Ishtar’s Final Conflict With “The Man”

How The Final Conflict (a.k.a. Omen III: The Final Conflict) can be read as an allegory for the goddess Ishtar and Her rivalry with Therion, the spirit of human tyranny.

 

The Final Conflict (1981)—which was re-christened Omen III: The Final Conflict for its DVD release in the early 2000s—is the second sequel to Richard Donner’s 1976 masterpiece, The Omen. I enjoy the original Omen trilogy in its entirety, but The Final Conflict is the one installment thereof that’s made the largest impression on me. This film also makes me think about the Akkadian goddess Ishtar, who is one of Set’s many romantic partners and the second-most important deity to me personally.

In case you’ve never seen The Omen or its initial sequel, Damien: Omen II (1978), here is a brief recap of their events. The 1976 original is about a U.S. politician named Robert Thorn (played by Gregory Peck) who learns his child has died while his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) was giving birth. A Catholic priest convinces Thorn to adopt an orphan who was born at the same time at the same hospital. Robert agrees, and the Thorns leave with their newborn baby boy (and with Katherine none the wiser to his true parentage). But as the child, Damien, grows older, weird shit starts to happen. One of his nannies hangs herself in front of his entire birthday party. A new, creepy nanny shows up to take the old one’s place. A crazy priest stalks and harasses Robert. A big black dog starts hanging around the Thorn household. A photographer (David Warner) captures prophetic photos of people’s deaths. And poor Katherine becomes terrified of the child who is supposed to be her offspring. All of which leads Robert to visit Rome, a monastery in Subiaco, and an archaeological dig in the valley of Megiddo, where he learns that Damien is really the son of Satan and can only be killed with these mystical artifacts called the Seven Daggers of Meggido.

What follows is the most disturbingly sympathetic depiction of attempted infanticide that has ever been filmed. Unfortunately, Robert only succeeds in getting himself killed when he tries to prevent the apocalypse (spoilers!), and Damien is then adopted by his uncle Richard (William Holden) in Damien: Omen II. Now an adolescent, Damien (Jonathan Scott-Taylor) remembers nothing of what happened to him or his parents in the first film. He’s also best friends with his cousin Mark, who’s more like a brother to him. Damien and Mark both attend military school, where their drill sergeant (Lance Henriksen) teaches Damien about his true identity. Meanwhile, a nosy reporter tries to convince Uncle Richard of the truth, and this leads to a bunch of increasingly over-the-top deaths. (My favorite is the guy who gets sawed in half by an elevator cable. Truly classic.) Eventually, Damien grows into his predestined role and wipes out all that remains of his family tree so he can be the sole inheritor of the Thorn family fortune.

The Omen is a perfect horror show from start to finish, and it’s every bit as scary as people say it is. The script wastes no time getting down to business, and each of the actors’ performances is Oscar-worthy. But it’s also my least favorite film in the trilogy, for Damien is only a peripheral character in the story. Granted, this is exactly what makes the film so scary; Damien remains completely alien to both his parents and the audience right to the very end, and it’s always easier to be frightened of something when it’s part of the unknown. But I find Damien: Omen II much more interesting, because it’s the first film ever made that actually puts us inside the Antichrist’s head. When Damien learns he is the Great Beast, he’s just as horrified as everyone else is; but the most powerful moment is when his cousin Mark gets wise and confronts Damien about his true identity. Mark threatens to tell everyone, and Damien reluctantly uses his powers to give Mark a brain aneurysm. When Mark drops dead, Damien screams the most convincing scream of despair I’ve ever heard from any character in any movie ever. That scene always makes me weep a little whenever I see it, because Jonathan Scott-Taylor really sells it. Damien: Omen II is quite derivative of the first movie, but it deserves credit for one thing at least: the character of Damien is perfectly written.

Sam Neill as Damien Thorn

A lobby card for the film.

