John Carpenter’s The Thing was one of the very first VHS tapes I ever bought because it was, and still is, my hands-down favorite horror movie. Coming in at #2 is Alien. I’m a sucker for flicks with isolated, well-defined characters getting picked off by terrifying creatures. That also explains my infatuation with The Descent.
The Thing tape had a shelf all by its lonesome, a place of special importance, flanked by posters of Loni Anderson and Samantha Fox. Aside from being creepy, gory and this side of awesome, The Thing was also associated with a very special memory.
It’s the movie that made my father throw up.
Now, before we get to the barfing, let’s back track a bit.
My love of horror and sci-fi movies was passed on to me by my dad. I can’t count the number of hours spent with him in movie theaters or our dark living room, watching classics like Them!, A Clockwork Orange, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Forbidden Planet. It was a point of pride for me that at age ten I knew who Walter Pidgeon was, could speak fluent Nadsat, and rattle off the movies with musical scores by Bernard Herrmann.
My dad wasn’t a passive movie viewer. As we sat there, he’d educate me, telling me what other movies the actors were in, who the director was, why the movie was so special when it came out. This might be why today I love it when Svengoolie does the very same thing.
Of all our lessons, the ones involving ghosts, monsters and crazed killers were my favorites. I was a…unique child.
I think I first heard about Carpenter’s remake of The Thing in Famous Monsters magazine. I was a young disciple of Carpenter. Any man who could give us Halloween, The Fog and Escape from New York was worthy of my devotion. JC was the Duke of New York, A Number One!
The day before the movie hit theaters, I checked the newspaper for upcoming movie times. My gut flooded with dread.
One—It was only playing in a theater five towns away, as opposed to the very convenient theater a few blocks from my house.
Two—and this was the big one—my father had no desire to see it.
You see, for his money, the original The Thing From Another World was as good as it gets. Just like I groan every time I hear of a re-imagining of Friday the 13th or The Hills Have Eyes, the last thing he wanted to do was watch Hollywood crap all over one of his favorite flicks. Back then, I thought he was being an old stick in the mud and clinically irrational. Now that I’m an old stick in the mud, I totally get it. If my kids asked me to see a remake of, say, Rosemary’s Baby, I’d feign an attack of colitis to avoid having to shell out my money for such drivel. And no, I didn’t bother watching the TV series. Though I will admit, Bates Motel is one of my all time favorite shows. Us old sticks get to choose our mud puddles.
Friday, the big release day, came and went. My friend David and I moped and moaned about missing the event of the century. All was lost. The critics hated it. The Thing would come and go and we’d have to wait years to see it. That’s how desperate things were back before the days of instant gratification.
Much to my surprise, my father woke up on Saturday and said he was taking us all the way to Scarsdale to see it. I ran to David’s house and yelled at him to get his ass in gear. I didn’t know why my father had a change of heart and I wasn’t going to question it.
The old Scarsdale Theatre was about the size of an airplane hangar, or so it seemed to little me. I could imagine people flocking to it in its prime to see shadow puppets thrown on the walls by candlelight.
We caught the first show of the day. In a theater that looked as if it could seat a thousand, we were part of a dozen strong.
The lights dimmed and the coming attractions came and went in a blur. Just start the damn movie already!
The bleak, white landscape of Antarctica nearly blinded us as we watched a poor defenseless dog run for its life, evil men shooting at it from a helicopter. The stark image, coupled with Ennio Morricone’s superior synth score, had my nerves humming. I even refrained from gobbling popcorn because I didn’t want to miss a single sound through the crunching in my head.
Snake Plissken, I mean Kurt Russell, made his grand entrance, and I was officially living in that world. I could feel the cold, sense the confusion and fear, taste the bourbon on the rocks that Macready dumped into the chess computer.
We all knew something was up with that dog. Why else would those crazy “Swedes” be trying to kill it?
But oh baby, we had no idea what we were in for.
Rob Bottin’s practical monster effects in The Thing were like nothing we’d ever seen before. Hideous creatures burst from horrendous monster hides, multiple deformed heads mewling and echoing unearthly sounds. Tentacles whipped around the room, blood and goo and organs spilled everywhere.
What the fuck?
That first scene in the dog kennel was the most bat crap crazy thing to ever assault our senses. (For pure gross out, the zombies tearing the bikers apart in Dawn of the Dead held the top spot for me) And it was just the start of more insanity to come. David and I were bouncing on our seats with each new revolting development.
Dad, who sat by the wall, was very quiet.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but he’d had a long night with his good friend Schaefer, a working’s man beer. I believe Jose Cuervo may have joined the party as well. You never drank alone with Jose by your side.
By the time we got to the scene where the doctor had his arms eaten by a chest cavity that opened up like a shark’s maw, my father made a mad dash for the exit. I barely noticed because twisted little me was too busy reveling in the spaced-out gore.
He came back ten minutes later, smelling of cigarette smoke and something sour.
When it was over and the fate of the world was left hanging in the frigid air, David and I floated out of the theater. Dad looked like he’d seen something that couldn’t be unseen.
When my mother asked me how I liked the movie, I blathered on, talking about each character by name and describing in as much detail as possible how each one died. Dad trudged up to their bedroom.
I found out later that day that the movie had grossed him out so much, he’d lost his eggs and toast, and I’m sure several fermented cans of Schaefer and a shot or two of Cuervo.
I couldn’t believe it. My father, who had been taking me to horror flicks since I could walk, had been bested by a movie. And I had survived it with nary a tummy rumble or a need to put my hands over my eyes.
The grasshopper had become the master.
It was like a changing of the guard. A coming of age. If I was Jewish, it would have been my Bar Mitzvah times ten.
Dad grew up where the blood and gore was implied, something that happened off-screen. Better to let your mind fill in the rest. He didn’t even get to see King Kong squish the villagers or Frankenstein’s monster drown the girl. A movie like The Thing must have been like stumbling into another dimension.
And my The Thing, as I like to think of it, was nothing like his. The poor man had been utterly unprepared.
I will give him credit, though. When the movie came out on video, he rented it and watched it again. And admitted it was pretty damn good. Though the original would always be superior in his mind.
When he passed away a few years ago, I was alone in the house looking over his movie collection. Over on the VHS shelf was his own copy of The Thing. And sure enough, another copy was in the DVD section. It was proof that you can embrace the changing times.
Horror, like man, or the creature from The Thing, evolves.
Hunter Shea is the product of a misspent childhood watching scary movies, reading forbidden books and wishing Bigfoot would walk past his house. He doesn’t just write about the paranormal—he actively seeks out the things that scare the hell out of people and experiences them for himself. You can follow his madness at huntershea.com.