Quentin Tarantino recently announced to the press that his next film project may be a horror movie — which actually comes as no surprise, since his love of the genre comes across in many of his previous projects; for example, he’s often referred to DEATH PROOF as his own spin on familiar slasher movie tropes. But one horror film in particular has been repeatedly referenced, directly or otherwise, in more than one QT release: John Carpenter’s 1982 classic THE THING.
Quentin has previously cited Carpenter’s film as a heavy influence on his debut feature RESERVOIR DOGS, but with the arrival of epic western THE HATEFUL EIGHT, the homages are front-and-center for much of the film’s three-hour running time; in fact, the director proudly admits that EIGHT is essentially his own unique tribute to Carpenter’s film.
With that in mind, I decided to re-examine HATEFUL EIGHT in light of THE THING, with an eye toward story, mood, characters, themes, music, and everything else these two films have in common. I already knew a few easy-to-spot references, but I was surprised at how much connective tissue exists between them, and how deeply their shared themes intertwine like predatory alien tentacles. Here are five notable connections that stuck with me…
[Beware: possible spoilers ahead]
Obviously, it takes more than just a photogenic mug to make a truly iconic character, but you can’t deny Kurt Russell’s rugged visage speaks volumes about whatever role he’s in — often before he speaks a word of dialogue. By the late ‘70s, Russell was desperate to ditch his squeaky-clean Disney image, and convinced Carpenter he could fill the role of a misanthropic anti-hero originally intended for Charles Bronson: a brutal master criminal named Snake Plissken. For THE THING, Russell dialed back the Plissken edge a notch for the bucolic, hard-drinking pilot R.J. MacReady, who craves the isolation the Antarctic outpost easily provides. He’s not a man of action until things get ugly, but his general distrust of human beings comes in handy when an alien invader begins to assume the others’ identities.
That hard shell is even tougher to crack in HATEFUL EIGHT; although Russell’s bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth comes off as a jovial version of his earlier rugged roles (with a touch of his flinty Wyatt Earp in TOMBSTONE), there’s a lifetime of hard knocks behind that steel-blue squint and bottle-brush mustache which assures everyone in the room that Ruth is not a man to fuck with. When the film twists into its second half, however, Ruth is caught up in a nefarious web of deception every bit as lethal as that faced by MacReady. But while both men eventually stare ice-cold death in the face, I’d say MacReady comes out just a little luckier — at least as far as we can see on screen.
Along with just about every other movie-score fanatic out there, I was over the moon when I read Tarantino had signed this legendary composer to write new, original music cues for HATEFUL EIGHT. It’s a historic moment in QT history, as all of the director’s previous projects employed only source music and pre-existing score cues from the films which influenced his work — including Morricone’s cues from A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and tons more. While Morricone is best known for his scores to classic spaghetti westerns like THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, folks like us know him for his work in the horror and thriller genres — including, most famously, his original score for THE THING.
As it turns out, Tarantino had Morricone in mind for that specific reason, and was seeking the same dissonant, surreal and unsettling tone, rather than the more flamboyant melodic motifs from the composer’s western projects. As if that weren’t already too cool for school, QT commissioned three cues that Morricone had originally composed for THE THING, but which Carpenter had rejected. If you own the soundtrack album, you’ll know exactly which ones I mean: “Eternity,” “Despair” and “Bestiality.” In fact, the zig-zagging string motif of “Bestiality” features prominently in one of the film’s most shocking and pivotal scenes. I don’t know about you, but as a hardcore soundtrack junkie, I was tripping musical balls when that cue came up.
Winter as Character
I’m a sucker for any movie set against a snowy landscape, and horror films in particular (check out this list of literally chilling snowbound horror films for some interesting examples). Along with Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING, John Carpenter’s THE THING was partially responsible for instilling that fascination in me. Negative space, represented by a vast canvas of purest white, can feel more ominous and mysterious than the deepest, densest shadows. The opening scenes of each film set the stage with perfect intensity, even before we meet our cast of characters.
The frozen expanses of Alaska and Northwest British Columbia stand in for Antarctica in THE THING’s opening moments, the endless white broken only by the tiny form of a sled dog and the helicopter pursuing it for reasons yet unknown; while EIGHT’s snow-swept mountain vistas (shot in Colorado, but representing Wyoming) unfold slowly before our eyes long before the horizon is broken by an approaching stagecoach. Our brains are searching for shelter, because we know a storm is coming. When it finally arrives, trapping our characters in an isolated outpost, be it U.S. Station 31 or Minnie’s Haberdashery, we’re forced to huddle down with them against the external enemy howling at the door… and it’s only a matter of time before the even deadlier enemy within begins to show itself.
Isolation, Suspicion and Paranoia
With the monstrous blizzard temporarily outside the door, our characters begin to turn their attention toward one another — especially once it’s established that more than one of their number isn’t quite who he appears to be. The walls quickly close in as the characters circle each other, pointing accusatory fingers… and before long they’re also pointing guns, knives, flares, flamethrowers, and anything else they can get their frost-bitten hands on.
It comes down to a single character to step into the role of de facto leader — in THE THING, it’s MacReady; in HATEFUL EIGHT, the task falls on Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren. Both men gain their strength from the same source: they’re level-headed enough to keep eyes and ears open for clues. While Warren’s awareness comes from a position of neutrality and razor-sharp intuitive skills, MacReady learns the hard way how to find the impostors in their midst. They finally achieve results by brutally questioning the others — in THE THING, this comes in the form of the notorious “blood test,” while in HATEFUL EIGHT the interrogation is enforced by hot lead from Warren’s revolver.
Whether it’s in the shape of a scientific outpost or a rustic frontier cabin, what we’ve got here is a tight kettle on the boil… and it’s only a matter of time before shit goes bang. In Carpenter’s film, the intruder is forced out into the open by MacReady’s highly effective blood test, we see it’s fully capable of fighting back when threatened… and the results are not pretty. In no time at all, the cast is reduced to a mere handful of proven humans, who quickly realize there’s no way out except a head-on suicide action.
In Tarantino’s interpretation, this process is even more grueling, once the circle of suspects is quickly and violently narrowed down by the judicious poisoning of the last pot of coffee. There’s little time for planning here, as the resulting chaos leaves every remaining character riddled with bullets and bleeding out by the second. We all basically saw it coming, of course — but much like THE THING, we never imagined it would unfold on such a colossal scale. Before the final curtain, both films leave us on an intimate, subdued coda, focusing on the last two survivors — two men whose fates are virtually sealed.