In The Final Conflict, Damien is now an adult in his thirties, and he’s played by Sam Neill. He has now become the owner of Thorn Industries, a multi-billion dollar company that has revolutionized the food industry, and which is working to solve the world hunger crisis forever. Damien is also the U.S. President’s first choice for Ambassador to Great Britain (after the current guy gets possessed by a black demon dog and blows his brains out). Damien is hot for Great Britain because he has this entirely fictitious apocryphal text called the “Book of Hebron,” which prophesies that Jesus will be reincarnated in Jolly Old England any day now. (Maybe they didn’t have the budget to do a proper Second Coming, with the J-Man flying down from the sky?) But after he sets up shop across the pond, Damien falls for a news reporter named Kate Reynolds (Lisa Harrow); then these Catholic monks at a monastery in Subiaco, Italy find the Seven Daggers of Meggido and try to assassinate him. This leads to a series of hilariously incompetent murder attempts that will have you shaking your head in disbelief. Meanwhile, Jesus is born again somewhere (did you see what I just did there?), but nobody knows where. Lucky for him, Damien knows the birth coincided with a weird astronomical convergence that occurred a few nights ago, so he sends his worshipers out to murder every male baby in England who was born within that time frame. Then Kate Reynolds finds out what the rest of us already know about Damien, and the titular Final Conflict truly begins.

The number one attraction in this film, and the most important reason for anyone to see it, is Sam Neill; he’s literally the greatest Antichrist I’ve ever seen in any film ever. Forget about Michael York, Nick Mancuso, Gordon Currie, or anyone else who’s ever played the Beast in those movies they show on the Trinity Broadcast Network; Sam Neill’s performance here is the gold standard. Rather than playing Damien like some two-dimensional cartoon villain, he plays him like he’s the goddamn hero of the movie. He brings so much charisma and charm to the role that he succeeds in making Damien extremely likeable, even when he’s ordering hundreds of newborns to their deaths. Everyone I know who’s ever seen The Final Conflict ends up rooting for Damien somehow (even though they know they’re not supposed to), and they can’t help but feel disappointed with the ending. (More on that in a minute.) The only other performance that’s comparable to this is that of Sir Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). If there is an Antichrist and he ever tries to take over the world, we’d all better pray he isn’t just like Sam Neill in this movie—or else we might actually want him to take over.

The Final Conflict novelization

The novelization of the 1981 film, The Final Conflict, by Gordon McGill.

In one scene, Damien and Kate walk through a park and see one of the monks, who’s standing on a soapbox, preaching. Damien notices the monk is staring right at him, and he instantly knows the guy is here to kill him. So he starts surveying the area like a hawk—without breathing a word of his concerns to Kate—and he actually looks worried. Is he concerned for himself, or is he concerned for Kate’s safety should there be an ambush? Then there’s another scene where Damien goes to work right after the Christ child has been born. He’s been up all night because he could sense the birth happening, and Kate catches him at the elevator, asking if it’s okay for her to try interviewing him again. (Her last attempt was foiled by another assassin.) Damien smiles and agrees, and she leaves; then he gets in the elevator, sighs, and slumps his shoulders. I’d like to remind you that this character is supposed to be Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch with a vast array of supernatural powers; and yet Neill sneaks in all of these brief human touches—a look of genuine concern, a tired sigh—and actually makes us care about this evil, rotten bastard…

I hate to blow the ending of this film for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but trust me; you probably want to know about this going in. For some reason, I thought this movie was going to end with a big showdown between Damien and Jesus; surely, that would be the “Final Conflict” everyone was expecting, right? I knew things wouldn’t end well for the Beast, but I figured there would at least be some kind of special effects extravaganza. No such luck; the movie ends with Damien being led into a trap by Kate, and Kate stabs him in the back with one of those nifty Meggido daggers. Then Damien limps away, curses Jesus, and promptly dies. Cue music, roll credits. When I first saw this, I was royally pissed. The film had done an excellent job of keeping me at the edge of my seat for the first 90 minutes or so; but it starts running out of steam real fast during the final 20, and that ending just didn’t seem fair. They went through all that hard work of building up this magnificent character and this huge final battle he’s going to have, and what do they give us? Sam Neill getting stabbed in the back (literally) by the woman he loves. I mean, what the hell were they thinking? I wanted to see Damien and Jesus go “Hell in a Cell” on that shit!

