Today on the Research Log we’re traveling all the way down to Outpost #31 in the tundra of Antarctica to analyze the story structure of my all-time favorite horror movie– John Carpenter’s classic film THE THING. As always we used the Storyclock Notebook to visualize the film’s structure in the form of a clock.
Let's Break It Down
SPACE. The final frontier. A spaceship flames past the camera and hurdles towards Earth. The Thing’s iconic title design fills the entire screen.
The freezing cold tundra of Antarctica. American science research station outpost #31. RJ MacReady sits alone in his shack, playing chess against a computer and getting drunk. We can already tell he longs for more excitement in his life. He loses the game of cheese, accuses the computer of cheating, and pours his whiskey into it.
A helicopter from a Norwegian station zooms over the frozen tundra chasing a husky. A man pulls out a rifle and starts shooting at the snow dog with truly terrible aim. The helicopter lands and the pilot accidentally blows it and himself up. The other Norwegian wields his rifle and continues to shoot at Snowdog.
The crew from Outpost #31 comes out to see the commotion and the Norwegian shoots one of them. Gary (the head of the camp) kills the Norwegian with his pea shooter. We then get to know the gang that works at the research station.
Copper tries to get Mac to fly the helicopter to the Norwegian’s research station to investigate why they were trying to kill the dog. Mac doesn’t want to go because of an incoming storm, but decides to go anyways.
Rational Approach & Failure
There is something very suspicious about Snowdog. He lurks around the Outpost quietly examining the gang. He walks towards a room with a silhouetted figure and enters...
Copper and Mac get to the Norwegian outpost and it is burned to a crisp with no survivors. They find bodies that have been horrifically murdered. MacGready also finds a strange ice carving. Something has been taken from it but they don’t know what. Mac and Copper walk outside to find some... THING. It looks sort of human, but also sort of alien. And it has been cooked well-done.
They bring The Thing back and Mac & The Gang™ (not to be confused with a 70’s funk/soul band) examine it. Blaire does an autopsy and finds out although it looks alien, it’s internal organs are definitely human.
As The Gang hangs out in the rec room, the Snowdog bothers Bennings. He tells Clark to put it in the pen with the other dogs. When Clark does this, Snowdog reveals it’s true identity… it’s a DOG THING. It tears itself open and starts to spew acid and wraps it’s tentacles around the other dogs.
Acceptance & Break into Act 2
Mac & The Gang enter the dog pen with guns-a-blazing. They see the disgusting Dog Thing morphing and evolving and sucking the other dogs into itself. Childs eventually shows up with the flamethrower (that weapon is the true hero of the film) and incinerates Dog Thing to ashes, just after a part of it escapes into the rafters.
After the incident, Blair examines… how do I say this… the remaining parts of the dogs that were in the kennel. He finds out that The Thing was trying to absorb the other dogs and imitate. Blair discovering more and more about the species and his descent into madness is the B story.
Trailer Moments/Promise of the Premise:
The Gang watches the footage that Mac found at the Norwegian camp. They learn that the Norwegians had found a huge mysterious object in the ice and blew up the ice with charges to get to it.
Blair now knows that the creature can make imitations, and he starts to grow suspicious of everyone, losing trust in The Gang. He questions Clark knowing that he had the most time alone with Dog Thing.
Mac, Norris, and Glasses head to the site where the Norwegians were planting the charges. They find the huge alien ship (from the opening image) and discover it had been there for thousands of years. The Gang discusses what might have happened but nobody really knows. It all seems incredibly farfetched.
Blair runs more tests using science things. This incredibly smart computer tells him that there’s a 75% that one of the people at the camp has been infected by The Thing. It also tells him that if The Thing escaped to the mainland, that it would overtake the entire population within a certain amount of hours. I don’t remember what the number was, but it was incredibly scientific.
The Gang doesn’t know yet that the dead Things aren’t really dead. Poor Bennings is in a room with one and gets killed and imitated.
Meanwhile, Glasses asks Mac to meet him outside. He tells him that he’s been reading Blair’s notebooks and Blair seems absolutely crazy. The second their conversation ends, Windows runs out screaming that Bennings got got by The Thing. .
They run in the room and the window is broken– they chase and find The Thing almost done imitating Bennings, in this weird in between state. They do the deed, and Bennings Thing goes up in flames. They understand why and what happened at the Norwegian outpost now.
In the midpoint, Blair goes nuts. This is where he murders the rest of the dogs and cuts off The Gang’s ability to travel or communicate with the outside world. As he destroys the radio equipment, he tries to bludgeon or shoot anyone that gets in his way. Eventually The Gang stops him and locks him in his shack. Blair tells Mac to not trust Clark.
