The Thing

USA | 1982 | Directed by John Carpenter

Logline: A scientific research station in the Antarctic is infiltrated by a xenomorphic alien life-form that steadily consumes and imitates each member.

John Carpenter’s brilliant remake of Howard Hawk’s B-movie The Thing From Another World (1951) is without a doubt one of the greatest modern horrors ever made. Up with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Day of the Dead, Halloween, and, of course, Alien. It is a masterpiece of escalating paranoia, increasing atmospheric density, and spectacular visceral intensity. When it was first released it bombed at the box office. Steven Speilberg’s cute little critter called E.T. was reaping the ticket stubs and audience’s weren’t in the mood for any kind of grim alien nastiness.

The Thing went on to garner an extraordinary cult following, and these days it is considered by most horrorphiles, cinephiles, and discerning, open-minded folk as a classic of its kind. Like Alien it bridges the sf-horror sub-genre, and like Alien it has barely dated. The uncompromising elements that made it difficult for audiences to deal with back in 1982 are now considered its strengths. It is without peer (apart from Alien), and until very recently, has not been marred by a sequel or remake; keeping in mind it is a remake in itself, although Bill Lancaster’s excellent screenplay follows the original source material much more closely than Hawks talky clunker.

Based on the novella Who Goes There? By John Campbell it’s a fascinating and altogether disturbing account of an extremely intelligent life-form trapped in an inhospitable environment and who it goes about ensuring its own survival. As the movie’s tagline described, “Man is the warmest place to hide.” To the humans trying to deal with the seemingly impossible the creature is a parasite, but a parasite with astonishing capabilities. It absorbs its “prey” completely, then swiftly changes to mimic exactly the life-form it just consumed. When the movie opens, unbeknownst to the audience, the alien is mimicking a husky, and has escaped from the ruins of a Norwegian research station with two surviving members in hot and desperate pursuit. The Americans take the dog into custody with no idea of the horror they’ve brought into the fold.

There are no women in this movie, an unusual element to a big-budget Hollywood production., and thus no silly, pointless romantic sub-plot (and another plus it shares with Alien). The closest thing to a female is the computer voice that is playing opposite MacReady (Kurt Russell in, arguably, his finest performance) at movie’s beginning. “Checkmate,” she tells him rather coolly. MacReady responds by pouring the remainder of his bourbon into her air vent causing her to short circuit. It’s this aggressive, take-no-bullshit attitude that will serve MacReady well in the latter stages of the movie. Just.

The rest of the cast are all excellent, especially Donald Moffat as Garry and Wilford Brimley as Blair. Ennio Morricone provides a memorable, highly evocative score, that provides further edge to the atmosphere of dread and distrust that permeates the ice station and its hapless team. But special attention goes to Rob Bottin (only 23-years-old) who created the ingenious special effects make-up designs. These horrific, outlandish depictions of the alien in various states of being and change are without a doubt the best prosthetic and animatronic work of the 80s (alongside Tom Savini’s work on Day of the Dead). Carpenter had the savvy to put a significant amount of the budget aside for the special effects. It may have alienated a large part of the movie’s audience at the time (apart from us horrorphiles who were woo-hooing in the cinema aisles), but over the next decade Bottin’s work wasn’t just being singled out for being authentically repulsive, but for being genuinely astonishing.

The Thing is claustrophobic and nerve-wracking, a masterfully suspenseful study of paranoia steeped in dread, and its ending is suitably (and bravely) saturated in dilemma and dark wonder. The alien was trying to escape, but has it? Will it? Has it infiltrated either of the two survivors? Both men are wary of each other, as they pass the bottle of whiskey between their frozen fingers; “If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think either one of us is in much shape to do anything about it.”