Sam Neill as Damien Thorn, with Lisa Harrow as Kate Reynolds and Barnaby Holm as her son Peter

An additional lobby card for the film, with Lisa Harrow as “Kate Reynolds” in the center.

But I’ve watched The Final Conflict countless times since that first viewing in 1999, and I think I’ve figured out what they were really going for here. Let’s consider that this film was not made by evangelical Christians with a religious axe to grind; if it had been, they would have kept things as close to their scriptures as possible. Let’s also consider the fact that none of the avowed Christian men in this movie can stop Damien; hell, not even Jesus himself can stop him! The only character who actually poses a real, substantial threat to the Antichrist is (1) a woman, (2) a skeptic, (3) a feminist, and (4) a single mother. In other words, she is precisely the sort of person whom conservative Christianity has always sought to disempower. The real “Final Conflict” here is not between Christ and Satan at all; it’s between male religious violence (perpetuated by Christians and Satanists) and a female secularist who just wants the violence to stop. Note that while Kate scoffs at Christianity at various points in the film, she nevertheless respects its right to exist; and while she eventually sends Damien back to hell, it’s clear she would much rather work things out and share a life with him somehow. Kate is also the only character who commits an act of violence for purely personal reasons. The monks want to kill Damien because he’s the Beast, and Damien wants to kill the Christ child because he’s Jesus; both sides are motivated by purely ideological concerns. But when Kate stabs Damien, it’s because he’s just murdered her son. (Peter is accidentally killed by one of the monks when Damien uses him as a human shield; the poor kid is literally caught between two religious fanatics.) With all this in mind, I now think the climax of this film is far more daring than I originally thought.

I used to think the conclusion to this film was just an example of lazy screenwriting, but I’ve noticed over the years that The Final Conflict gives us several hints about how it will end. In one scene, one of Damien’s “Disciples of the Watch” advises him to stay away from Kate. “I decide who’s dangerous and who isn’t!” Damien shouts angrily, betraying the fact that he feels insecure about Kate himself. Later, Kate falls into a river and almost drowns at Damien’s house. He hesitates before rescuing her (as if he senses that he shouldn’t), but his concern for her overpowers him. As Kate dries herself by the fire back in the house, she tells Damien she feels like a moth who’s flown too close to the flame; she knows he’s dangerous, but she can’t stay away. Damien’s response to her is perhaps the most beautifully-delivered line in the entire film: “Yes—but who is the moth, and who is the flame?” Finally, when Kate stabs Damien at the end with the Megiddo blade, he smiles to himself ever so subtly, as if he’s always known that she would be his undoing. Kate Reynolds was clearly meant to be the savior of humanity in this film from its very conception; and in casting her as such, The Final Conflict offers us a most unexpected soteriology.

“[Damien] is the human son of Satan, fully committed to his Father. But just as Mary Magdalene represented temptation to Jesus, so Kate represents temptation to Damien. She arouses human feelings within him that could so easily lead him astray from his insidious mission, his inglorious destiny.”

