spectacular to a film about the bleak plight of dudes. The Thing is a pointed examination of and/or a shrieking, twisted nightmare deconstruction of, masculinity.
The Thing is set at a U.S. Antarctic research base, which is invaded by some ancient alien creature, long trapped in the ice. The Thing is a shape-shifting gelatinous nightmare that can imitate other living beings on a cellular level. It begins to stealthily assimilate one man after the other, leading to terror, mistrust and lots of men dissolving into wet, vile orifice-laden glop.
That vile, orifice-laden glop is decidedly suggestive. In one scene Windows (Thomas Waites) stumbles on Bennings (Peter Maloney) being assimilated, the alien ichor sliding over him like some sort of wet BDSM tentacular primal scene. In the film’s most famous set piece, Norris (Charles Hallahan), while lying on an operating table, has his chest suddenly open. From inside a twisted veiny monstrosity bursts forth, with his own face—it’s like he’s giving birth to his own monstrous head.
Bennings’ assimilation seems to reference queer sex; Norris’ is a kind of parodic male birth. For both of them turning into a Thing means that their masculinity dissolves. They stop being men and become something else—feminized, unstable Things.
That fall from manliness is accompanied by fear—and ever more by paranoia. The relationships among the men, before The Thing comes, are characterized by a mixture of joshing, rivalry and irritation. When Garry (Donald Moffat), the leader of the base, has to shoot an apparently crazed Norwegian intruder, Palmer (David Clennon) quips, “I was wondering when El Capitan here was going to get a chance to use his pop gun.” Men: they make fun of each other’s tools.
As the guys at the base become aware of the dangerous Thing, the good-natured frat-house ribbing turns into out-and-out paranoia. Anyone could be the Thing. Anyone could be the not-man who wetly drags you into being a not-man too. “Nobody … nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired,” MacReady tells his tape-recorder, the only friend he’s got left.
The fear of falling from manliness quickly turns to violence, against both Things and men. When Bennings turns into a Thing, he/it staggers into the snow, his hands twisted into deformed claws. The other men surround him and, in what appears as a kind of purgative ritual, put him to the flame as he issues an eerie howl.
Not just Things get murdered, though. Clark (Richard Masur) attacks MacReady, thinking he’s a Thing, and MacReady shoots him dead, thinking Clark is a Thing, but neither of them are. When you can’t tell the men from the not-men, you’re going to kill both. Even MacReady, with his cowboy hat and his action hero cool, can have his manhood questioned. Any man can be a Thing — and shot as such.
In The Thing, masculinity is always one step away from panic. The men on the base are stable, solid, manly — but at any moment they could dissolve into unmanly, feminized, queer puddles, with weird openings and/or protuberances. And that very fear of becoming permeable unmanly puddles can itself turn the men into permeable unmanly puddles.
Thus, when the base biologist Blair (Wilford Brimley) discovers that the Thing can imitate humans, he goes insane, destroying equipment and threatening the others with a gun and an ax. He is captured and isolated, but later he becomes a Thing.
Or maybe he was a Thing all long. Who knows? Panicking or dissolving into ichorous goo: what’s the difference between having an unmanly breakdown and having an unmanly breakdown, anyway? Even before they become Things, the men are already Things.
THE REPETITION WAS INTENTIONAL; DOES THIS MAKE IT CLEARER?
And who decides if a man is a Thing? Other men, of course. MacReady develops a blood test to check for Thingness (a possible nod to the AIDS crisis of the early 1980s.) But the men are always testing and evaluating each other, watching and policing.
At the end of the film MacReady finally thinks he’s killed the creature; he’s alone, with no one left to mistrust. But then Childs (Keith David) comes stumbling out of the frozen night. The end is the two of them staring at each other warily. The base is destroyed. They’re going to die in the snow, but they still need to watch each other and police each other, to make sure they’re men.
Patriarchy is usually thought of as a system whereby men oppress women. But The Thing suggests that men oppress men as well, and that the oppression of men and the oppression of folks who are not men is fused together, in one writhing, squirming, oozing monstrosity. Manly men have to watch each other constantly to make sure they are not disgusting, vile, unmanly Things. And if they are (and they always are) the sentence is death.
The first alien corpse the men encounter is in the process of transformation. Its head is coming apart. It looks like one agonized man dividing into two. He seems to be trying to escape himself. But in The Thing, no dude can escape his dudeness. Masculinity, that bloody mass, eats them all.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.