IMPORTANT – this article contains not only spoilers, but links to clips that some people may find disturbing or frightening (it’s about a horror film, after all). Please proceed with caution!
Among John Carpenter’s substantial corpus (corp’s(e)?) of work as a director not only of horror, but a great many other fine genre movies, his 1982 alien creature feature The Thing is something of an anomaly. For one, following a previously unbroken a streak of commercial (if not always critical) hits – the more independently financed Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween and The Fog, and the bigger-budget dystopian action thriller Escape from New York – the film was, at least at first, a resounding failure, making minimal profits on its budget and promptly losing Carpenter the major studio backing from Universal Pictures he had only just recently secured, leaving him, somewhat like its survivors, adrift in the (Hollywood) wilderness. On an artistic level, it also bucks the trend prominent in Carpenter’s back catalogue of the director (for both artistic and financial reasons) scoring his own films, often with the aid of his long-time musical collaborator Alan Howarth. (This practice would continue long after the release of The Thing and would, indeed, lead later to Carpenter pursuing a side career as a musician, including two studio albums of Lost Themes released last year.)
For a variety of reasons – the time constraints that necessitated outside involvement, the pressure placed on Carpenter by Universal to secure a big name to reflect the increased budget, his own admiration of the man’s music and his firm belief that he was the only man for the job – he and producer Stuart Cohen approached Ennio Morricone, whose attachment to a horror film, especially one with such graphic imagery as The Thing, might certainly have raised eyebrows among Western audiences familiar with his music chiefly through his iconic scores for Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. On the contrary, Morricone had, for his part, already proven himself to be a flexible and versatile film composer, contributing scores not only for a slew of so-called giallo pulp thriller/horror films in his native Italy (many for the undisputed king of the genre, Dario Argento), but also for Italian- and English-language comedies, dramas and art films.
What makes Morricone’s involvement particularly curious, then, is more the fact that he is there at all, and indeed, Carpenter’s influence and musical aesthetic is never far from the surface. In his blog The Original Fan, devoted to production stories and recollections from the making of The Thing, producer Stuart Cohen describes the imprecise and rather rushed nature of his and Carpenter’s limited collaboration with Morricone. The two were forced to pick a miniscule two-day window in the composer’s busy schedule to fly to Rome and discuss the project in person, while Carpenter, anxious that his intentions for the music might not be accurately conveyed in the back-and-forth of interpreters that was subsequently required, attempted to approximate them for Morricone in musical form on the piano.
Quite how successfully this was conveyed in Morricone’s subsequent suite of work, which Carpenter then cut and reassembled for use in the film, varies between accounts. While Cohen surmises that the initial meeting was something of a success and that ‘Morricone had understood John perfectly’, Alan Howarth stated in a 2011 interview that Carpenter felt portions of Morricone’s score to be ill-suited to the film. Carpenter himself is also on the record as saying that he found some of Morricone’s original submissions to be too present and overt – in the words seemingly of Emperor Josef from Amadeus, he also described his original title track as having ‘too many notes’ – and consequently worked with the composer to modify the score to better match his specifications: in Howarth’s words, to ‘have him imitate John Carpenter’. Indeed, to this end, many selections from Morricone’s “suite” that made it into the final version of the film are drastically cut, and three – “Bestiality”, “Eternity” and “Despair” – are omitted entirely, replaced in part by simple electronic cues scored by Carpenter and Howarth that help greatly in contextualising The Thing amongst Carpenter’s overall body of work.
While Carpenter also emphasised his wish to remain faithful to Morricone’s vision as well as his own (‘in no way was I trying to compete with Ennio’s score’, he claimed in the same source, ‘The score is his’), his judiciousness in adapting and trimming Morricone’s score arguably brings it more into line with the story and style of the film itself. While the creature’s repulsive incarnations may be the viewer’s abiding visual memory of the film, providing the horror element of immediate loathing and revulsion, it is The Thing‘s sense of pacing that makes it a truly terrifying cinematic experience, with the men’s isolation, paranoia and mutual distrust allowed to take centre stage and crank up the dramatic tension like a vice grip, to which the monster’s various appearances provide something more like relief. True to form, the soundtrack is often conspicuous by its sparseness or even total absence; of the monster’s six major appearances, for example, three, including the first transformation in the kennel and MacReady’s climactic final showdown, are underscored by an ominous low synth drone that neatly intensifies the feelings of dread while without drawing dramatic focus away from SFX designer Rob Bottin’s nightmarish creations. Similarly, the discovery (and disposal) of the partially assimilated Bennings, the first on-screen instance of human imitation, takes place over a sustained church organ chord whose liturgical overtones lend the otherwise unworldly and frightening scene the sense of a grotesque apotheosis.
