Classic Movies: The Thing (1982)
Directed by – John Carpenter
Written by – Bill Lancaster
Based on Who Goes There?, a novella by John W. Campbell Jr.
Starring – Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Donald Moffat, Richard Masur, David Clennon & Charles Hallahan
As Friday’s “Classics Revisited” looked at John Carpenter’s cult classic The Fog, I thought I might as well give another of Mr Carpenter’s classic eighties horror flicks a re-evaluation… dare you enter the realm of The Thing?
For me, The Thing is horror in its purest form. Loosely based on The Thing from Another World – which, in turn, was based on a John W. Campbell novella – it tells the story of a group of male researchers at a laboratory in Antarctica who discover a strange alien life force living among them. The creature is able to mimic with complete accuracy those with whom it comes into contact, spreading and multiplying with the intention of eventually replicating every person on the planet. Trapped in the deepest, darkest recesses of Antarctica until spring, the men soon realise that any one of them could have already been taken. Trust breaks down, the terror increases and before long neither the characters nor the audience have any idea who is or isn’t telling the truth.
The plot might sound familiar to you, though this is no fault of The Thing. When the original film was released in 1951 it was in response to the threat of Communism from the other side of the World. This idea of a silent invader that could get to your friends and family and turn them into a danger was very much in line with the fears of the audience at the time. It’s an idea that permeated through the genre during the fifties, with films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers capitalising (ironically…) on the notion that these invaders don’t just want to hurt us but they also want to destroy our personal freedom and liberty. The notion that someone you’ve known for years – your brother, your wife, your best friend, even your children – could suddenly turn into someone – or something – that wishes harm upon you was quite terrifying, especially in the Cold War era.
Enter John Carpenter’s The Thing, a partial remake that opened to quite a mixed reception back in 1982. Starring Kurt Russell (Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China), this was Carpenter’s fifth foray into horror (if you include his work on Eyes of Laura Mars and Halloween II) in as many years and, up to this point, was his most ambitious project in the genre. After critiquing the falsity of the middle-class “American Dream” in Halloween, small town America in The Fog and the whole of American society in Escape from New York, Carpenter returns to basics here with a film that is distinctly human. The focus isn’t on society as much as it is on the inner-workings of mankind, resulting in a film in which the terror feels all the more personal.
The genius of Carpenter’s version of the story is that it modernises the anti-Communist themes without sacrificing any of the timeless meaning. At its heart, The Thing isn’t even about “The Thing”. The alien is little more than a feint through which deep paranoia and the innate darkness of humanity can be explored. The alien isn’t the real threat; the real threat is how each person deals with their distrust of others and how each character is able / willing to manipulate the situation to ensure their own survival. All of the initial camaraderie that defines the group’s relationship at the start falls apart almost methodically until, before long, everybody is perfectly happy to kill their teammates, irrespective of whether or not their teammate has been taken by the alien. The fear is what drives them and the film explores the notion that the only thing we truly need to fear is fear itself.
Of course, in order to make the audience embrace this fear the characters need to be well-written and it is here that the film excels. As I argued in a piece for Vada last week, the characters in The Thing aren’t necessarily the most fully-fleshed in horror history but each of them serves a purpose and each of them has their own distinct personality. The audience believes in their plight because they can find a bit of themselves in one or more of them. Sure, Kurt Russell’s MacReady is the obvious hero of the piece but amongst the rest of the ensemble, we all have the one who we most associate with. It is through this that the film really gets inside your head; the audience is asked to consider what they would do in such an uncertain situation and the truthful answer is probably pretty concerning.
If I were to be super critical, I’d argue that The Thing is at its weakest whenever the alien is on screen. Don’t get me wrong, the visual effects are superb and the alien is obviously very disturbing but I think its presence sometimes serves to null the effect of the monster appearing so human. Nevertheless, The Thing is a taut, terrifying piece of horror cinema that toys with some of our most innate fears in an unrelenting way. From the moment the film starts, with that signature Carpenter / Morricone score, you know you’re in for an experience that can only be described as nerve-shredding, and as the action cranks up and the terror hits all new highs, Carpenter makes it impossible for us to look away. He is the master of atmosphere and tension and he knows exactly how to get under your skin, much like the monstrous creature that is “The Thing”. As characters turn, as the situation becomes more perilous and as the creature becomes more restless, a first-time viewer would find it almost impossible to predict what will happen next. The film is brutal to its bitter, pessimistic end and is a masterpiece in all senses of the word.
Best of all, it just gets better with each rewatch.