—Sam Neill in an 1981 interview upon the film’s release

The hero of this film is an independent, powerful, and successful woman. She isn’t owned or controlled by any man or male divinity. She comes awful close to losing herself in Damien, especially when she spends a dark night of the soul with him in bed. But she rises again from that proverbial pit, stronger than before, and equipped with the power to send her two-faced lover back to the Underworld. Is any of this starting to sound familiar yet? By gods, it should; for Kate’s arc is basically the Descent of Ishtar all over again. Damien is like a really nasty corruption of Tammuz, a version that’s turned completely rotten. All of his power and wealth are tied to the food industry, just as Tammuz is the god of food and vegetation. But while this “anti-Tammuz” and his enemies are gridlocked in their increasingly futile holy war, Ishtar sneaks in and chooses Her own “messiah” to save the day. The filmmakers try to give Jesus all the credit for this by slapping an obligatory Bible quote on the screen just before the end titles roll; but as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t the Lion of Judah who snuffs the Great Beast here. It’s the Lion of Babylon!

The Octagram or 8-Pointed Star of Ishtar

Ishtar be praised!

Contrary to popular wisdom, there is a distinction between “the Antichrist” and “the Great Beast 666” from Revelation 13. Early Christians used the word antichristos to describe anyone who (1) refused Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, (2) propagated a “heretical” version of Christianity, or (3) claimed to be Christian but didn’t behave like one. The first of these definitions is practically useless since it would seem to include all non-Christians. The second is equally problematic since it requires demonizing all Christian denominations apart from one’s own. The third, however, makes a great deal of sense, for what else can you call someone who claims to love Jesus but fails to treat people in a Christian manner? The real Antichrist has nothing to do with Satanism, but is actually the spirit of Christian hypocrisy itself. Turn on your local televangelist TV network and you will find the true disciples of Antichrist at work, pushing their insane political agendas and extorting millions from their hapless followers in Jesus’ name.

The Great Beast (or Therion in Greek) is based on several ancient kings who persecuted monotheists. People like the Pharaoh in Exodus and the Roman Emperor Nero all had three things in common: (1) they ruled over polytheist nations, (2) they considered themselves to be divine, and (3) they considered the Hebrews and the early Christians to be a threat. After being fed to lions for so long, Christians became convinced that such rulers were actually possessed by Satan himself, and prophetic texts like the book of Revelation were built upon this core concept. While Antichrist represents the evil that lurks within Christianity, the Great Beast represents the archetypal “evil king”—a ruler who tyrannizes his people, and whose actions will bring about destruction and doom. Unlike Antichrist, the Beast doesn’t try to pervert Christianity from within; he seeks instead to destroy it from without. So if we want to get technical about it, Damien Thorn is not really the Antichrist per se, but the spirit of Therion in human form.

Mind you, monotheists have not exactly been “kind” to Pagans throughout history, either. It was especially bad for those civilizations that lived right next door to ancient Israel. The gods and goddesses of these cultures are specifically named as “demons” in the Old Testament (e.g., Ba’al, Asherah, etc.) and are commonly invoked as such in contemporary media. Lady Ishtar is just one of these divinities, and it’s sad to think that whenever She is discussed in today’s world, it is almost always in terms of biblical prophecy. She is even linked with Therion in the book of Revelation:

Then the angel said to me, “The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages. The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire. For [Yahweh] has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to hand over to the beast their royal authority, until [Yahweh]’s words are fulfilled. The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”

—Revelation 17:15–18

As I’ve discussed before, the Whore of Babylon is clearly inspired by Ishtar, even if her symbolic purpose is different. But what I find especially interesting here is the contrast between a female entity who “rules over the kings of the earth” and an evil king who has turned against her. Ishtar presides over the concept of “sacred kingship,” which required a Babylonian king to “marry” the goddess and serve the people as Her priest. He had to ensure that his nation’s crops didn’t fail, that his borders remained protected from foreign invaders, and that his people were cared for in times of disaster. He also had to perform religious rituals all the time to ensure that his people’s gods were properly appeased. A lousy ruler who brought ruin to his people would have been considered “unfaithful” to Ishtar, and some kings were even sacrificed to atone for this sin. This only reinforces my opinion that by killing Damien in The Final Conflict, Kate Reynolds is actually sacrificing him to Ishtar as penance for his disastrous leadership. (It’s reassuring to think that with the Queen of Heaven, even monarchs can be held accountable and taken to task.)

