In the 35 years since John Carpenter‘s first big studio movie, 1982’s The Thing, which he made for Universal, it metamorphosed from flop to underground classic in the horror genre. It is a tautly paced, paranoid, claustrophobic movie with a cast of people we like and don’t want to see die, even though that is inevitable. This is all well-documented, but Carpenter’s masterpiece isn’t merely a great example of monster horror, it’s a perfect example of the Lovecraftian “cosmic horror,” a notoriously difficult subgenre to represent onscreen.
H.P. Lovecraft was a complicated writer. His oeuvre has become the stuff of legend and his creations of the Necronomicon and the Cthulhu mythos 100 years ago have inspired writers and filmmakers from Guillermo del Toro to Sam Raimi. But of all of the things in the genre to which we can credit Lovecraft, cosmic horror is perhaps his most important, and the most ineffable. Cosmic horror is a realization that there are ancient, wholly “inhuman” creatures that exist in our own universe that do not care about us at all. Along with this is the fear of losing your humanity, succumbing to the whims–and sometimes even physical embodiment–these interstellar eldritch behemoths.
At the heart of The Thing, we have a story about an invading force that is ultimately beyond our understanding and has the capability to completely destroy life on Planet Earth in a staggeringly short amount of time. When the characters in the base see the Thing at its most alien–half-transformed between stages–they stand in awe, gobsmacked for sometimes minutes at time. This is so Carpenter can show off the amazing effects work by Rob Bottin, yas, but it’s also to amplify a mixture of awe and disgust.
Lovecraft would often not describe his sinister entities, choosing instead to say simply “the indescribable horror” or the like, and allow the reader to come up with their own visuals. The inability of humans to comprehend the physical form of these creatures is integral to Lovecraft’s cosmic fear. Carpenter continues this, not by hiding the monster from us, but by showing it to us in full light, because even though we’re looking at it, it’s still mostly indescribable. No image of the Thing in any of the scenes behaves the way something of this world would, and we share the characters’ astonishment, both by recoiling and staring.
But the beast itself is only a portion of what cosmic horror is about, and the larger part comes from the fear of being overtaken, and the debilitating realization that your worldview is changed and will never be the same again. It’s very hard to explain and visually express someone being totally overcome with a feeling of being an insignificant, minuscule speck in the universe. While most of the characters have a hard time grasping the true magnitude of this horrible awakening and react mainly with either pragmatism (MacReady, Doc Copper, Garry) or sheer disbelief (is any moment more perfect than Palmer’s “You’ve got to be f***ing kidding!”?), one character perfectly exemplifies what most of Lovecraft’s protagonists represent, and that’s Blair, played by Wilford Brimley.
Blair is the scientist on the expedition and performs the strange autopsy on the thawing, half-changed alien bodies and also comes up with the computer simulation which explains that the Thing could, if left unchecked, completely overtake and replicate the entire world in a matter of days. This leads Blair to a complete nervous breakdown, sparking off with the team finding him holed up in his lab, with a pistol, firing wildly and ranting about “it wants to be US!” The team eventually subdues him and locks him up in MacReady’s shack, but he is truly never the same, the first to succumb to paranoia.
And very fittingly, Blair also fulfills the second part of the Lovecraftian protagonist: he becomes what he fears the most. Lovecraft was a debilitating xenophobe and extrapolated his fear of any unlike person into his work. These stories often end with the main character–usually the first person narrator–going insane after learning that they’re a descendant of the frog/fish/squid people. Blair is the most outwardly dangerous early on because he understands the situation and knows everyone has to die to stop the Thing from replicating, but by the end, he’s essentially the ultimate version of the Thing itself. And just like in Lovecraft, we the audience (as well as the other characters) have no way of knowing how long Blair has been the monster he so feared.
The Thing was John Carpenter’s first movie for a major studio, and so it had to follow certain rules, like having a hero who blows up the monster and uses a flamethrower. Kurt Russell’s MacReady is the Hollywood protagonist, but Blair is the Lovecraftian protagonist and having them both in the same movie is an interesting juxtaposition, and quite telling that the latter ends up becoming the villain, as so many Lovecraft stories reveal in their final paragraphs.
It would be 12 years before Carpenter would make his most Lovecraftian movie (1994’s In the Mouth of Madness), complete with a main character who slowly loses his mind. But he already started down that path with Blair in The Thing, and it remains his masterpiece, and even more subtly profound than you thought.