One of the best horror films-and overall films-ever made, John Carpenter’s sixth feature film and third collaboration with Kurt Russell engenders the very nature of great movie making. So iconic is The Thing’s setting, premise, and amazing special effects among both genre fans and regular film fans alike that it has passed into both cult and legendary status since the VHS era. Strangely, unlike other lists I’ve had to compile, this one had its number one spot done first; indeed, I was so confident of its place that I worked the rest of the list around its number one.
Taking place in Antarctica, the well-known plot revolves around a group of researchers who, upon discovering a UFO buried in the ice become terrorized by its paranormal, extra-terrestrial inhabitant-an alien life-form that can mimic the human and animal physiology of Earth with one hundred per cent accuracy. Russell plays R.J. MacReadie, a helicopter pilot attached to the researchers at the facility, and one of the only one of them who manages to keep his cool and come up with ways to survive and figure out which of them are actually infected.
A remake of Christian Nyby’s 1951 film The Thing from Another World, itself based upon legendary science fiction editor John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, John Carpenter’s The Thing is-more excessively so than its forebears-one of the most paranoid and claustrophobic films of all time. Tight shots down empty corridors, pans to empty rooms, and close-ups on the majority of character shots presents this already fairly well-known story the way it should have been from the start. Gone is the Cold War subtext, and the hokey, pale-faced, Frankenstein’s monster-like aggressor from Nyby’s film, in favour of a more faithful adaptation of Campbell’s work, where the alien is omnipresent, yet invisible and can imitate any form of life on earth that resembles human or animal. Not giving the thing tangible form cements the reason why this film is so damn scary: how can you fight what cannot be seen? How do you destroy it if it could be any of you? I can think of only one film series that compares to this level of nauseating cabin fever (no, not Cabin Fever (2002)!): Romero’s Dead trilogy (the first one). But Romero’s films are frightening because there are, in addition to human idiocy and selfishness, hordes of flesh-eating fiends waiting to tear you apart from the outside; Carpenter’s film is terrifying because this time the fiend is within and without. It’s not even outside, tapping its claws on the window, or screaming and wailing to get in and destroy us-hell, it’s not even inside with us. It is, most sickeningly, and most gut-wrenchingly, within us.
Nyby’s film gets it wrong by centring the sympathy on the alien instead of the cast, who in this film are bumbling, communist-hating military scientists; never was there a more tired or myopic science fiction stereotype than this during the 40s and 50s. But with the devastating and lethal efficiency with which the thing destroys the research team in Carpenter’s remake, it is clear that we all sympathise with the men this time. Even when MacReady, seemingly infected, ties them all to chairs and conducts blood tests to determine which of them is the thing, without tying himself up, we immediately get it: what else would we do if we were holding the blow torch and revolver? Aside from Keith David’s wonderfully brash character of Childs, Russell is mostly in complete control of the cast in this movie, and although we know the alien will eventually overtake them all, it seems that it has the most problems with MacReady out of them all. I read into this the fact that MacReady is an outsider; he isn’t a scientist, doctor, or researcher, and this outside view point and outlook seems to do him credit. He can survive because he thinks outside the box. He knows any one of the men, even him deep down, could be harbouring the thing, and as a result, I always got the impression that Russell played the part with external machismo and bravado, but with a mixture of internal fear and desperation. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the film’s final moments-changed from the novella’s original ending-where MacReady and Childs sit around the fire-strewn remains of the facility with a bottle of whiskey, sole ‘survivors’ of the thing, and resigned to their fate that one of them will eventually become the next target, then finally the thing will be unleashed upon the world. Childs asks MacReady, “Well, what shall we do?” to which he replies “Why don’t we just…wait here for a little while…see what happens?” I find this such a chilling ending, one which still has such impact today, where the world of the happy, neatly-resolved ending is king now.
The special effects must be mentioned along with its other strengths. Although some argue that special effects wizard Rob Bottin’s best work encompasses later films like RoboCop (1987) or Total Recall (1990), I completely disagree. Although his work is always stellar, it’s here that they come into their own. The original, innovative designs for each incarnation of the thing are still able to make mouths open to this day. I’ve seen my own mother’s jaw drop at the ferociousness and, to be honest, sheer credibility that Bottin’s experience lends them. Whether it’s the dog’s face splitting in half, or the spider-head, or the Palmer or Blair-thing, each incarnation is unique and unsettling, yet familiar in its design; we know the particular thing is a copy of someone in the cast, but it’s just different and misshapen enough to come across as extremely disturbing to the viewer.
As with Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing crashed and burned at the box office, critically and commercially. Taking only $19 million at the box office, and remaining at the number 8 spot for only three weeks, its release was overshadowed by the gargantuan success of Spielberg’s friendly alien outing of 1982, E.T., which went on to garner sales of over $359 million in the US alone. Indeed, it even surpassed Star Wars for a while as the highest-grossing movie of all time. Such figures couldn’t be competed with. Indeed, even Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner-also of the same year (1982 seemed to be the year for science fiction)-while also critically panned, and commercially unsuccessful (gaining only $37 million in the US), was at least deemed to be ‘adult’ in temperament; The Thing was described as “a great barf-bag movie” by Roger Ebert, as a “wretched excess” by Gary Arnold, and David Ansen declared emphatically that “Astonishingly, Carpenter blows it…” But again, as with Big Trouble, now the film is considered an unbeatable and enduring classic; indeed, fans now see it as one of the best examples of the horror, science fiction, and thriller genres, as well as one of the all-time best movies in general. Its performances, special effects, cinematography, and direction still hold up to this day as perfect, yet another example of why traditional film and story elements persist from a thirty five year old film better than they do from a film of only ten years old, or even a year old nowadays. It’s also the reason why the 2011 pre-make (it’s actually a prequel but it seems so much like they were going for a remake vibe) of the same name never would be as good as the 1982 version, despite our longing to know what happened to the Norwegians prior to the events of it.
Ultimately, while Escape from New York is arguably Russell’s most iconic role, it is The Thing that cements, for me, the nature of his power as an actor, showing versatility in playing the hard guy, but deep down, playing the scared-to-death hard guy in the most impossible situation. Now that the charm and saccharine of Spielberg’s film has finally worn off, the true power of Carpenter’s highly superior specimen of extra-terrestrial horror shines through all the brighter, all the more thanks to formatting; indeed, it could not have happened without the staying power of first VHS, then DVD, and now finally Blu-Ray, and the wealth of special features that can be incorporated into these releases now to extend their longevity.
I’d like to finish with a quote from Jay Scott, one of the few positive quotes from critics, that states that The Thing is “a hell of an antidote to E.T.” I couldn’t agree more.