Sam Neill as Damien Thorn and Lisa Harrow as Kate Reynolds

Sam Neill and Lisa Harrow posing for a behind-the-scenes photo.

Don’t get me wrong; The Final Conflict is not a perfect film. There are times when it sabotages itself by trying to copy the original Omen too much. Why are we still wasting time with lone individuals getting slaughtered in isolated places? Why isn’t Damien the President already when this film begins, sending troops to invade the Middle East and start World War III? They missed an opportunity to enlarge the scale and the stakes of the story here; and by restricting all the action to Great Britain, they do a great injustice to the premise. The only exception to this is the baby-killing conspiracy sequence, which is one of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen. The murders themselves are never shown, but are only suggested through quick cuts, musical cues, and horrified reactions from the actors. This is a perfect example of how the power of suggestion can leave a much deeper impression on the mind than just painting the screen with gore. It also helps keep the violence as tasteful as possible (which is no small feat, considering the subject matter), while also making it more disturbing to sit through. If you think the jump scares in The Conjuring (2013) are scary, try watching the scene where one of Damien’s disciples—an Anglican priest—gives a newborn his own version of a “baptismal rite.” It makes my skin crawl just thinking about it.

2+

A Setian Exegesis of John Carpenter’s The Thing

Here I geek out for a bit about my vote for “the scariest monster movie ever made,” and I draw some parallels between the themes of this film and my beliefs as a Setian.

 

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) wins my vote for “the most frightening monster film ever made.” Its unique history begins with a science fiction author named John W. Campbell, Jr., who wrote a short story in the 1930s called “Who Goes There?” It features a team of scientists who discover a spaceship buried beneath the ice in Antarctica. They dig out the ship’s pilot and bring it back to their base, thinking it’s just a frozen fossil. But once the creature thaws out, it springs into action and starts terrorizing everybody. Then it’s discovered that the Thing (as this hostile invader comes to be called) not only digests its prey, but can manipulate the cells of its body to shapeshift into whatever it has eaten at will. The men at the research facility soon learn this applies to human beings as well as to animals, and they descend into violence and paranoia as they accuse each other of being the monster. That’s when a guy named R.J. MacReady takes charge of the situation and figures out a way to determine who’s who.

In 1951, the great Howard Hawks decided to make a film adaptation of “Who Goes There?” that was renamed The Thing From Another World. This was the first of what would later be called the “atomic horror” films, in which humanity is threatened by giant radioactive animals, mad science experiments, or Commies from outer space. For whatever reason, the setting of Campbell’s story was switched from Antarctica to the North Pole, and the shapeshifting alien was re-conceptualized as a blood-drinking humanoid made entirely of vegetable matter. (One character actually refers to it as a “super-carrot.”) Despite these drastic changes, The Thing From Another World is one of the greatest sci-fi/horror films ever made. It has lovable and humorous characters, some intense machine gun-paced dialogue, and several suspenseful scenes that still hold up today. The film influenced an entire generation of filmmakers, including John Carpenter, who loved it so much that he has his characters watching it on TV in Halloween (1978).

1950's ad for The Thing From Another World (1951)

When Ridley Scott’s Alien came out in 1979, it made a shit-ton of money. Suddenly, big-budget creature features were in vogue. That’s when Universal Pictures acquired the rights to produce a remake of The Thing From Another World. I believe monster movie remakes are generally a horrible idea, and that they should be avoided as much as possible. But in The Thing’s case, this rule does not apply. Part of what makes the Carpenter film work is that the original 1951 version deviated from its source material so much. While it’s still about an alien terrorizing people in the snow, Hawks’ monster and human protagonists are totally different. (There isn’t even a “MacReady” in Hawks’ film.) So John Carpenter and his team decided to make this new film a more faithful adaptation of the original Campbell story, which had never been properly adapted for the screen before. For this reason, the 1982 Thing is radically different from its 1951 predecessor, which caught many audiences off guard at the time. Most viewers in 1982 were expecting to see something fairly light-hearted and optimistic, much like the 1951 original. They weren’t expecting to see anything quite so bleak, depressing, or nightmarish as what they were given.