Meanwhile, arguably the two most dramatic and intense of these – the equally (in)famous “chest-chomping” and blood test scenes – both of which involve the dispatchment (either by death or transformation) of multiple characters, are completely unscored, with the ear being drawn immediately to the grotesque vocal and sound effects; the sound is so vivid one can almost visualise the rubber and latex (or, in the context of the narrative, the endlessly reformed human tissue) being physically stretched and reshaped as the camera rolls. In contrast, Marco Beltrami’s score for the 2011 prequel, while suitably effective for what is in essence a very different type of horror film from the original, is often an unfortunate accomplice in the commonly-felt criticism that it lacks the subtlety and nuance of Carpenter’s version, with the musical cues, especially in similar scenes involving multiple fatalities, communicating unequivocally to the viewer that they should, to quote David Cronenberg’s later body-horror classic The Fly, ‘be very afraid’.
The film’s iconic “Humanity II” theme perfectly encapsulates this aesthetic, being perhaps the clearest example of the “Morricone magic” of Cohen’s account (albeit with Carpenter’s suggestions for simplification), and also reflects in many ways the film’s creeping inexorability that keeps the viewer so transfixed throughout. For one, it is built almost entirely around doggedly repetitive melodic and rhythmic figurations that never let up and emphasise for the viewer that there is no escape from the apocalyptic scenario depicted.
Alongside the constant repetition evident in its instantly recognisable, chillingly simple “heartbeat” motif, the synthesiser lines that enter on top create a strophic 12-bar form (four phrases of three bars each) that then itself cycles round and round in a manner reminiscent of a Baroque ground bass, with the crucial difference that the only variation is that of timbre and register, effectively heightening the dramatic tension whilst providing no obvious trajectory for it. Additionally, the piece’s multiple entries serve to underscore the sense of futility in the researchers’ efforts to defeat the creature. Following the opening title, for example, the action shifts from the icy bleakness of deep space, expertly rendered through Morricone’s use of timbre and harmony in the far more orchestral “Humanity I”, to the equally icy bleakness of the Antarctic, around which the “heartbeat” motif seems to reverberate endlessly, as a Norwegian helicopter vainly pursues the disguised dog-monster that sets the film’s chaos in motion.
It then reappears later on as MacReady and the other survivors, aware of their almost inevitable fate, dynamite the base in the hope of taking the Thing down with them, and then again at the very end as the exhausted MacReady, having supposedly destroyed the last remaining creature, witnesses Childs mysteriously re-emerge from the snowstorm, continuing over the closing credits. This moment provides further proof of Carpenter’s contribution to the soundtrack’s overall effectiveness. At around the halfway point of the full seven-plus-minute version included on the film’s soundtrack album, Morricone’s composition, much like the film’s monsters, suddenly “transforms” into something much more energetic (4’26”), ramping up the volume and allowing the quietly meandering mood to erupt in a peal of church organ chords and more agressively metronomic synthesiser accompaniment. Carpenter’s editing, however, omits this section to leave the accumulating tension unresolved, an effect far better suited to the ambiguity of the film’s ending, as the viewer is left unsure as to whether either of the two remaining survivors are still human.
While such touches are undoubtedly important for the reception of the film from a cinematic point of view, this “uncharacteristic” transition, and indeed the full symphonic suite included on the original soundtrack release, does highlight an important and extremely intelligent facet of Morricone’s score that is unfortunately lost in its ultimate on-screen treatment. In his superlative review of the recent complete soundtrack album for The Thing, which includes Carpenter and Howarth’s extra additions and the truncated versions of Morricone’s work as heard in the film, AVForums’ Chris McEneany describes Morricone’s method as a ‘classical and symphonic approach…tuned more towards the grand design of the plot rather than its individual chapters’. Rather than limiting itself to underscoring individual moments, as Carpenter and Howarth and indeed Beltrami do to great effect, Morricone weaves the very essence and themes of the film into his overall composition process, allowing it to develop and linger much as the drama and tension do on-screen.
