The Thing (1982)
Written by Bill Lancaster
Directed by John Carpenter
John Carpenter’s films were mostly considered failures financially and critically when they were first released, and he made many of them quickly. From 1976 to 2001, Carpenter directed 17 films and handled writing, producing, and score composing duties. He most certainly enjoyed genre films, mainly science fiction & horror, and definitely made them the way he wanted. The result is a very mixed bag of pictures, in some ways an acquired taste with some movies being better entry-level pieces than others. My personal opinion is that most of Carpenter’s films are not good, but the good ones are absolutely fantastic. When he finds all the right parts and slides them into place, you end up with some of the best horror pictures ever made. The Thing is a perfect example of this.
A Norwegian helicopter pursues a sled dog across the Antarctic wastelands, right into an American research camp. The American scientists and military personnel inside coming out to try and figure out what is happening but not before one of the Norwegians accidentally blows himself, and the other is killed while shooting at the dog. The men at the station are entirely befuddled about why anyone would expend such effort in hunting down a sled dog. MacCready (Kurt Russell), the pilot, and two other men journey to the Norwegian outpost’s remains and find it a smoking hovel. There’s a malformed corpse outside the snow, resembling a human but twisted and distorted. Back at the research station, the sled dog wanders the hall, bizarrely in calm and in control for an animal. As the days roll on, it becomes clear these men have allowed something evil into their presence, an entity from beyond the stars with one purpose, to consume and reproduce until all life on Earth is gone.
The Thing is indeed a horror masterpiece, capturing the roiling sense of paranoia that is all too easy to agitate in human beings. These characters are confronted with something beyond their personal understanding of the universe that their interpersonal relationships deteriorate quickly. My viewings of The Thing are probably in the double digits by now, but I always discover new things or notice storytelling choices. We never get a backstory on any of these characters, and we don’t need it. There is a sense that everyone has interpersonal connections, both positive and negative, but there’s no unnecessary exposition to explain to the audience what is going on. MacReady and Childs (Keith David) obviously have tension between them, which is exacerbated by the situation with the alien. The sign of good writing is that I can feel those relationships without having them explained to me.
The horror of The Thing is the fear of complete annihilation. This was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and his cosmic elder gods who are so beyond human ability to stop them that his protagonists often find themselves lost in insanity. The Thing is a shapeless being, unable to be defined in terms that match our understanding of biology. There is also the alien nature of Antarctica, the least explored landmass on Earth, a setting for Lovecraft’s longest work, In The Mountains of Madness. That title would be used by Carpenter for his more explicit Lovecraft homage In The Mouth of Madness. Antarctica is desolate and remote, far from any sign of civilization. The annihilation could be global, as identified by Blair (Wilford Brimley), or centered around the destruction of individual identity. To be alone, away from those you love in a frozen wasteland, all you have left are your memories and identity, and then those are stripped away is nightmarish.
The shining gem amid this beautifully written picture are the even more mind-blowing practical effects. Rob Bottin is responsible for the multiple forms The Thing takes, and each one is a beautifully designed nightmare. In the film, these forms appear as static sculptures and puppets that deliver unforgettable moments. Carpenter allows the film to build to ever-increasingly intense terror, beginning with the sculpture pieces, remnants of failed forms The Thing tried to take. By the time we get to the defibrillator scene, all bets are off, and Carpenter allows the film to go completely insane. I am not a huge fan of gore and blood, but damn if that scene isn’t a masterpiece of horror. Your brain is trying to keep up with the bizarre ways the creature morphs and reshapes itself in seconds in an attempt to survive and keep going.
Few horror films reach the pinnacle that The Thing achieves. It’s so funny to read about how poorly it did at the box office and that the movie caused Carpenter to lose his next job. Universal has a multi-picture deal with the director and bought him out after the performance of The Thing. Home video and edited for television airings allowed the audience to grow, and now The Thing is pretty universally considered one of the best films Carpenter ever made. There was a hideous prequel, stupidly titled The Thing that came out in 2011, which should be avoided. There is also a remake in the works, but I really hope that falls through. They can never recreate the magic of Carpenter’s picture, computer effects will inevitably replace the perfect physical ones, and they will pale in comparison.