1982’s The Thing is arguably the finest film from celebrated director John Carpenter (yes, it’s better than Halloween) but more than that, it’s one of the most skin-crawlingly claustrophobic horror movies ever made. Itself a remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World, Carpenter’s version skews closer to John W. Campbell’s original story, Who Goes There, drawing on a terrifying, insidious idea: that of an alien creature which can disguise itself within a human body. Horror movies have always been able to exploit themes of identity but The Thing does it magnificently well. As the creature infects a remote research station in Antarctica, it doesn’t take long for the assorted workforce (all men) to turn on one another. After all, how do they know who is human? Star Kurt Russell gives a typically sturdy performance and he’s backed by a wonderfully paranoid ensemble including Wilford Brimley and Keith David. And then of course there are the spectacularly revolting creature effects from Rob Bottin: contorting and twisting and flailing to such a hideous extent that it’s no wonder the film’s characters are so terrified.
Interestingly, Carpenter didn’t compose his own score for the film (at least not in full). Seeking a ‘European’ sound for The Thing, Carpenter made the unexpected decision to hire celebrated Italian maestro Ennio Morricone. Carpenter’s own scores worked wonders in the past (the repetitious, minimalistic Halloween soundtrack brilliantly mimicked the relentless nature of Mike Myers himself) but a Morricone score promised something truly special. Morricone has reputedly composed over 400 scores during his tenure but, in spite of the many genres he has covered, is most closely associated with the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and others. But he has an experimental, avant-garde side that has surfaced in his scores for horror master Dario Argento (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage saw Morricone compose a wonderfully creepy hybrid of lullaby and jazz) and in segments throughout much of his other work. He was therefore an ideal, if unusual, choice to score The Thing.
Even so, it wasn’t a completely happy collaboration. Despite composing a substantial amount of challenging orchestral material, Morricone found that most of his work was ignored, and the one track that closely simulated Carpenter’s own electronic style was foregrounded during several key moments. That track (entitled Humanity Part II on the album featured in this review) is the piece most commonly associated with the theatrical cut of the film, a moody series of throbbing electronic pulses that speak of doom and despair. Its most famous application is in the film’s ominous opening sequence, as a dog is pursued across the snowy landscape by gun-toting Norwegians. Carpenter has since admitted than he added several textural moments of electronic music himself to flesh out key scenes in the film.
Other tracks were chopped and edited or otherwise discarded completely but there’s no denying that the score as heard in the film is quite brilliantly effective. Actually, on listening to the score on its own, one wonders whether much of it would have worked in the film at all – Carpenter relies so much on atmosphere and silence to generate a sense of dread that the music would likely have got in the way. It’s perhaps best then to look at the score CD as a concept album of sorts – something which could have been. On the album, the score is arranged into several lengthy suites which, for the most part, create a sense of creeping unease rather than outright terror. Never does the score spill into clichéd orchestral stinger territory – Morricone is far too accomplished a composer for that. The first of the two Humanity tracks begins the score: high register strings snaking over prickly harp scales and a subdued woodwind arrangement. The adjective that comes to mind (appropriately) is icy.
The second track, Shape continues in much the same vein, introducing a solemn piano undercurrent into the mixture. Contamination is quite superb: a whole mass of pizzicato strings overpowering the listener and making them feel like an alien being is infecting their skin. After this despondent opening, the sense of rhythmic desperation increases in Bestiality, reflecting the paranoia that is overtaking the film’s characters. Solitude brings in the sense of isolation once again – Morricone’s ability to reflect the landscape in musical terms is terrific. Eternity is the score’s big concession to the classic sci-fi soundtracks of old, as a doomy organ rhythm gains in volume and anxiety over the course of 5 minutes. Again, whether it would have worked in the film is anyone’s guess but it’s brilliant music anyway. The following piece Wait is used fantastically well in the film – as the characters examine the twisted corpse from the Norwegian base – and on album, it’s just as effective.
The aforementioned Humanity Part II then follows before Sterilization re-introduces the organ prior to the cold, chilling finale in Despair (which does what it says on the tin). It’s remarkable how clearly delineated Morricone’s musical journey is: starting with a sense of claustrophobia, moving through the alien infection and outbreak, and ending on a sense of pessimistic uncertainty. Very few film composers would dare take such an intellectual approach to a horror movie (and indeed Morricone’s vision clearly didn’t gel with Carpenter’s) but then Morricone isn’t your average composer. It’s also a brave move to compose a score almost entirely devoid of humanity (despite the irony of the track titles). It’s a washed out, eerie score but nonetheless one that is musically varied and stimulating. Not an easy listen by any means but an impressive work nonetheless. Unfortunately, the 1991 Varese Sarabande pressing of Morricone’s score (upon which this review is based) has gone out of print, although bootlegs of the (allegedly) complete score do circulate. The album reaches high prices on Amazon’s secondary market, though it is worth trying these links on Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.