A mostly musical dissection of icy paranoia, bearded heroism and alien-barbequing flamethrowers
The soundtrack for 1982’s classic The Thing... getting a review now... out of the blue. But why?Well, although I have the desire and the ability to wax lyrical about John Carpenter’s best film ad nauseum , and have discussed it extensively several times already on the site, the excuse this time around is pretty simple. But, I think, also coldly poetic. You see, it snowed pretty heavily by me on Boxing Day (2014) and I saw this as a fabulous opportunity to suit-up in my MacReady G-1 leather flight jacket, brim-upturned Campaign Hat (and not, I hasten to add, a Sombrero, as is so often cited) and walk my own husky (a pure deadringer for Jed, the notorious wolf-dog/husky that causes so much chaos in the film) and head off into the blizzard fortified by, of course, a couple of hearty gulps of J&B. Playing through my earphones, obviously, was this, the glorious complete score to Carpenter’s celebrated horror/SF masterpiece, from the maestro Ennio Morricone, and the filmmaker, himself, along with frequent collaborator, Alan Howarth.
To say that I was placed in a highly evocative scenario and blissfully transported to a fine stand-in for the doomed Outpost 31 as I navigated the enormous, snow-capped environs of Rake Lane Cemetery in Wallasey, would be a massive understatement. As Morricone’s hypnotic heartbeat main theme pulsed through my head, it was easy to imagine that I was scouting the last beleaguered frontier on the threshold of mankind for vestiges of something indescribably inhuman and unforgivably hostile. And since nobody else was fool enough to venture into the whiteout, I was totally convinced that I was the last man on Earth. “I know I’m human,” I kept reassuring myself. But in Carpenter’s paranoid tale of monstrous deception and body-horror trickery, how could you ever really know for sure?
Such is the power and majesty of the masterful screenplay and the deadly game it plays of Who Goes There? Asides from VHS recorders, a huge ghetto-blaster and archaic computers (making leaps of conjecture that machines today are actually incapable of making!), the film has not dated and the theme of insidious alien invasion and not being to trust the person next to you is, perhaps, even more relevant in the current world climate of terrorist fear, plague, tsunami, government cover-up and race-hate than it ever was during the Cold War setting of John W. Campbell’s game-changing original novella.
So, although this is ostensibly to be a study of the use of music in the film and the powerful part it plays in this enduring tale, I will also take this opportunity to indulge in what, for many others around the world besides myself, has become an obsessive pastime, and put forward my own theories regarding the who, when, what and why conundrums of Bill Lancaster’s sophisticated and multi-layered screenplay. Spoilers, references to the novella, the 1951 version and the 2011 prequel are inevitable, I’m afraid."You can't burn the find of the century. That’s gonna win somebody the Nobel prize."
Carpenter’s film remains a Pandora’s Box of mysteries. In true Agatha Christie style, acts are committed for which there are several suspects and we, as well as the increasingly desperate Antarctic research team, are tasked with unravelling the clues and unmasking the potential culprits. Of course, the film clings to its most tantalising enigmas with the Thing’s revolting tenacity. Whose shadow is on the wall when the Dog-Thing enters? My staunch guess is that whilst the hair and body-shape puts you in mind of Charles Hallahan’s shy geologist Norris, although we know that regular Carpenter stuntman Dick Warlock actually played the unseen figure so that audiences couldn’t definitively recognise the outline in question, it is actually David Clennon’s loopy mechanic Palmer.
Look at his queer, lingering backwards stare at Mac after he has swiftly fried the dog-Thing in the kennel – it is the purest regard (and wariness) for someone who is undeniably a quick-acting, worthy and ruthless opponent. I would also claim that Norris is assimilated very early on, as well. Perhaps in another room-visit by the dog, happening off-camera, but around the same time. Look at his reaction to the dog in the Rec Room when Bennings (Peter Maloney) demands that it gets put in the kennel “with the others, where it belongs”. This, of course, throws up the puzzle over why doesn’t Palmer assimilate Childs when they share a splif later on whilst watching TV quiz shows?
My reply would be that it probably doesn’t need to because, along with Norris, a clandestine Thing team-up evolves to wreak enough havoc without having to absorb everybody right away. There are more than a few clues to their alien relationship peppered throughout the film, from little glances and snatches of dialogue to the curious fact that during one crucial scene they both have their faces obscured whilst everybody else’s is exposed. A little visual clue from John Carpenter? And something that goes in-tandem with Mac’s remark about the Thing not wanting to show itself, but hide inside an imitation.
When exactly was Blair (Wilfred Brimley, who gained the role when conflicting schedules cut loose Donald Pleasance) caught and assimilated? Well, he’d been playing around an awful lot with Thing-bits during autopsies and making some ominous discoveries that give too much of its game-plan away, making him a dead-cert threat that must be swiftly dealt with. Carpenter even makes a point of showing him putting his pencil to his mouth after it has just been prodding still dripping alien gloop – so his assimilation could begin right there, making it a slow-burn process that really only gains the upper-hand (or tentacle) once he has made that global calculation of alien takeover. He is curiously missing during the Bennings incineration, an absence that Garry (Donald Moffat) distinctly announces, meaning that his assimilation could have been completed then.
