John Carpenter’s The Thing may arguably be the scariest film ever made; at the very least, it’s in the top ten. And amazingly enough, it manages to hold its enviable command thirty years and multiple viewings later. Most horror films tend to find their power dispelled after too many viewings — once you know the Boogeyman is lurking ‘round the corner, it’s hard to be shocked when he lunges out at you yet again. The Thing, however, is quite the opposite — it’s a sci-fi/horror hybrid that’s aged like fine wine. No matter how many times you see Charles Hallahan’s head separate and scuttle away from his body, you’re held by its gruesome spell.
The Thing is the quintessential film whose status has grown over time. When it was released in 1982, it was hated and misunderstood — and not just by the mainstream critics, never the most astute souls when it came to genre material. Even the fans who this was made for — the audiences already primed for the toothy extraterrestrial hellspawn, visceral bloodshed and “in space no one can hear you scream” nihilistic claustrophobia bred by the likes of Alien — rejected it. It was too dark, too grim. This was the year of E.T. , that ugly-but-cuddly, lovable, Reese’s Pieces eating mascot of interstellar life. No one was in the mood for a paranoid slice of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. It was also too gory, a pandering orgy of squishy, meat-grinder special effects that turned its source material, Christian Nyby’s ‘50s alien invasion classic The Thing From Another World, into a freakshow for the Friday the 13th crowd. Needless to say, it flopped.
Except now, those critics and audiences are eating crow. The Thing is an undisputed classic– and for the very reasons it was dismissed to begin with. The film’s impressive fear factor comes not just in the abundant shocks it engenders — and they are great indeed — but in the chilly, gloomy atmosphere of foreboding that saturates every frame. Set in a scientific research station secluded in the snowy wastelands of Antarctica , staffed with a motley assortment of rugged, going-around-the-bend men (the lone “female” is the voice of a computer that quickly meets its end at the hands of a tumbler of whiskey) who’ve had to endure the same company, the same books and tapes and games for months — The Thing is dripping with pitiless isolation from the get-go. These gruff, joking-but-on-the-edge men, their emotional reserves depleted by endless monotony, are already close to hitting the wall. They just need infiltration by an alien monstrosity to get them there, in the most blood-soaked manner possible.
When it’s discovered that the “thing” can perfectly replicate any being whose genetic material it absorbs, paranoia not-so-slowly creeps in. Literally anyone, maybe even our nominal hero R.J. MacCready (Carpenter muse Kurt Russell, in his best work with the director- maybe ever), can be a monster in human clothing — so, who do you trust? Well, of course, by now we know the answer thanks to that infamous blood test scene, one of the most agonizingly suspenseful sequences in movie history. But what Carpenter exploits brilliantly throughout the film is the seething mistrust of others that is instilled us human beings. How well do you really know your friends, family, loved ones? Are they really who they say they are? What about that group of people you don’t understand? That stranger asking us for the time, is he for real? Or a mugger? Or an alien from outer space all too eager to assimilate us into its ranks?
And there’s another fear The Thing expertly checks off. From the Pod People to the Borg, sci-fi has long trafficked in the horror of the loss of identity. The shapeless creature of The Thing can be almost anyone or anything; only the subtlest of hints gives it away, and it wants YOU. Even these replicants (yes, I know, wrong movie…) don’t know they’re facsimiles, pieces of a larger whole. The Thing could represent any component of society– consumerism, fundamentalism, hipster faddism, pick your poison — that threatens to swallow one whole, taking you over, turning you into a twisted caricature of yourself. Carpenter’s telling of the tale (which is actually closer to the literary source material, John w. Campbell Jr’s short story “Who Goes There?”, then the lumbering carrotman of Nyby’s film) is an Us vs. Them story in which neither side is worth rooting for. No wonder audiences rejected it.
Of course, that’s all so much critical blather — all that kind of stuff about subtext and metaphor and yada yada meant to make a movie writer sound smart. The Thing is first and foremost a genre piece, and a damn fine one at that — taut, muscular, gripping, excellent. It doesn’t need no high-falutin’ analyzing to make it work. (Pretension-hating Carpenter would no doubt agree.) The dark, cramped halls of the outpost, surrounded by vast expanses of ice and snow, give the film a confined aura of shivery, gut-clenching dread. The monster isn’t just anyone, it could be anywhere and there’s no escape. The movie ends on a perfectly grim grace note: our last two survivors, MacCready and the basso-voiced hot head Childs (Keith David), staring warily at each other in front of the burning wreckage of the outpost, each asking the other if they are human. They won’t survive; it doesn’t matter. They may have destroyed the monster, or they may have both been consumed. If that’s the case, humanity is doomed– we just need the inevitable rescue team to arrive. Maybe we’re doomed anyway. These men, nerves frayed by exhaustion, only needed the slightest push for their latent aliens to come out, bringing their microcosm to ruin. It’s the ONLY way a film this dark could’ve ended
That throbbing two-note Carpenter synth score, all propulsive “dun-duns,” is a simple yet effective anxiety-building tactic. The cast of B-movie types is comprised of a group of terrific character actors (including a pre-oatmeal slinging Wilford Brimley) who imbue their roles with just the right touch of stripped-down macho brusqueness. But the real star of the show is, of course, the work of FX maestro Rob Bottin who was all of 21 when the movie was made. Much has been made of Bottin’s work and with good reason. Done prosthetically, they hold up amazingly well three decades later. Tentacled abominations from Lovecraft’s id; they are simply astounding — they ARE the ne plus ultra of monster effects. Compare them to the phony CGI of the inevitable remake (or prequel/premake/what-the-hell-ever), which were dated on opening night. Which works better– the tactile, fleshy, physical creations of Bottin, or the weightless cartoons made up of ones and zeros? Bottin wins, hands down.
[About that remake: on its own, it’s not terrible – it makes for an okay B-movie creature feature time waster – but, in lacking all that makes The Thing great (tension, paranoia, well-developed characters, etc…) and taking that name, it becomes a pitiable addition to the legacy.]
After the poor reception of The Thing, Carpenter retreated, never making quite the same impression and instead churning out a series of lower-budgeted and more modest features through the 80s (well-regarded by fans) and 90’s (not so much, though I contend In The Mouth of Madness is an underrated masterpiece.) The Thing itself stands as the pinnacle of a landmark year in geek cinema, and at the forefront of a solid year in horror (cult classics like Basket Case, Q: The Winged Serpent, The Deadly Spawn, which bears a very superficial resemblance to The Thing, and, of course, Poltergeist, were released that year.) I’ve watched The Thing maybe a dozen or so times and it never feels old, unfurling with horrifying, intestine-curdling finesse each and every single time I watch it. Each time it ends, the final dun-dun fading off the soundtrack, I’m left grinning like a village idiot asking the town beauty queen out to the soda shop. I hate answering the question “what’s your favorite movie?” because, as a movie nerd, it’s tough to decide. But it’d be a lie to say that The Thing isn’t first in line.