The Thing boasts some of the most convincing makeup and creature effects you will ever see; in fact, the effects are perhaps a little too convincing. It’s hard to believe the monster is really just a bunch of puppets, but creature effects wizard Rob Bottin put so much of his heart and soul into them that they still look superior to most CGI effects that are used in films today. Unfortunately, audiences in 1982 just weren’t ready for what they saw. The most well-known sequences of the film are those in which the monster devours, digests, and transforms into its helpless prey. Globs of slime, blood, and stinking pus are splattered all over the walls while men are physically disfigured into shapes that defy all rational categorization. These scenes are grisly, revolting, and very hard to sit through, but the amount of imagination put into them is absolutely staggering—even by 2019 standards. The effects are so realistic and excessive, however, that people just went apeshit. Film critics rabidly accused John Carpenter of being “a pornographer of violence,” and he was practically blacklisted by Universal. Indeed, audience reactions to The Thing during its original theatrical run almost ended Carpenter’s career entirely. How ironic, then, that the film would be re-evaluated by fans and critics over the following decade, to the point of being accepted today as Carpenter’s very best work. And the sheer number of other media properties it has influenced (e.g., Dead SpaceThe MistResident EvilSlitherStranger ThingsThe X-Files, and practically everything on Guillermo del Toro’s resume) demonstrates that The Thing has had a major impact on popular culture.

1980's newspaper ad for The Thing (1982)

I love it that this film features an ensemble cast, which means there are multiple principal actors who are given roughly equal amounts of screen time. The great thing about ensembles is that the actors will rehearse together and develop a chemistry you just can’t get anywhere else. The players in this film are all well-seasoned stage actors, to boot. While the script is rather skimpy on character development, the actors make up for this with all the neat visual cues they worked out together. We can tell that Clark (played by Richard Masur) is much more comfortable with the dogs at Outpost 31 than he is with the other men. When he learns that one of the other men has died, he shows little emotion apart from fear; but when he learns that one of his dogs have been killed, he becomes upset and mournful. We can also tell that Garry (played by Donald Moffat) resents being the leader of the group, because he always has a reluctant look on his face whenever he has to take charge. It’s obvious from their expressions that none of the other men take his authority very seriously, and Garry is also much quicker to relinquish his authority to MacReady (played by Kurt Russell) than most leaders would be. Despite having lived and worked together for some time, the men at Outpost 31 seem to know practically nothing about each other. They’re alienated from the rest of the world by living in Antarctica, but they’re also alienated from each other by their own apathy and disinterest. Since the Thing can imitate any life form perfectly, neither the characters nor the audience can ever tell who is who. This is made even more horrific by the notion that these people never really knew or cared about each other that much in the first place. The Thing doesn’t have to work very hard to push them into a panic, for they are already in a position to fear and loathe each other when the film begins. If their humanity is all that really separates these men from the Thing, that wall of separation must be frightfully thin.

One criticism I sometimes hear about this film is that the actors are all male; there are literally no women to be seen anywhere. I can understand why this bothers some viewers, but I actually appreciate the all-male cast for a couple of reasons. First, there’s this unspoken rule in Hollywood that monster movies must always have some kind of heteronormative sex appeal; there must be gorgeous hot women removing their clothes for the male viewers, and there must be one dude and one dame who make it to the end so they can presumably fornicate once the credits roll. The Thing dispenses with this “wisdom” by not even allowing the subject of sex to be breached in the first place. This could have been accomplished by casting only female actors as well, but that would have been a terrible idea in 1982. This movie is about a slimy tentacled monster that likes to rip people’s clothes off and insert itself into their bodily orifices, which is already disturbing enough as it is. If there had been any women in the film, I guarantee they would have been sexualized. I know this because there were other films being produced during the same era that indulged in this exact form of sexual exploitation (including 1980’s Humanoids From The Deep and 1981’s Galaxy of Terror, which both feature monsters raping women on camera). At the time, casting all the characters as male was probably the best way to keep The Thing from going down that particular rabbit hole. Indeed, it is one of very few 1980s monster films that doesn’t feature any kind of sexual exploitation at all.