Is it not possible that he kills the rest of the dogs in the kennel because they could potentially identify a non-human imposter? He was pretty inquisitive about the dog-Thing’s behaviour with Richard Masur’s cuddly husky-handler, Clarke, and this canine perceptiveness could have lingered in the Blair-Thing’s mind. The film’s producer, Stuart Cohen, has stated in his excellent and comprehensive blog that Blair, in-keeping with the original Campbell story, was assimilated early on. Perhaps the strange dog was very busy in its wandering around camp that first day. It was certainly once envisaged that the portly boffin was the secret aggressor who offed Bennings in the original screenplay – and it is surely his shape that we see in the deleted scene that shows this rather mundane, and thankfully excised , stab-in-the-dark slaying.
But who got to the blood-supply? Jittery communications man Windows (Thomas Waites) drops the keys when he spies Bennings being absorbed... and Palmer is certainly missing during Blair’s distracting rampage in the radio room, giving him ample opportunity for plasma sabotage with the pilfered keys. Considering that the Thing’s modus operandi is to play the men off against each other and cause massive distrust and suspicion, this and the shredded long-johns are opportunist scams to create worrying scapegoats from a group whose camaraderie is rapidly disintegrating.
Windows realises his clumsiness was to blame and scampers away to arm himself with a shotgun in a blind panic, reminding us of his butter-fingered error and reinforcing the suspicions that we, as armchair detectives, now have. Why do Palmer and Norris not assimilate MacReady when they have the chance, out there on the fjord investigating the downed UFO? Or, in fact, do they, after all? Thus, maybe Macready, himself, is a Thing? Well, despite Mac having a few “odd” moments here and there, I think it is safe to assume that he is on the human team... at least until the ambiguous and apocalyptic conclusion.
But the clever, ahem, thing is that there is no definitive answer to these and many other mysteries. Which ensures the film’s longevity and everlasting appeal. We all become sleuths in a saga that combines suspense, gore, monsters, pure paranoia and, if you like, poses questions about morality and what it means to be human, as well as taking a metaphorical stab at the mass culture-shock of communicable hidden diseases. Back then it was AIDs, but now you could easily substitute Ebola. If you look on the wall behind MacReady as he conducts the blood-tests there is even a poster that warns about the dangers of STDs.
In cahoots with this serpentine plot, the score couldn’t just be outright horror. Suspense had to be built up and painstakingly executed, essential for driving that ice-pick deeper and deeper into our subconscious. Carpenter was a past-master at superb mood evocation, with his films impossible to divorce from their soundtracks. Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween and The Fog, most assuredly, would have been lesser entities in the cult pantheon without their outstanding scores, for sure. Escape from New York set the template for cool synth-scoring. The Thing offered an incredible opportunity to generate growing fear and distress. The filmmaker and jack-of-all-trades would seem to be the perfect man for the job, given his track record of cool intensity.“It’s not Carpenter, Mac. It’s Morricone.”Yet Carpenter’s penchant for scoring his own films – he knew he came cheaper and quicker than anybody else – was vetoed given the opportunity he now had of a bigger budget from Universal, a luxury he had never enjoyed before in the realms of shoestring independent moviemaking, and he now saw the chance to employ one of his heroes in super-prolific Italian film composer, Ennio Morricone. A surprising choice, maybe... and one that came after Jerry Goldsmith, John (Altered States) Corigliano and even Alex North had been approached... but having long been a fan of Westerns, especially those of Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo) whose style he so often emulated and paid homage to, Carpenter was especially entranced by how Morricone manipulated traditional orchestra, experimental effects and the human voice in the likes of the great Spaghetti epics of Sergio Leone, and a slew of suspenseful giallo pictures. Perhaps he could bring something unique and haunting to this bizarre tale of men under siege, their macho mistrust of one-another and the harrowing fact that they are getting picked off one by one by a cunning foe?
As a story and a movie, The Thing’s theme is a challenging one. Like Alien before it, that other great cinematic treatment of resourceful humanity pitted against a threat from beyond, it deals with emasculation, male rape and bodily transformation. These are troubling and disturbing notions to be sure, but they are at the centre of a complex and sophisticated screenplay. Man, as a species, is absorbed, ingested and reconfigured – humanity is subjugated and inverted from the inside-out in a perversely obscene parody of birth. Invaded by a predator that is seeking to propagate and evolve. Some perceive the Thing as being asexual. Which is true of its basic survival essence, but the overriding execution that we see of this concept in the film is of Lovecraftian vagina-dentata. I don’t think there has been a horror film before, or since, that has been more up-front in concocting a devoutly aggressive and purely feminine threat as Carpenter’s. Philip Kaufmann’s excellent take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers comes close though with its unpleasantly arousing group assimilation process in Donald Sutherland’s back garden.
Despite the tonal layers and simplistic synth beats of most of Carpenter’s own classic cult scores, they have never been cold or bleak. In his own work, there is a surprising amount of colour and warmth, an organic depth in spite of its synthetic source. Even tenderness. Think of Julie’s theme in Assault on Precinct 13. Or the humour of the title song for Big Trouble in Little China. What Morricone fashioned for The Thing was unbelievably cold, despondent and futile. There is not one glimmer of hope or optimism in his score.It is clinical and insidious, metronomic and frozen inside a frosted bubble of outright and inescapable fatalism. Hardly going to be a joyous celebration of rousing orchestration, then. But it remains one of the most perfectly apt scores for a horror film, just the same, so totally in-synch with its themes, situations and the overall character of the ferocious predicament faced by bushy-bearded Kurt Russell as the laconic and maverick reluctant hero, helicopter pilot MacReady, as he wrestles to expose the chameleon-like enemy in the camp and defeat it.
