Review: ‘The Thing’

It’s October, moving toward the Halloween season, and you know what that means: time for horror movies! And kicking off the season for me is a film I’ve been meaning to get around to seeing for years: John Carpenter’s The Thing, the 1982 remake of Howard Hawks’s 1951 classic, The Thing From Another World, both being based on John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? (though the Carpenter film follows the story much more closely). Both films are superlative works, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they take completely different approaches to the material. The original, hampered by the limits of special effects at the time, opted to change the shape-shifting monster of the book into a vampiric humanoid alien (played by a pre-Gunsmoke James Arness), relying on shadows and suspense for its scares. The remake, on the other hand….

The set up: a small crew at an Antarctic research station just at the onset of winter is surprised when a Norwegian helicopter suddenly appears chasing a dog and trying to gun it down. The pilot and gunner both end up getting killed (the latter after shouting a warning in Norwegian that no one understands) and the confused crew takes the dog into the base. Concerned that something might have happened to the Norwegian station, the base doctor and the morose helicopter pilot, MacReady (Kurt Russell) fly out there, where they discover that the Norwegians had dug something up out of the ice; something that had been there for thousands of years. Something that has left their base a bloody shambles, with little but a grotesquely-twisted, half-burned corpse to show for it.

Meanwhile, the rescued dog prowls about the base and is finally put into the kennel with the other dogs. There it abruptly undergoes a hideous transformation, revealing itself to be in truth an alien monstrosity. The men burn it with a flamethrower, but before long it becomes clear that it’s too late: the Thing has the power to assimilate and copy any form of life, right down to absorbing their memories and personalities. Which means that at least one man on the base may no longer be human….

So, where to start with The Thing? It’s simply a fantastic horror/sci-fi film; one of the best of its era, which is saying a lot considering that the 1980s was something of a golden or at least silver age of sci-fi and horror. We have an inherently creepy basic premise: you’re trapped in an isolate location with a group of other men, one of whom may be a monster in disguise. But how can you tell who is human and who isn’t? But if you can’t trust anyone, how can you find and fight the thing?

Supplementing the premise is the glorious atmosphere of desolate Antarctica, established straight away with the long, lingering opening showing a helicopter soaring over endless fields of white and bald mountainsides. Inside the base, we have cramped corridors and crowded rooms, and as the situation escalates the power begins flickering on and off, periodically bathing the cast in deep blue emergency lighting, which is blended with the deep red of their flares. Carpenter’s a master at creating striking images through colour and shadow and he shows his skill here.

Adding to the atmosphere are the perfectly chosen cast. Headed by Carpenter-regular Kurt Russell, Keith David, and Wilford Brimley, this is one of those motley crews of professional, working character actors of the sort you still had in the 80s, but which you’ll almost never see today; the kind of actors who excel at looking and behaving like normal people. Like with Alien, they didn’t cast perfectly-coifed movie stars, but actors who genuinely look and behave like ordinary, working-class people (though unlike Alien we have an all-male cast: remember when that was a possibility?). A lot of them are middle-aged, out-of-shape, unkempt, and unsocial odd-balls rather than action heroes. Which is as it should be; these are people who took a rough job at the literal end of the earth, as far from civilization as is humanly possible to be. They aren’t going to be the cream of the crop.

Part of this is that the characters are refreshingly flawed and fallible. In the opening scene, for instance, the base commanded shoots the Norwegian gunner (who seems to be simply insane and is waving a rifle around). He then has a shocked and faintly nauseated expression on his face as he contemplates what he just did. Later on, the same character willingly steps down from his position when it becomes clear the others don’t trust him and passes the gun to another character, who hastily declines because he doesn’t feel he’s up to it. Later on MacReady does something that you would absolutely never see a hero do in nine films out of ten…at least not with the film being aware of what it means.

At the same time, of course, these aren’t idiots. They generally make smart, reasonable decisions as far as they are able to given the insane circumstances. Trying to come up with a way to determine definitively whether someone is a Thing or not, they devise two separate tests, either one of which would work. After the scale of the situation becomes clear, they try to take what steps they can to avoid being alone and giving the Thing the chance to copy one of them…though of course, by then it’s an open question whether the buddy system itself might land them alone with the Thing.