The Thing on the front cover of Fangoria Magazine

I think another reason audiences hated this film upon its original release is that it’s just so goddamn bleak. Even the goriest slasher movies of the 1980s usually had some kind of comic relief or silliness in them; but aside from some brief touches of humor here and there, The Thing offers no such relief. Nor does it offer any clarity with regards to its conclusion. Audiences prefer happy endings in their monster movies, but they can also handle bad or scary endings, as long as they’re clear-cut. The evil can either win or be defeated, but it must clearly be one or the other. The Thing throws this archaic rule right out the window, for its ending is completely ambiguous, leaving us uncertain as to how the story really ends. And that is something most people just can’t seem to handle in a movie. Mind you, I can understand why; it bothers me that we never find out exactly who won or who survived. But that’s what makes the ending work; it continues to bother you and haunt you long after the credits have rolled. (I still wake up in the middle of the night every so often, wondering: “Who’s really human at the end of The Thing?!”)

In my opinion, the titular beast is an even better representation of Apepthe supreme enemy of all gods and creatures, than H.R. Giger’s Alien. The xenomorph can be pleasing to look at, with its shiny symmetrical body and its humanoid shape; but the Thing is absolutely horrible to observe in either of its myriad, spidery forms. And while the Alien is just an animal that seeks to eat and reproduce according to its primal dispositions, the Thing has assimilated countless worlds and species into itself. It is sentient, can build and operate spacecraft far superior to ours, and is totally capable of communicating with humans. (It speaks perfect English whenever it pretends to be an American scientist.) If such an ancient intelligence had any goodness in its heart, it would try to reach some kind of understanding with the men of Outpost 31 at least once. Yet the Thing never bothers to communicate with the men at all (apart from when it imitates them). This suggests that the creature is purely and simply evil. It deliberately terrifies, harms, and divides other sentient beings with a malevolent self-awareness, and it will settle for nothing less than the extinction of all life upon this earth. If that doesn’t sound like Apep, I don’t know what does.

Rob Bottin on the cover of Cinefantastique magazine

But there is much of Set to be found in this film, as well. Most of Antarctica is actually a polar desert, since there is little to no precipitation or vegetation there. A “desert” is technically defined in terms of how dry a given location is (rather than how hot), and Antarctica is drier than a bone; very little rain or snowfall ever occurs across the entire continent. Given that The Thing’s premise is essentially a modernized combat myth (in which a heroic warrior fights a gruesome monster to save the world), it’s only fitting that this battle should unfold in an ecosystem that falls under Set’s jurisdiction. And in Egyptian mythology, Apep has a paralyzing stare that freezes most of the gods with fear, rendering them motionless and inert. Set is the only god who is immune to this; hence why He was chosen to serve as Ra’s Champion against the beast. Perhaps it is no accident that when most of The Thing’s characters come face-to-face with their extraterrestrial assailant, they too become motionless and inert. MacReady is the only one who seems unfazed whenever he sees the monster; he even has the nerve to taunt it right to its ugly face. (His best line is when he tells the creature, “Yeah? Well fuck you too!”) Indeed, he exudes the time-honored Setian attitude of “I’m-just-saving-the-world-so-I-can-get-back-to-drinking” quite nicely.