Yet it is also not quite what Carpenter expected. When he requested that Morricone go “cold”, he did not suspect that the composer would smother his subsequent movie with an indestructible sheet of permafrost. When playing the score, it is easy to imagine the skin of your ears sticking to it, and having to be torn away once the music stops. To completely eschew any warmth or token gesture of hope, not even a glimmer of salvation or humour must take some concerted effort, and not least on the part of the orchestra players. Even the movie, itself, which steadfastly and brilliantly avoids a happy resolution and leaves audiences with a terrible dilemma of their own to ponder over, has many moments of brevity, albeit of a distinctly gallows variety. One only has to recall pothead Palmer’s reaction to the Thing’s spider-head incarnation, or station commander Garry’s furious declaration about his uncomfortable seating arrangement post-blood-testing. Notwithstanding, Morricone does not allow any sentiment or charity to creep into his score, however much we may desire a reprieve from the tension.
Not an easy listen, then. Certainly something of an acquired taste, even for those who revere either or both of the musicians’ body of scores, Morricone’s or Carpenter’s. Morricone’s first album release for MCA, and then Varese Sarabande has been the only official version that fans could get hold of since the film’s debut. Bootlegs have been around, of course, but the fact remains that the movie contains far less music than you think. Carpenter has themes recur throughout, which is in-keeping with the circular aspect of the plot. What happened to the Norwegians is about to happen to the Americans. There is a deadly poetry at work here. Thus, the overriding direction that the score takes, as we hear it in the film, is one of an unending loop. Which works perfectly for a situation that keeps getting direr all the time, as bad luck, false strategy and fate continually encircle the defenders of Outpost 31. The longstanding Morricone album, therefore, acts as a sort of conceptual experiment and expansion on this theme, with a few disparate and unusual turns that Carpenter, wisely, just smirked at and ushered to one side. Like the Norwegians carving the Thing out of the ice, the perfect score was gently whittled away from the more extreme elements that Morricone concocted.
“So how’s this Morricone synth-up after thousands of symphonies?”
“And how can he sound like John Carpenter?”
Besides the cult-cherished Main Theme which bookends the film and the score, something that Carpenter surely instigated by playing some of his customary hypnotic music at a piano so the great composer could better get an understanding of what was required, the music is intensely string-dominated, shot-through with unbending slivers of bass and stark, funeral bleats from brass, and always remains remorselessly ice-bound. Much of it depends upon long notes stretched out over a glistening rink of unending tension. Woodwind elements yawn and moan. Percussion, deftly utilised, forms echoes that seem dredged from deep beneath the ice. Morricone attempted to have his orchestra sound and act just like one of Carpenter’s Moogs. A delightful irony considering that the maestro was the king of lush romance and elegant period majesty. If Carpenter was a Thing, then Morricone had clearly been assimilated by him, although he gained forty thousand dollars for his troubles.
He composed a series of suites to the rough cut that he was shown, a version of the film that was shorn of most of the stomach-churning effects. This meant that he had to use his imagination regarding the creature’s protoplasmic antics and, with Carpenter’s gentle persuasion, focus upon the prevailing mood of suspicion and doom. Even though his mind was probably more preoccupied by his forthcoming reunion with Sergio Leone for Once Upon A Time In America, he devoted what turned out to be a short schedule to grafting a voice for the frozen moral void of The Thing.
Alan Howarth’s arrangement and performance of Morricone’s score for the BSX limited edition CD release is exemplary. There have been some other remixes done, such as Dominik Hauser’s for the complete version of Vangelis’ gorgeous and, as yet, still unreleased original score for The Bounty, as well as a bewildering array of variations on the composer’s more celebrated Blade Runner, that have not come up to scratch. Even Howarth, in his otherwise brilliant interpretation of Carpenter’s Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13, and even The Fog (none of which he actually worked on at the time of their initial creation), has made a few little errors and not been completely able to capture the original sound successfully. But this album, bolstered by the entire score from Morricone as well as all the extra cues that Carpenter and Howarth added when the director felt that more music was needed (in fact, this occurred when Morricone had left the project to quickly compose for Ferdinando Baldi’s 3D slapdash adventure Treasure of the Four Crowns – reviewed separately) sound absolutely astonishing. Captured now with the state-of-the-art software of Logic that creates the original sound of the Prophet-5, ARP Avatars and Quadra with startling clarity, precision and accuracy, The Thing takes on a new lease of life that has left more than a few purists lost for words.
In short, such a re-recording doesn’t usually sound this good – especially when it has been created entirely on keyboards. Morricone strove to turn his orchestra into a collective synthesiser, and now a synth system refines his bold experiment even further. For the purpose of this study, I am listening to this fuller version.