This is reflected just as much in the composition of “Humanity II” as in its usage. As well as the appearance alongside the “heartbeat” motif of a second similar figure – in McEneany’s words, ‘that of an alien imposter…almost semi-mimicking its plaintiff humanity’ – the manner in which the harmony of the overlying synth lines gradually expands outwards from the extremely close interval of a major second to a minor seventh (see the figure below) is in itself an effective musical analogue for the creature in a variety of ways. For one, especially when heard over the end credits, the combination of the slow and minimal melodic motion of the two voices, moving either in single tones or semi-tones, with the muted timbre of the synthesisers creates an eery yawning sound redolent of the monster’s grotesquely distorted vocalisations, especially the howls of pain as its offshoots are variously incinerated. Additionally, the gradual descending motion of the lower line, heard against the repeated C-D-flat motif in the upper voice which it thus continuously reharmonises, creates a harmonic “shape” that is at once constantly changing and yet, especially over the F-C pedal in the bass, also distantly recognisable and static – a dangerous quality when compared with the Thing’s expert powers of imitation. As this ostinato repeats, gaining in intensity as its filter envelope is modified, a second similar motif enters in between the various phrases, this time on a shimmering church organ, further strengthening the notion of the creature’s growing dominance.
This is equally true in other portions of Morricone’s score. “Humanity I”, for example, slowly germinates and builds almost exclusively from the simple semi-tonal motif heard at the very opening (and later recapitulated in “Humanity II”), extending outwards and gaining in complexity in a manner that suggests not only the organic multiplication of cells through mitosis but also, given the context of the film, the alien’s voracious capacity for assimilating its victims and then taking over and imitating this same process. While this is most obvious in terms of harmony, as no sooner is the home key (such as it is) of F minor established than it is immediately destabilised by a simple chromatic movement elsewhere, it is reflected in the orchestration too; following the initial phase of expansion in the strings and harp, a similar “block” of sound begins in the woodwinds, with clarinets and bassoons descending as the strings continue to rise.
“Solitude”, meanwhile, heard in part during the initial investigation of the ill-fated Norwegian camp, begins with a series of parallel minor thirds in the strings that would not be out of place in a Shostakovich symphony and which is then imitated in fugato form first in the upper and then in the lower registers to create a seething, writhing mass over which muted trumpets and piano solemnly intone jagged, semi-tonal lines. Even the refreshing sense of pace established by the repeating piano chords has an air of incessantness and madness about it, something which at the same time does little to disrupt the whirlpool of swirling strings underneath. A similar idea occurs in “Wait”, beginning this time with distant, muted French horns before upper woodwinds and strings compound the texture, to then be punctuated by sinister low-register piano tone clusters and sustained chords in the low brass. This idea then recapitulates around halfway through, first in the strings and then in the rest of the orchestra, and the way in which the various melodic lines overlap and criss-cross each other both harmonically and rhythmically results in a sprawling, atonal mesh that is perfectly suited to the accompanying sequence, as MacReady and Copper unveil the ghastly “split-face” creature recovered from the Norwegian camp.
Ultimately, while its splicing together (in many respects, quite literally through Carpenter’s editing) of electronic and orchestral sounds and the various musical contributions of Morricone, Carpenter and Howarth may have contributed somewhat to its nomination for Worst Original Score at the 1982 Razzie awards, the composite nature of The Thing‘s soundtrack is arguably an utterly appropriate counterpart for its shape-shifting antagonist. By turns familiar and spine-chillingly alien, futuristic and grounded in the present, it furthermore plays an important role in transporting the War of the Worlds-esque ending of Christian Nyby’s original The Thing from Another World, with its parting warning of “Keep watching the skies” signalling more of a reprieve for humanity than a victory, into the far more pessimistic present. Indeed, with the incessant pulse of Morricone’s digital heartbeat in “Humanity II”, one is reminded of the computer simulation run by the station biologist Blair, which grimly predicts the assimilation of all life on Earth within little over three years should the Thing ever reach civilisation. On a musical level, at least, the end of humanity is not only imminent in Carpenter’s version – it has already begun.