Shadow Gains The Upper Hand
The Gang has now lost the ability to communicate with the outside world. They are all alone in the freezing tundra.
Trust is disappearing among the group. Copper suggests doing a blood serum test, and when they go to get the blood, it’s been tampered with. Gary is the only one with the key. This sows division in the group, and Gary gives up leadership of the group to our boy MacReady.
Glasses continues to investigate Blair’s work. While he’s outside, he finds Mac’s shirt ripped to shreds, indicating that he might be a Thing… but then Glasses goes missing. Mac, Nauls, and Windows go out searching for him. What they find is his charred body.
Worst Fears Realized
Mac and Nauls have been gone for to long, so The Gang starts locking and boarding up all of the entrances and exits. Nauls comes back alone, and shows the group Mac’s ripped up shirt. They all agree that he is probably a Thing.
Mac breaks in through a window though, a threatens to blow up the whole compound if they don’t stop pointing their weapons at him. No one can trust anyone anymore. Norris, who has been acting strange, falls down on the ground in what appears to be a heart attack.
Copper holds the defibrillator and tries to bring back Norris. But then, in a scene that is forever among the ranks of other great infirmary horror scenes, Norris’ chest opens up and eats Copper. Norris evolves into The Thing and Mac burns the hell out of ‘em.
Hero's Final Push
The “final push” actually comes after the game over in this story. After taking out Norris Thing, Mac comes up with his big plan. The blood test. He ties the entire gang up and begins to heat up their blood. It’s revealed that Palmer is actually a Thing! Windows is supposed to burn it, but hesitates in fear.
Mac eventually incinerates Palmer Thing, and then finishes off what would eventually have become Windows Thing. After killing them, Mac finishes the test and we know who in the group is officially still human: Mac, Childs, Gary, and Nauls.
Breakthrough and Rebirth/Break Into Act 3
Mac & The Remaining Gang™ (minus Childs) go to the shack where Blair is being kept to administer the blood test plan. When they get to the shack, Blair is gone and there is a hidden tunnel under the floorboards. They find an alien ship similar to the one they found at the Norwegian research base. Turns out Blair was a baddie all along! In typically MacReady fashion, he blows the spaceship and the shack to smithereens.
Hero Gains Upper Hand
Mac accepts that The Gang won’t be making it out alive, but they’re going to make sure The Thing doesn’t get out alive either. He hatches a plan to set the entire Outpost ablaze to burn out The Thing and not let it freeze.
They go down to the generator room to find it’s… missing.
Shadow's Final Push
Good ole’ Gary is attacked by a menacing Blair-Thing. While Nauls is helping Mac set charges, he walks off into the dark to investigate. A truly horror movie thing to do. Mac is left alone, when suddenly from below him THE THING arrives. It takes the detonator and it seems to be the end for our hero.
MacReady is an action hero, and gets to his TNT in time to destroy The Thing. Mirroring his chess game in the beginning of the film, he shouts a mean insult at The Thing and blows it up with dynamite.
New Normalcy/Final Image
Outpost #31 is up in flames, burning down just like the Norwegian camp did just days prior. Mac, covered in a blanket and carrying around his trademark bottle of booze, sits down and rests. Childs arrives with his flamethrower. When Mac asks where he had been, he says he was looking for Blair. They are weak, cold, and broken, and will most likely die out in the cold before the sun comes up. Is Childs a Thing? Is Mac one? They don’t know, and are too tired to even think about it.
- Mac curses out his computer for beating him at chess and destroys it / Mac curses out The Thing and blows it up
- Mac and Copper finds out the Norwegian camp burned to the ground / Mac burns Outpost #31 to the ground
- Snowdog is revealed to be The Thing / Norris is revealed to be a thing
Lots of Characters
One thing I loved about reading The Thing’s screenplay was that writer Bill Lanchester put the cast of characters and the setting of the story right at the beginning. It’s a super fun and easy way to distinguish and differentiate the ensemble cast of characters. You don’t see screenplays laid out like this often, but I kind of love it. In the final film, within 15 minutes of the movie starting we know these characters, their roles at the camp, and their unique personalities.
This has nothing to do with the story structure of the film, but if you get a chance, do yourself a favor and look up the storyboards to The Thing. Incredible sketches that could easily stand on their own as a graphic novel of sorts. And while you’re at it, pick up a Storyboard Workbook so you can storyboard on your own projects.
John Carpenter’s The Thing is a masterclass in building tension and then releasing that tension with huge incendiary devices. If you’re looking for a great film to study when it comes to building distrust and paranoia in an ensemble cast, mixing genres like black-comedy + sci-fi + horror, or groundbreaking visual effects, look no further.