So, with lavish production from Larry Hopkins, this re-rendering sounds incredibly faithful to the original, which was heavily enhanced by electronics in the first place, and even, dare I say it, improves on some elements of it quite dramatically. Sounding clean and scalpel sharp and appropriately glistening with a smoother range and, occasionally, a deeper resonance that carries the wavering, forlorn lament of the secondary theme, Despair, just that little bit further. The capture of the material that Carpenter inserted should, by rights, sound exactly the same. And it does, to all intents and purposes. But it is with the recreation of Morricone’s unusual combination of orchestra and electronica that problems are to be expected. No matter how good the equipment, the human ear tends to isolate the synthesised sound from the natural, and this could well have spelt doom for the project. But I have to say the resulting sound is nothing short of spectacular. And it might be sacrilege to infer that Howarth and Hopkins have actually improved on what the Italian maestro came up with... but that is the way I hear it, even if vague bits and pieces carry a slightly different cadence.
The new album presents the score in better chronological order than the original MCA and Varese Sarabande releases that were sans the Carpenter/Howarth material, although some tracks have still been shimmied-around from out of film-order for what the producers claim is a better listening experience. Since you can easily program the disc yourself, this is a moot point but, personally speaking, I agree with the line-up here. Several of Morricone’s tracks didn’t make it into the finished movie, but they remain here in the sequence that they were originally intended, intercut with the music that Carpenter and Howarth created. Indeed, a couple of the cues that Morricone composed do not seem to fit the tone of the score as we are used to hearing it alongside the imagery. To be fair, they have always been on the Motion Picture Score assembly since the film soundtrack was first released on vinyl, but they have never sounded right to my ears. We will come to them in due course.“We’re talking about a synthesiser that imitates other instruments. And it imitates them perfectly.”I’ve often thought of the shock that Carpenter must have had when Morricone first delivered some of this music. He would surely have mused that this was some form of joke. Carpenter, the king of minimalist thematic pulsing and droning texture, had recruited the undisputed master of orchestral colour and epic passion... and received from him, um, minimalist thematic pulsing and a droning texture. Be careful what you wish for, eh, John? Morricone, it turned out, did his homework and listened to Carpenter’s prior work and strived to capture the same distinctive quality of resonant, addictive beat and unsettling, searing plateaus of wavering mood evocation. But whereas Carpenter found his niche with synth, Morricone could ape this futuristic vibe with his traditional orchestra, stretching out the strings to glacial extremes and buffering such electrifying finesse with throbbing bass and seesawing cello. Solo violin, piano and church organ combine to manufacture a quasi-European zest, albeit one that has been put through the SF blender, and stripped of sentiment.
The film and the album open with the Carpenter/Howarth track Main Title. As the film’s opening credits play, simple, startling white on black, a long whining tone bends and holds against a thrumming bass line drone. The titles subside giving way to an obsidian star field, and then an alien spacecraft comes whizzing past us and strays into the Earth’s gravitational pull and flames-out in the atmosphere, whereupon it presumably crash-lands in ancient Antarctica to be frozen over for millennia. Immediately, this sounds like a John Carpenter score. In fact, fans should have no trouble discerning the JC moments from the bulk of the EM score as they all contain that distinctively fat old school synth hum. These interludes could easily fit into Escape From New York, Halloween II and III, Big Trouble in Little China or Prince of Darkness. In fact, The Thing’s synth texture and dark, ominous drone would be almost identical to the electronic darkness of Halloween III, which followed on immediately afterward.
And then the classic title burns through the screen, emulating the original 1951Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby black-and-white version except now with an eerie, unearthly blue/white incandescence ... and the ominous, dirge-like Main Theme begins. Entitled Desolation, this now-famous end-of-the-world ostinato gathers up all the cyclic doom that hangs over the story and serenades it with a metronomic heartbeat counterpointed by a sister-motif of two despondent notes that hang bleakly above a tundra of icy inevitability. Where Morricone used strings and mournful woods over a bed of electronica, this version is purely synthesised throughout, but you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. The delicacy of each sliding, sonorous note and the thick organic, though eminently frozen pitch that each theme and motif negotiates is rich and sinuous.
It pulsates like a human heartbeat, coupled with that of an alien imposter, chunnering along in a secondary beat, almost semi-mimicking its plaintiff humanity. A church organ adds an unusually ecclesiastical layer of reproach. This is something that the Roman Catholic Morricone would employ fairly often, its immediate liturgy bestowing a seriously browbeaten certainty to a scene that already looks beyond salvation. There is also something of a Morse Code-like tenacity to the unstoppable beat, maybe half-perished fingers tapping out a final warning for all to keep away. This is lent variety when the sustained two-note dirge motif strides resignedly over the top, like a figure marching off to oblivion – Scott of the Antarctic, say, making his final sojourn into the history books. The notes warble and float with a tremulous echo as the last surviving Norwegians pursue a lonely husky across the white wastes towards the American camp of Outpost 31, taking useless potshots at it from a helicopter.
Anybody who jumps on the bandwagon that refuses to give any credence to electronic re-recordings of classic scores really should climb back down again and hang their heads in shame. This is NOT a tinny, hollow and shiny digitisation at all. This sounds very, very much like the real thing – no pun intended – and perhaps even gains a degree of extra crystalline unearthliness in the process.“Coz he’s different from us, see. Coz he’s from Italy!”But the unthinkable happens even this early on when the Main Theme takes a severe detour from the filmic path into pure Morricone abstraction with track 3’s Humanity 2. The pace of the earlier dirge quickens and shifts up several gears, rising towards a clamorous crescendo that sounds like a mash-up of Thing-music with cherry-picked elements from Halloween. The rising crescendo is akin to Michael Myers’ final rampage in Halloween II, although calamitously speeded-up, with the chiming bell effect from both Halloween I and II thrown in for good measure, but heightened once again. The organ goes into overdrive and becomes a brutish musical thug, overpowering and arrogant and completely losing all of the queasy power it held before. I have to say that at this point I always skip ahead. I simply do not like the abrupt tonal shift and brusque jangling swagger that is suddenly adopted from the lurching strings – which is perfectly replicated here. Carpenter clearly couldn’t see where this strident, nerve-shattering cue could fit.
