A group of scientists at a remote Antarctic research station find themselves in a terrifying fight for their lives as a deadly extra-terrestrial organism capable of assuming human form infiltrates their camp.
Sometimes cinematic greatness is not acknowledged until years down the line once the fallout from a film’s original release had subsided. The Thing had the unfortunate distinction of being the other ‘alien lands on Earth’ film of 1982 behind colossal family-friendly hit E.T. (The Thing was released a mere two weeks after it). The sweet-natured alien with the glowing finger who wanted to be friends with a young boy was a queer bed fellow to talk about in the same breath as a shape-shifting monster whose ideas of first contact were absorbing and killing humans before turning itself into its previous victim. So The Thing didn’t do very well at the box office, derided by the likes of Roger Ebert as a ‘geek show’ and simply branded as a ‘barf-bag’ movie. Not only that but fellow science fiction mega-hit Blade Runner was released at the same time. To say that it was a competitive year was an understatement!
However, thirty years of solid home video viewing solidified the reputation of The Thing. Audiences began to see the levels of detail and the depth to the film, looking far beyond the, admittedly, gross special effects, to see that this was a superbly crafted masterpiece of suspense and tension. In 2008, Empire named it as one of the ‘500 Greatest Films Ever Made,’ a far cry from its early days of derision and detest from the critics. The film was John Carpenter’s first big budget film after a number of low budget successes but since this flopped, he was barely trusted with a large budget again. It’s a big shame as Carpenter is one of the most talented men ever to set foot behind a camera and The Thing is proof.
I can’t think of too many films that have such a bleak outlook as The Thing. From the first twenty or so minutes, the script drip-feeds the audience with a number of clues as to what happened at the Norwegian camp. As soon as the truth is sickeningly revealed, that’s it for the characters. You realise that not one of them is going to have a happy ending. Carpenter proceeds to wring every scene dry of as much tension, suspense and paranoia as possible. This is as remote a location on Earth to set a sci-fi horror film and you know from the opening shots of the desolate Antarctic landscape that these men are on their own. Despite the openness of the wilderness, The Thing is deathly claustrophobic. These men are trapped inside a ramshackle assortment of wooden huts, hardly the greatest protection against Mother Nature and the freezing cold. If they stay inside, the alien will assimilate them. If they go outside, the cold will get them. The situation is hopeless and it isn’t long before some of them accept that fact.
The notion that one or more of the crew could be infected by the alien leads to the escalating tension as they go about finding ways to see who is human and who isn’t. Each twist to the story adds more layers of tension, suspense and paranoia because Carpenter is very crafty when it comes to revealing details. You will never guess who is human and who isn’t and for first time viewers, this is just brilliant to try and piece together. Even on multiple viewings, I find myself trying to work out when certain characters were assimilated and whether there are any hints in there. It’s a masterpiece of storytelling with red herrings, bluffs and twists and turns every scene to keep you guessing – the blood test scene where the surviving characters gather around to test blood to reveal who is human and who is not is one of the most suspenseful scenes ever filmed.
The problem with The Thing is that because the middle section of the film is tense, the final showdown was always going to be anti-climactic and that’s what happens here. Whilst it’s not a bad finale in any stretch of the imagination, it pales in comparison to some of the film’s earlier set pieces – the dog transformation, the defibrillator scene, the blood test, etc. You’ve already been put through the ringer a couple of times and you’ve got nothing left to give. Thankfully Carpenter ends the film on one final dour note, where any lesser director would have sold out and gone for a happy conclusion.
This is an actor’s film but not a starring man film. As good as Kurt Russell is as McReady, he’s not the star of the show. It’s an ensemble piece where every single supporting player contributes an equal amount with fine performances across the entire board. Character actors like Wilfred Brimley, Donald Moffat, Richard Dysart, Keith David, Charles Hallahan and Richard Masur all bring something different to the table in terms of their character, even if the script doesn’t really give them a lot of back story or depth. As they begin to mistrust each other, the script does a great job of seeing personalities clash, egos rise to the top, minds going crazy and tempers flaring. Each characters reacts to the situation differently as an audience, there’s someone for each to us to root for. We know whether we’d be a McReady or a Fuchs or a Blair or even a Norris in this situation….or do we? How do we know how we’d end up, faced with the grim reality of what is confronting them? The characters are real, they react like anyone would react and as a result, the potentially-overblown nature of a shapeshifting alien is never questioned.
The Thing’s previously-bad reputation comes from its gross-out special effects. This was the 80s and body horror was all the rage, where the human form was subjected to all manner of grotesque transformations in the likes of The Fly and An American Werewolf in London. Special effects wizard Rob Bottin subjects the audience to a nauseating freak show of monsters and forms as various characters are hideously deformed and mutated as the alien absorbs and replicates them. Blood, puss, goo, slime…..everything that Bottin can throw into the mix, he does. Some of the most ghastly visuals ever committed to film, The Thing will take a strong stomach to sit through if you’re not a regular gore hound. The best part about it is that even in 2016, the make-up effects have yet to be better on-screen. The tepid prequel relied too heavily on CGI to convey the same level of grotesque but didn’t have the same effects.
I’ve done a lot of talking about the film and haven’t yet mentioned that it’s actually a remake. The Thing From Another World was a classic 50s science fiction film, rumoured to have been mostly directed by one of Carpenter’s heroes – Howards Hawks. Carpenter goes back to the source material, a scary novella from 1938 called Who Goes There? and throws in a number of references to the original as a tribute. Having read the story, I can say that this version is very true to the source material and improves on it in every way. A rarity nowadays.
One last point in this lengthy review – Ennio Morricone’s minimalist synth score sounds like a traditional John Carpenter soundtrack but adds so much to the proceedings that it gets overlooked far too often. Aside from the ominous title track, there is good use of the low, droning synthesiser during a number of key scenes in the film, drawing out every last possibly ounce of tension possible.
The Thing is a masterpiece of sci-fi horror and one of the greatest genre films ever made. No one has ever come close to recreating the paranoid atmosphere, the twisted imagination and the sheer talent that combined to create this almost-perfect fright fest. Forget Halloween. The Thing will always be John Carpenter’s best film. An essential part of any film fan’s collection.