Great moments in swearing: You gotta be fuckin’ kidding

It’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.

Mention swearing in films and the focus tends to fall on quantity: which film is the sweariest, how many fucks are there, what’s that per minute, and so on. But this is ultimately trivial; I find the quality of curses more interesting. One cult classic that’s less sweary than you’d expect but puts its strong language to memorable effect is The Thing.

John W. Campbell’s story ‘Who Goes There?’ was first adapted for film in 1951 as The Thing From Another World, a quirky B-movie with a flavour of Cold War distrust. Though this adaptation offers wit and melodrama, it feels inescapably quaint to modern audiences, and suffers from that era’s technical constraints. The more obviously a monster is just a person in a suit, the harder it is to suspend disbelief – that goes for the actors too.

By the 1980s this had all changed. John Carpenter, a fan of Campbell’s story (The Thing From Another World is seen playing on a television in Halloween) was going through a purple patch when he was hired to direct a lean new script of The Thing written by Bill Lancaster, son of Burt. Spoilers follow below.

The Thing - S.O.B.

The opening scene proper of Carpenter’s film draws viewers in like a hunter’s trap. Antarctica, Winter 1982 reads the caption before a helicopter lurches across a vast snowscape, chasing a dog towards a remote research station. Context, atmosphere and mystery are quickly established.

The Thing - this motherfucker

The film isolates a dozen men in a dire predicament where cabin fever is soon the least of their worries. The monster they meet in the ice quickly undermines their normal interaction, or what passes for it in a polar outpost where the only hint of femininity is the voice of an electronic chess player – a machine soon grumpily soaked in whiskey. The radio fares little better:

The Thing - haven't been able to reach shit

The authenticity of the polar setting and the intense (if roughly sketched) mood help ground the film’s outlandish special effects. The creature’s elaborate grotesquery was state-of-the-art and wholly organic, made of foam rubber, latex, mayonnaise, assorted mechanics and goo. It holds up remarkably well today. So when Palmer sees a particularly eye-popping incarnation of the Thing scuttling across the floor, we share his astonishment as he drawls his immortal line:

The fuckin’ in “You gotta be fuckin’ kidding” is surplus to compositional meaning but crucial to the moment and the encounter. Its trochee supplies essential force to the line’s measured disbelief, extending Palmer’s (and by extension the group’s) appalled bewilderment at the boggling form of their alien enemy.

The Thing - voodoo bullshit

Once the creature’s nature as a shape-shifter is deduced, the group’s fear and aggression escalate rapidly. Panic and alienation rip through the paranoid microclimate, turning camaraderie and truces into expletive-laced hostility.

The Thing - tied to this fuckin' couch

For a while no one, including viewers, knows who is human. Encroaching on the squabbles and anxieties are the elements themselves: outside, a storm is picking up. Things are about to get a whole lot fucking worse.

The Thing - cut the bullshit

The Thing wasn’t quite a flop on release, but it took time to find its audience and revolted many viewers along the way. Having to compete with E.T. didn’t help: moviegoers favoured Spielberg’s reassuring fantasy and its friendly, healing alien over Carpenter’s uncompromising film with its downbeat tone, horrifying Thing, and obliquely apocalyptic vision.

The Thing - Geez this is bullshit

Few horror films of any age generate such an enjoyable sense of menace and claustrophobia and such a fantastically frightful monster. Its macho ensemble delivers a handful of fucks and screws, several shits and bullshits, some blasphemies and coy euphemisms (geez [i.e., Jesus], S.O.B.), lots of damns and a motherfucker or two. But what the cursing lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in emphatic and dramatic effect.

The Thing - weird and pissed off GIF

Update:

The Paris Review follows up on this post, with Dan Piepenbring commenting: “an utterance in John Carpenter’s The Thing helped define our sense of a treasured obscenity”.

Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog quotes the same paragraph in its generous review of Strong Language.

8 thoughts on “Great moments in swearing: You gotta be fuckin’ kidding

  1. John Kelly December 16, 2014 / 1:15 pm

    Probably my favorite Carpenter flick–for all its fright, atmosphere, and, yes, fuck’s.

    Like

    • Stan Carey December 16, 2014 / 1:52 pm

      I think it’s mine too, John, followed by Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13. Peter Nicholls applauded it in Fantastic Cinema: An Illustrated Survey, which was published a couple of years after the film came out. He predicted that the film:

      may prove to be one of the great milestones in fantastic cinema, and its comparative failure at the box office could be a testament to its ambitious breaking of new ground. Audiences may well have been puzzled by the story (which is far more sophisticated than that of most filmed SF), and they were certainly revolted by the awesomely disgusting special effects. But these effects […] were not merely a grotesque icing on the cake; they were integral to the story.

      Nicholls goes on to call it “an object lesson in building tension and atmosphere economically”, and rightly calls Carpenter a genuine auteur.

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      • John Kelly December 16, 2014 / 4:24 pm

        Nicholls said it well.

        I’m also a sucker for Carpenter’s original scores, but it Morricone’s work in The Thing is just tops, though my colleagues are looking askance as it rattles my desktop speakers.

        Also, its promotional posters featured some killer taglines: “It’s not human yet” and “Man is th best place to hide.”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Stan Carey December 16, 2014 / 6:53 pm

        Agreed on all counts. Those taglines were inspired. Dean Cundey’s cinematography adds a lot too, showing how lonely the outpost is outdoors and how cramped indoors, and bringing spatial sense and visual appeal to every scene.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Odondon December 17, 2014 / 12:20 pm

    ‘the Thing’ is the one horror picture to have ever caused me nightmares, and the only film I would never watch again – as in the film, the scenes literally got under my skin ….

    Like

    • Stan Carey December 17, 2014 / 1:10 pm

      It is an unsettling tale, Odondon. I hope this post didn’t revive the trauma.

      Like

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