The dynamics of the piece are so alien to the rest of the score, so irredeemably at odds with the overall cadence of vast loneliness as to appear almost ridiculous. Even a genius like Morricone can make mistakes, it appears. But then, considering that the composer couldn’t speak English and Carpenter no Italian, the instructions and ideas were forever being bounced around via interpreters, and over the transatlantic phone to boot, with the tunesmith staying in Rome. Some impressions and conjectures were probably lost in translation. Morricone, typically, was scoring to the screenplay (which would be altered a fair bit after he decamped the production) and after seeing that rough cut and, therefore, running with mood and emotional design rather than scoring music directly to the movie. This was how he usually worked. He would craft his music in such a way that it could be cut down, swapped about and replaced in sequential order. A godsend to some, but potentially a new logistical nightmare to others who might struggle to adapt his repetitive themes to a linear storyline. Of course, this was precisely what Carpenter wanted, even if the actual style had caught him off-guard.
With this and other dislocated cues, his overall score for The Thing can, therefore, be viewed as an interesting voyage into a vastly different interpretation of events. Humanity 2, however, is just atrocious.
Reassuringly, track 4’s Despair brings us back to familiar territory. This takes place during the classic sequence when MacReady, along with Norris and Palmer (one or both of whom could well be Things by now) find the remains of the alien spacecraft in the ice melted by the Norwegians. Typically it is full of searing strings slung along a relentless path of wavering intensity, although as the trio discover the hole in the ice from which the Thing, itself, was excavated, trumpets wail a sombre fanfare of blighted revelation. This element could have been turned on a dime so as to sound triumphant – you can imagine a more heraldic version of it playing over the Norwegians, elated at their find (think of the group photo of them celebrating around the carved-out block of ice) – but Morricone keeps to a tragic trajectory, the fanfare sounding not unlike a spectacular death-knell for the Americans. Elation morphing into abomination.
Personally, I have always been a bit frustrated by this sequence. First of all, I firmly believe that Palmer is a Thing at this point, and was probably the first American to be assimilated if it is indeed supposed to be his shadow on the wall. If Norris is also infected, which would appear to be the case, then why not seize the occasion to take over Mac as well? He is certainly the greatest threat to the Thing’s survival. And even if it is just Palmer, it would still be able to command the situation and ensure that such a swift reacting danger to it is eliminated. Any story could be fabricated upon return. Let’s face it, Palmer is a helicopter pilot as well so there would be no eyebrows cocked if he flew the chopper back. And, secondly, these guys have found a flying saucer with an open hatch and they don’t investigate any further than standing on the roof deliberating how long it may have resided there in the ice. Plus, they would have been taking pictures or videoing it like the Norwegians did. As much as I love the scene, I think it is tonally and thematically inconsistent with the delivery and execution of the rest of the film.
However, tangentially, if indeed it is Norris who is a Thing, and his pretence at a heart-condition notwithstanding his arduous rope climbing into the crater, then could it be that he has come along purely to assess the damage to the spacecraft with a view to ascertaining its use as an escape vehicle? The wreckage could, therefore, be what instigates the building of the smaller craft beneath the tool-shed.“Watch Ennio. And watch him close, do you hear me?”Humanity (what is ostensibly part 1, this time) comes next in track 5. This is a fabulously eerie piece, the first sequence of which appears to denote the spooky investigation of the smouldering wreckage that was once the Norwegian camp. Forlorn and baleful tones shimmer amidst the destruction, the brash pilot and Dr Copper (Richard Dysart) witnessing the body of a frozen suicide and sundry evidence of the disaster that will soon befall them also. The second sequence embraces the sense of chilly unease, with delicate harp plucks, sliding strings and a repeating low tone that gathers depth as wailing brass emulations squall gently around it. Piano notes also put in an appearance. This second half was only partially used and at different junctures in the film, but it maintains the tone of increasing agitation and suspicion. I say “appears to” because a variation of this track is heard in track 8 as Solitude, and, to my ears, it is that cue that better fits the investigation of Thule Station, the Norwegian camp. However, if we are to take these tracks in film chronological order, then track 5 actually seems to play over the scene when Blair sits at his computer and watches a simulation of the Thing’s macro-biotic attack upon dog-cells, and then makes that momentous conjecture about global assimilation.
Perhaps this was the time Morricone lent Carpenter the notion that he would subsequently use in the film of cyclic music, of symmetrical return. In this instance it also plays over the following scene of Windows and Bennings moving the split-face remains into the store-room and Mac retrieving his own gear. There are subtle differences between the two cues, and both contain material that was omitted from the film, with the familiar creepiness of Solitude only coming in after a lengthy spell of piano-punctuated uncertainty for cruel, carving bass. Humanity has a more ponderous, perhaps more reflective rhythm, and this would make sense as Blair is simply sitting at a desk and tapping at a keyboard. (Just like me, in fact, and with the same music playing too!)