Though they also do a good job of displaying a brusque comradery and friendship among themselves; the kind of relationship that is almost never expressed in words, but is there nonetheless (at one point the base commander, still not quite grasping the situation, laments that the man whose body is being burned has been his friend and working partner for years). I also like how the trip to the Norwegian base comes about because of the doctor’s sense of responsibility to discover whether anyone needs help, now that they know something has happened there. Again, these are neither heroes nor villains: just ordinary, basically decent people in a nightmarish situation.

But the big selling point here, of course, is the gore, with some of the most extreme body-horror effects of the decade (which, this being the heyday of people like Tom Savini, is saying quite a lot). It’s hard to even describe what goes on here when the Thing chooses to show itself, but as an example: at one point the Thing’s latest copy/host is set on fire. Its head then pulls itself off the body, stretching and distorting as the skin tears to reveal green and yellow innards, then drops to the floor, spouts spider legs, and tries to crawl away. And that’s arguably one of the milder manifestations (it also prompts one of the movie’s funniest moments). This is certainly not a film for the sensitive.

(Apart from the Thing itself, I also like the creatively disturbing element of a body found with slit wrists and throat, the blood having frozen in the sub-zero temperatures, forming red icicles hanging from the man’s arms).

That said, any fans of practical effects owe it to themselves to see this movie, as we get some downright jaw-dropping puppetry and makeup effects whenever the Thing does its thing. It’s gruesome, sickening, and fascinatingly imaginative, while being an absolute triumph of the effects artist’s craft.

Yet, probably the creepiest part is that, for all its extreme grotesqueness and weird manifestations, the Thing is shown to be an intelligent, even rational being. It never speaks in its own character (having apparently nothing to say), but it’s capable both of operating and creating advanced technology and of thinking strategically. At one point it plants evidence to frame someone as being a Thing. Later we learn that it deliberately avoided assimilating one character because he was too obvious and would have been suspected right away. Despite its monstrous nature and actions, this is very much an intelligent creature that knows at least as much as its human opponents (some moments – especially viewed in retrospect – suggest it may even have a sense of humour).

This is well shown even in its dog form, where for much of the first act the Thing-as-a-dog is shown simply watching the humans, staring with an unnerving intensity as they go about their business, as if it’s working out what it’s going to do next (the dog in question was apparently a wolf hybrid, which accounted for his distinctly un-doglike behaviour).

The sound effects are at least as effective and almost as disturbing as the visual ones. The Thing makes this horrible, keening groan whenever it’s uncovered, which just sounds like something straight out of Hell. It’s made all the worse because, once again, we have no idea what the sound means. Is it angry? In pain? Frightened? Defiant? Amused? Some completely alien and unimaginable emotion? There’s no way to tell.

What rather surprised me in watching it was that the gore effects, spectacular as they are, actually comprise relatively little of the film’s runtime. There are long segments between most of the manifestations, allowing the paranoia and the suspense to build. Because once we know what the Thing is capable of, we don’t need to see it; only to know that it’s here, somewhere.

The blood test scene in particular is an absolute masterwork of building suspense. MacReady runs through the remaining cast, testing each one’s blood in turn to see who is human and who isn’t. And with each test we know that he must be getting closer and closer to a positive result. Only, I don’t think anyone’s quite prepared for what happens when he actually gets one.

One of John Carpenter’s signature skills is his use of visual detail. In one scene, for instance, a character who has been isolated from the others in a tool shed tries to plead that he’s fine now and wants to come back inside. Meanwhile, there’s a hangman’s noose dangling from the rafters beside him. No one mentions it or draws attention to it, but you can form your own ideas about what it implies.

He also excels at using the edges of the screen, and he knows how to be subtle; like when a blanket-covered corpse in the foreground moves just enough for us to catch it.

As this indicates the gore is only half the story. In the hands of a less talented director, writer, and cast, these spectacular splatter effects would, for all their artistry, be a mere curiosity at best. It’s the unnerving atmosphere and the paranoia and uncertainty of who is what that gives the film its real power. Whenever someone shows up alone or appears after an absence, we wonder….

