CINEMA CLASSICS: The Thing (1982)

Is John Carpenter’s remake of a 1950s classic deserving of masterpiece status? Cal gives it another watch. 

Who made it?: John Carpenter (Director), Bill Lancaster (Writer), David Foster, Lawrence Turman (Producers), Universal Pictures.

Who’s in it?:  Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan.

Tagline: “Man Is The Warmest Place to Hide.”

IMDb rating: 8.2/10.

Tagged as a loose remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 flick The Thing from Another World (itself an adaptation of a John W. Campbell novella), John Carpenter’s The Thing is a seminal horror picture that hooks you from the outset and never lets go. Although the production is now considered a cult classic and one of Carpenter’s finest efforts, The Thing was not exactly well-received upon release back in 1982 – critics lambasted it, while other summer films like E.T.Poltergeist and Conan the Barbarian were also vying for box office dollars, thus restricting The Thing‘s gross revenue. Luckily, it was given new life on home video, resulting in the kind of attention it deserved in the first place. Carpenter has crafted one hell of a white-knuckle thriller here; an engrossing examination of paranoia and the repugnant nature of mankind’s dark survival instinct. On top of being an impressively gory creature feature, The Thing dabbles in psychological terror, and is heavily imbued with the brand of tension that Carpenter is renowned for.

Set at an American scientific outpost in the middle of the icy Antarctic, the film opens as a mysterious helicopter approaches carrying a Norwegian gunman who’s apparently trying to shoot a runaway husky. Believing the Norwegian to be a threat, the Americans promptly kill the gunman before learning of his motivations. Fearing that more violence is imminent, the crew travel to the Norwegian camp but find it destroyed and isolated. Also lying nearby is a mangled humanoid. Not long afterwards, the husky reveals that its not a dog at all, but an alien organism capable of perfectly mimicking any other life-form. With the alien creature on the loose, the possibility becomes very real that one of the American crew may have been taken over, but it’s unclear just who it is…

Rather than simply remaking The Thing from Another World, Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster produced a fresh adaptation of the original novella, using the era’s updated special effects to create something closer to Campbell’s original vision. Narratively, The Thing can probably be described as a science fiction spin on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (a.k.a. Ten Little Indians), as characters are being mysteriously killed, but the alien murderer is able to change its identity at the drop of a hat. It’s touches like this which make the film so riveting. One could call it derivative due to its similarities to films like Alien and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but all horror movies are unoriginal to some extent. What matters is the technique, and The Thing is a home run in this respect. The thought that any one of the central characters can be the alien at any time becomes a source of nail-biting tension, and several set-pieces (see the blood test) are enthralling in their unpredictability.

Even though this was director Carpenter’s first feature made inside the Hollywood system, The Thing was not weakened by studio interference. There’s no sappy Hollywood romance or forced happy endings here – Carpenter was allowed to stick to his hallmarks (masterful widescreen photography, extreme violence, anti-heroes), but the studio backing gave him the added benefit of a generous budget. And my word, every penny of the $15 million budget was well-spent. The creature effects are still for the most part convincing, and the gore is still repellent decades on, which is a testament to both the skill of FX technician Rob Bottin (who was only 22 at the time) and the fact that prosthetics are superior to CGI. On top of this, the atmosphere is convincing, with a combination of sets and location filming allowing us to believe that these Americans are truly trapped in the middle of nowhere. Also effective is Ennio Morricone’s minimalist score, which competently builds suspense. The music was clearly inspired by Carpenter’s composing style, and those unaware of Morricone’s involvement may be fooled into thinking that the director was responsible for the score (as he frequently is on his movies).

Kurt Russell (who had worked with Carpenter a year prior on Escape From New York) is top-notch as helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady. A badass, likeable character actor, Russell owns the role and his low-key performance is utterly convincing. The Thing is very much an ensemble picture, though, with strong work all-around from the likes of Keith David, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Joel Polis, and Donald Moffat. There are no weak links in this cast. Only one female is in the movie, and it’s strictly a vocal role – that of a computer. It’s amazing to watch a horror movie which isn’t marred by some bimbo of a love interest whose sole purpose is to look beautiful and attract more viewers.

Watching The Thing in the 21st Century, it’s amazing how well the film has aged. It was produced long before polished, contemporary cinema ruled by digital effects, but it remains ageless, which just proves how accomplished Carpenter and his team truly are. Its agelessness is derived from the state-of-the-art (practical) special effects, and the fact that Carpenter relies more on tension and psychological terror than outright gore. This is a B-movie through and through, but B-movies do not come much better or more proficient than this.

The Thing would continue to find success on home video and television, eventually becoming a cult film and a bona-fide masterpiece in the eyes of critics. This led to a videogame sequel in 2002 also called The Thing, which was released on PC, PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Anyone who’s ever played it will tell you that its one of the hardest Survival Horror titles ever made. This renewed popularity reached a head in 2011 when a prequel was produced, called – you guessed it – The Thing. While it fills in a few gaps from Carpenter’s movie, following the activities of the Norwegian base, it is nowhere near the 1982 classic in terms of quality. But few things are.

Best Scene

Take your pick, right? Well, the blood-testing scene might take the cake for me.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • This movie has become part of the culture in Antarctica. It is a long standing tradition in all British Antarctic research stations to watch The Thing as part of their Midwinter feast and celebration held every June 21.
  • In August 2003 a couple of hard-core fans, Todd Cameron and Steve Crawford, ventured to the remote filming location in Stewart, British Columbia and, after 21 years, found remains of Outpost #31 and the Norwegian helicopter. The rotor blade from the chopper now belongs to Todd and rests in his collection of memorabilia from the film.
  • This is the first of John Carpenter’s films which he did not score himself. The film’s original choice of composer was Jerry Goldsmith, but he passed and Ennio Morricone composed a very low-key Carpenter-like score filled with brooding, menacing bass chords.
  • To give the illusion of icy Antarctic conditions, interior sets on the Los Angeles sound stages were refrigerated down to 40 F while it was well over 100 F outside.

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