Shape, on the other hand, was never properly used in the film. It fits in well with the overall tonal schematic, however, smoothly blending in with what has gone before. Menacing low string sustains and a ghostly piano nudge against a jarring series of synth flutterings that sound like a variation upon on material heard when MacReady and Copper reveal the frozen mess of limbs and the split-face that they found in the snow outside the Norwegian camp. Shape is a good, solid track of nervous, shadowy glowering. The majority of it wasn’t used by Carpenter, with only the middle stretch familiar from the group survey of the hideous remains, but the early passage manages to convey dread and suspense very effectively. The final piano phrase is melancholy and fragile, the musical equivalent of watching, in vain, out of a snow-encrusted window for a long-lost companion to return. The entire track could have worked in the movie
When poor Bennings stays behind in the store-room, the remains get hungry and assimilate. After Windows returns and disturbs the process, he makes a runner outside the American compound with Macready and the others in hot pursuit. And, in Burn It, a Carpenter/Howarth track, the pursuit gets even hotter when they immolate the not completely transformed man with kerosene and a lit flare. There are sustains in Burn It that sound very similar to the wobbling synth effects that Barry De Vorzon crafted for Walter Hill’s classic urban thriller The Warriors, woozy and filtered with a disco warble.“Is that a tune in there? Or something ...?”Solitude, track 8, is primarily the music that accompanies the ghastly investigation at the Norwegian camp, parts of which have been heard in Humanity. This is a long piece that feels like an extended mix, but all the music that we hear in the film for this sequence is contained within its broad parameter of disconcertion. Incidentally, although the Salem’s Lot remake from 2002 was thoroughly wretched when compared to Tobe Hooper’s excellent 70’s adaptation, it boasted a fabulous score from Australian composer Christopher Gordon with haunting accompaniment from Latin-wailing uber-crooner Lisa Gerrard.
Elements of it were clearly inspired by Morricone’s icy use of strings and bass, with a couple of tracks sounding almost like continuations of The Thing’s music, especially the numbing dread of Solitude and Despair. After the first section of darkly delicate insinuation, there grows a wind-tossed sensuality to this cue – a sense of beautiful decay when the piano drifts against the sweeping, snow-spun strings. Listen to how the piano notes seem to circle about. And then, in the full rendition of the Norwegian camp passage, they slow to an echoing drip-feed of menace. It is impossible not to get chills as you hear this. At once fragile and vulnerable, and yet vast and corrupting.
Another non-Morricone moment comes in the nerve-jangling Fuchs. The scientist is left sitting in the dark when someone or someThing turns out the lights. Investigating this, Fuchs (Joel Polis) is startled when a large, dark figure rushes past his doorway accompanied by one of Carpenter’s beloved synth stingers. Intriguingly, MacReady has only just left the scientist and moved off down the corridor in the direction from which the shape lurches. I love this jarring stinger effect, but I wish the album had also managed to replicate the sizzling lightsabre sound for when the film’s title burns across the screen, as well. Again, dark low tones toil away as Fuchs dons his big overcoat and goes outside to chase down the stranger. More paralysing strains accompany his discovery of some shredded clothing left discarded in the snow... garments that bear the name of MacReady.
Frequently contested by fans, this element of the “shredded garments” is nothing more than a red herring – of which the film has several up its parka sleeve – leaving the real mystery as what actually happened to the scientist. His charred remains are found in the snow along with a spent flare. Only his twisted glasses identify the body. So who torched the biologist? Mac thinks he burned himself before the Thing could get to him, and some fans opt for the suicide approach because he flips out at the thought of the big tough MacReady, his most trusted companion, already being a foe, but I find both options to be highly unlikely. My guess is that he was destroyed because he was ploughing through Blair’s notes and coming to learn more of what made the Thing tick. Plus, he was possibly assimilated into the Blair-Thing’s biomass, but some of him left behind and incinerated to throw yet more suspicion and fear into the camp.“Funny things ... I hear funny hear things out here.”A telling line from the imitation Blair, perhaps?
And the pure Carpenter vibe continues with To Mac’s Shack in which MacReady makes the alarming observation that somebody has put the lights on in his remote dormitory situated away from the main camp, after he had turned them off the day before. A turning point has been reached in the film. After finding the burned remains of Fuchs, Windows is sent back to tell the others whilst MacReady and Nauls (T K Carter) proceed to probe the little haunted shack. Yet in what is often considered to be a continuity error, the lights were clearly off as Mac, Nauls and Windows traipsed up to see Blair in his tool-shed quarantine, and then on as they make their way back. Personally, I see no reason why whoever, or whatever has been up there to stuff some more incriminating garments behind Mac’s oil-furnace for Nauls to find upon his investigation of the shack with MacReady, has not simply just done the deed and then scarpered. It would be daft not to suspect that there are actually little “things” scuttling about on devious missions, other than the main three culprits. The blood sabotage is another prime example of the Thing’s stealth tactics.
Blair, himself, says in what could be just a diversionary remark that he hears “funny things” out there... or could he be telling the truth about the Thing-teams? If he has not, as some speculate, been taking over yet, then it must surely be one of these rogue scouts that infiltrates the tool-shed and assimilates him. Hmmm. Carpenter and Howarth score this moment with a droning not unlike some long-buried car-alarm emanating from under the ice. There is some slight wavering, an echoing chime effect that sounds dulled and subdued. This submerged wail folds only slightly, but the mood evoked is one of dread. Doubt and suspicion have already wrought damage amongst the group, but this situation will only be magnified upon Mac’s half-frozen return to a less-than-welcoming committee.