As a Setian, I believe autonomy is divine—a gift not only from the gods in general, but also from Set in particular. He is the god of otherness, the principle that makes it possible for everyone to exist as individuals with distinct identities. The word “other” often bears a negative connotation in common discourse, as when we speak of societies “othering” minorities. But we are all others to each other, even in the cultures and cliques we call our own. Otherness is a good thing, something to be cherished and celebrated, because it enables each of us to determine ourselves as unique sentient beings. It is not otherness, but the fear of otherness which poses the ultimate threat to our existence. As frustrating and confusing as Set can be for the other gods, even they must accept Him as a necessary force in this world; for without Him, they would be frozen by the Serpent’s stare and absorbed into its vacuum. They would cease to have selves and be dissolved into the void forever. Otherness has been painted red and given devil horns for Set knows how long, but true evil is the desire to exterminate otherness, to eliminate whatever is different. And the Thing is a perfect representation of such erasure. Just like Apep, it is homogeneity personified, hating whatever is not itself and robbing its victims of their innermost identities and souls.

Ennio Morricone and John Carpenter

Ennio Morricone (left) and John Carpenter (right), circa 1982.

John Carpenter is legendary for scoring most of his films himself; but for this venture, he recruited the Italian composer Ennio Morricone (who is most well-known for scoring 1967’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). Morricone wrote about 50 minutes’ worth of orchestral music, approximately half of which would never be used in the final cut. Supposedly, Carpenter had difficulty deciding where to insert certain pieces of music into the film. So while The Thing was in post-production, Carpenter went to the recording studio and hammered out some incidental pieces to make up for the material he couldn’t use. As a result, about 90% of the music in The Thing is Morricone’s work, while the remaining 10% consists of Carpenter’s trademark electronic drones. The theme song (which is actually titled “Humanity Part II”) was originally written by Morricone, but was later re-arranged with electronic instrumentation to make it sound more “Carpenter-esque.” I happen to own a version of the soundtrack that includes both Morricone and Carpenter’s material, and it’s my all-time favorite album to play during worship.

I mention this because I find the Thing soundtrack useful for execrations (i.e., hexes or curses that target spiritual rather than human adversaries). In the procedure we’ve used in the LV-426 Tradition, we take some ceramic pots and draw or write things on them to represent our fears and our personal demons. Then we invoke the Serpent into these pots, and we invoke the Red Lord into ourselves. Once a spell against Apep has been recited (with plenty of angry and forceful language), everyone smashes their “qliphothic pot” to bits and pieces, sending the Serpent back to whatever hell it comes from. This is more than just a therapeutic activity for stress relief; it’s a spiritual battle in which we actually smite the negativity in our lives with all of Set’s power and fury. It’s helpful to use music in this kind of worship service, and the Thing soundtrack has always given me the best results. It heightens the effect of the ritual, making me feel as if I’m actually in some desolate wasteland, getting ready to face off against an ancient evil. Even when I listen to the music outside of ritual, it always puts me in a meditative mood, steeling my nerves against whatever stressful crap I happen to be worrying about at the time.

I suppose I’ve rambled on about this movie long enough now. The point is, John Carpenter’s The Thing isn’t just a great sci-fi/horror movie; it’s also a great parable for Setian spirituality. It’s the ultimate cinematic combat myth for the contemporary age, and it is deeply inspirational to me in my own daily quest against the Serpent. It still gets under my skin, too, despite the fact that I’m an adult now and I’ve seen this movie over a thousand times. I still get spooked whenever the power goes out and I have to walk around my house in the middle of the night; I can’t help but imagine the Thing slithering around down there in the dark beneath my bed, waiting to assimilate me in my sleep. There is simply no other movie monster that continues to hold this kind of power over my imagination today, and there are few other films that inspire me as much as The Thing does. If you’re a Setian and you’ve never seen this movie, give it a try as soon as possible, and feel free to share your thoughts about it with me. I’d love to know what you think!

The Thing From Another World

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