Of course, it’s a little odd that the characters are so willing to go places alone after a point, but the writers work to separate them in reasonable ways. Like when two characters go outside and one comes back, he says that he discovered that the other was a Thing and ran for it. Then the other one shows up. Who are we going to believe? And in any case, we know that they all had plenty of opportunities to be infected before they even realized what they were up against.

And all the while that howling, freezing wind and desolate primordial darkness lies all around them…..

As you can tell, the H.P. Lovecraft influence is very strong here, with the ancient madness from the skies dug up out of the ice by men too eager for knowledge to imagine what they were unleashing. That as well as the insane, utterly incomprehensible nature of the threat, which twists and melts and tangles itself into the most fantastic and grotesque forms until you’re not even sure what you’re looking at, except that it’s horrible.

Another fascinating thing about the film is how ambiguous a lot of it is. Not just in what the Thing is and wants, but even “who was a Thing when?” and “which Thing did what?” At least one character’s actions take on completely different implications depending on when you think he became assimilated, resulting in a film that can be read in multiple ways and rewards repeat viewings and close attention.

And as a big fan of the original, 1951 film, I was surprised and delighted at the many shout-outs to it (John Carpenter was a fan as well, hence why he chose to take his remake in a completely different direction rather than try to compete directly with Howard Hawks’s work). This mostly takes the form of repeating shots and imagery from the original, like a flaming monster bursting out of the wall into the snow, or a large block of ice with a thawed-out core. Also just the fact that the Thing came to Earth on a flying saucer; a wonderfully retro touch.

The two films also each feature one of the world’s best jump scares, though the one in the latter film is obviously considerably more gruesome than the one in the former.

Finally, like a lot of Carpenter’s work, the horror is blended with a fair dose of humour, a lot of it of the pitch-black variety (the aforementioned jump scare being a good example). Like with MacReady’s introduction playing chess on a computer. When the computer wins, he responds by pouring his drink into the motherboard rather than concede defeat (which is not only funny, but establishes his ruthlessly determined character). The demise of one of the Norwegians likewise seems to come straight out of a very dark slapstick comedy.

All that said, and though it’s still one of the great horror films of all time, it’s obviously not a perfect work. For all I’ve praised the effects, there are one or two that don’t work so well. The Thing’s final form is its least impactful for my money (accompanied by some rather dodgy stop-motion), and the scene where they discover the crashed spaceship is one of the most obvious matte paintings I have ever seen. It looks like they simply repurposed a bit of concept art.

More seriously, the good-sized cast of characters also means that many of them kind of get lost in the shuffle and you sometimes forget who’s who (even as you’re trying to decide who’s what). The result is that it’s not as impactful as it might have been when they start getting offed one by one. They’re not unlikable characters, but they’re not ones you’ll really feel for either for the most part. Alien avoided this by having a much smaller cast, as did Halloween (where one character had a whole long comedic sequence leading up to her demise). I think they do pretty well given what they have to work with, but it’s an issue more or less inherent in the format they’ve picked for themselves.

I also have to wonder: if the Thing’s goal was to reach civilization, why didn’t it just wait out the winter in doggy form and then get to work once back on the mainland? Perhaps it needed to eat. That, and the mechanism and requirements for it to infect someone weren’t clear to me; it’s said that even a single cell will do it, but several characters seem to have a lot of contact with it without being infected. The dialogue doesn’t seem to tally with what actually happens in that regard.

And it may be I missed something, but the film seems to depict a normal day-night cycle, where they have time to make several helicopter trips in broad daylight before night sets in. But if the Antarctic winter is beginning, wouldn’t the days be very short and the nights very long at least?

Finally, if you want to nitpick: are flamethrowers really standard-issue equipment at Antarctic research bases?

“Mac wants the flamethrower!”
“He wants the what?”

Overall, this is a classic work of sci-fi/horror showing excellent craftsmanship, but admittedly it is not for everyone. Again, the gore here is very extreme and undoubtedly will be too much for many people. But if you can stand the body horror, you’ll get one of the best works of its kind. Definitely a canon work, especially as far as horror is concerned.

Highly Recommended
(But only for those with strong stomachs)

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