Wait, coming next,is a long track that boasts a lot of material heard in the film, although incorporated at different junctures. Piercing string sustains weave through the cold air as MacReady and Copper unveil their hideous cargo from the Norwegian camp. Carpenter removes some elements, but keeps the overall consistency of paralysing awe and revulsion that the assembled onlookers feel as they gawp at the spliced wreckage of combined tentacles and limbs, and the nightmarish split-face. Morricone built this into an epic piece of numbing wonderment and shock. Brass bleats over the top, closing-in on the string wafers that bind us and the Americans together in awe of makeup man Rob Bottin’s incredible tableau of grotesquery. If you look at the reactions of the men, Norris seems the least put-out. An ascending motif for soul-dredged bass and then violins and piano mark the Thing-dog balefully observing this development. A searing staircase of strings and brass juggle this tension towards the end of a wonderfully unsettling track.
I find it interesting that Morricone and Carpenter do not musically illustrate either the ferocious storm that traps the men, or the monster, itself. Contrast this with how Dmitri Tiomkin scored the fabulous 1951 adaptation from Hawks. Although Tiomkin utilised the uniquely ethereal and otherworldly warbling of the Theremin (alongside Bernard Herrmann for that year’s equally grandstanding SF epic The Day The Earth Stood Still), his far more traditional approach saw superbly evocative cues detailing the howling Arctic winds (the original film and score were, indeed, Poles-apart from the 1982 take) and the shock appearances of James Arness’ towering alien aggressor. It remains a stark and demanding example of how to musically capture the buffeting wind of an extreme location. Plus, it contains a fabulously skin-prickling passage illustrating the US airmen and scientists forming a circle around the alien saucer found buried in the ice that is one of classic SF’s greatest individual musical set-peices, Tiomkin peerlessly matching the visual revelation in pure showboating magnificence. Carpenter’s movie focuses on the psychological aspects of the conflict, rather than the actual action. To reinforce this, the big moments, the spectacularly gross Rob Bottin Thing-outs, are hardly scored at all.
Sound effects take over. This could well be because Morricone’s material for such moments just didn’t work, as I have pointed out. He is not a composer comfortable with wild short-bursts of activity and his cues in action films such as The Humanoid, Orca Killer Whale, The Island, Red Sonja, The Untouchables and State of Grace tend to be epic set-pieces in their own right that, although mightily entertaining, tend to sit on top of their respective scenes rather than actually propel them. A classical and symphonic approach that, once again, is tuned more towards the grand design of the plot rather than its individual chapters.
Marco Beltrami’s score for Matthjs Van Heljningen’s 2011 prequel to Carpenter’s film (I have reviewed both the film and the score extensively already) supplies a little nod in homage to Morricone’s Main Theme but is, again, like Tiomkin, focussed primarily on matching the onscreen action as closely as possible. It also delivers a special theme for the Thing, itself, in the form of an eerie sliding wail, not unlike a baleful siren, that makes the hackles rise. Both Tiomkin’s and Beltrami’s are excellent pieces of genre work and both, I should point out, far more conventionally scary than Morricone’s, which comes across as positively sedate in comparison in this regard.
Sterilization, track 12, is unusual and went unused. A meandering discourse of fractured, slightly playful synth notes and noodlings. Other effects hover around – electro-cymbal clashes and spasmodic warbles. Not terrible, like so many other unused elements, but it is hard to see where this would sit comfortably in the film. Eternity, again, is only to be found divorced from the events of the movie. But I like this track. The church organ is back with an alien resonance, scraping through a wilderness of glassy, shimmering synth. The essential heartbeat is back too, steered all the way through a lengthy piece by chimes that tingle and gleam, whilst buzzing electronica fumbles around like a vast bee in the machine. This is a terrific sound that is like that created when a comb wrapped in grease-paper is blown onto as a makeshift harmonica. A cunning track that peters-out after a surging tsunami from the organ, to leave only a singular percussive tapping.
Contamination is another terrific track that is only partially heard in the film. By now, MacReady appears to be the only human left in the camp and has been confronted in the generator room by the monstrous final guise adopted by the invader. The stop-motion Blair-Thing has erupted from beneath the floor of the basement and shanghaied the pilot’s Tex Avery-like detonator. As the ghastly conglomeration of meat and bone, some of which is recognisable as Blair and the dogs, and others an alien mass of tentacles and viscera, the music becomes a skin-crawling litany of string plucking. Cello and violin and mandolin jostle together amid a sound that can only be described as a dozen angry tarantulas unleashed upon the string-section. The full track is squirm-inducing, but Carpenter only utilised a very small portion of it, though to great effect. Perhaps this was inspired by Jerry Goldsmith, who delivered a similar fiddly string miasma for portions of his classic Alien score, notably when they investigate the derelict spacecraft. Joseph LoDuca also worked this skin-crawling magic in the The Evil Dead as a preamble for some nasty pencil-ankle interaction. Once again, the Howarth/Hopkins re-recording does this electrifying track justice, coming over with aural authenticity and arachnid animosity.“How much more of this crap is there?”
Uh-oh. What’s this in track 15, entitled Bestiality? Oh dear... it’s another of Morricone’s totally way-out doodlings that makes absolutely no sense in the overall thematic journey. Listen to this absurdity ... dee-dee-dee – deedle-deedle-dee – dee-dee-dee- - dee-dee-diiiiiii... and on and on from cello and bass whilst angular scythes of angst and a slapped piano slice and pound through in a rising crescendo of unadulterated musical discomfiture. It is akin to some slowed-down infernal jig that Warwick Davies’ Leprechaun might throw some shapes to. Just where did Morricone think this junk was going to go? I’ve heard, though cannot confirm, that it was initially supposed to play over the top of the Dogtown sequence in which the alien husky turns itself inside-out and takes on the pack of terrestrial canines – perhaps where the title comes in. But I can’t fathom quite how it would blend here, or anywhere else for that matter. Sadly, it is another appallingly bad track that should be programmed-out without a second thought. (Just my opinion, of course!)
Morricone and Carpenter end the film as they began it with the haunting Main Theme, playing now as The Main Theme - End Credit in a slightly alternate mix than before. The version that Howarth supplies for the BSX disc evolves a little further still, with an added percussive double-tap that inveigles another heartbeat into the sly, foreboding rhythm. Listen closely to the early part of this track as the beat first begins. There are tiny little SF noises for computers whirring and chattering in there. These can be heard deeper in, but are drowned-out by the relentless martial rhythm. It is a nice touch that I don’t think was evident on Morricone’s original track. The additional backbeat also helps to give this repeated theme some character of its own.
If anything, and if you can imagine such a thing, it actually sounds a tad more upbeat than before. Perhaps this is because the last we see of our hero – be he doomed to freeze to death, be assimilated by his arch-rival, Childs (Keith David), or be a bonafide threat to mankind – he is smiling. Ostensibly he is now at stalemate in the vital chess-game analogy of his duel with the Thing. Indeed, in the novelisation by Alan Dean Foster and the original screenplay from Bill Lancaster, he drags out a chess board for him and Childs to play on as the winds howl and the fires rage around the hellish wreckage of their own camp, recalling our first sight of him before all hells breaks loose. So, the story has turned full circle, and Morricone’s music ensures it is an iconic melding. Of course, Carpenter is the one who loves his films to be bookended in such a fashion. All of his golden classic run start and finish this way.“Nauls! Will you turn that crap down! I was shot today.”Whilst Billie Holiday’s Don’t Explain can be heard playing in the rec room, echoing the big band slow-swing heard in the Arctic camp in the ’51 movie, the incidental material that Carpenter supplied had some issues. Stevie Wonder’s super smooth Superstition was problematic when the film was first released on home video. Universal hadn’t quite secured the rights to the track, so it was substituted by The Four Tops’ One Chain Don’t Make No Prison. This has now been rectified, and the current US and UK BDs of the film have the original source track playing on Nauls’ ghetto blaster, much to the chagrin of the recently injured Bennings.A frostbitten verdictAlthough Morricone’s album is out of print, it can still be found, but I would simply elect to obtain the Howarth/Hopkins disc. It was a limited run of 1500 copies, but it is still available as a download from Amazon. A smart booklet of notes on the score and the production of this revisiting sweeten the deal on the hard copy. Yes, this is a purely synthesised re-recording, but that is absolutely no reason to avoid one of the best horror scores of the 80’s on this complete CD from BSX Records. You won’t find a greater devotee of Morricone than me, but I adore the early canon of Carpenter scores even more. What we have here, then, is the perfect amalgamation, or absorption, if you will, of Morricone and Carpenter, with the maestro assimilated by the minimalist tonal friezes of the cult filmmaker until the music of one becomes virtually that of the other.
The music for the film is excellent. But I cannot shy away from the fact that I believe some of Morricone’s unused material is simply dreadful and unfathomably “alien” from the rest of the score. Thankfully, Carpenter saw sense and evicted such tracks.
Whilst it would have been great to have Morricone’s original tracks here too, and aided and abetted by the Carpenter/Howarth additions, real fans will already have them on an earlier release – disc or vinyl . But here, on one disc, is the complete score with all the cues provided by both camps. And, crucially, it all sounds wonderfully crisp and sharp, clean and clear without sacrificing any authenticity or mood. In fact, with only one or two very slight exceptions, it sounds better than any previous release.
This is cold, bleak music with a dark sense of impending doom... yet it's also a shivery delight of spectral suspense and sepulchral beauty. Quite the best John Carpenter score that John Carpenter never wrote. And one “Frozen” score that no little girls will be singing along to!
Track Listing for John Carpenter’s The Thing (BSX Records)
1. Main Title* 1.45
2. Main Theme – Desolation 4.29
3. Humanity 22.42
4. Despair 4.46
5. Humanity 6.51
6. Shape 3.18
7. Burn it *1.27
8. Solitude 5.32
9. Fuchs *2.27
10. To Mac’s Shack *2.52
11. Wait 6.21
12. Sterilization 3.42
13. Eternity 5.26
14. Contamination 1.01
15. Bestiality 2.55
16. Main Theme – End Credit 4.34
Total Time 60.45
Original Score composed by Ennio Morricone except* Music by John Carpenter in association with Alan Howarth
You can buy John Carpenter’s The Thing – Music From The Motion Picture MP3 Here
You can buy John Carpenter’s The Thing – Music From The Motion Picture Audio CD Here
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