“The Thing” (1982) – “I don’t know who to trust.” – Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley)
We’ve all heard that phrase before. Perhaps you attended MBA school, competed in a beauty pageant, or watched “Survivor”, the reality television show in which contestants compete for a million dollars in the remote locales of Borneo, the Pearl Islands, or Cambodia. Although Richard Hatch, Sandra Diaz-Twine, and Jeremy Collins voted their “Survivor” castmates off the island, no one felt like their lives were in jeopardy.
(Now, wear a Michigan Wolverines jersey to an Ohio State home football game on a November afternoon, and well, perhaps one’s health could fall into question, but let’s not digress.)
In John Carpenter’s “The Thing” – the creature-feature remake of the 1951 classic “The Thing from Another World” – a dozen men working at the United States’ National Science Institute Station #4 in Antarctica don’t have full confidence with their colleagues.
You see, something has infiltrated their camp.
A beyond-strange, murderous monster attempts to hunt them down, and it possesses a transformative, shape-shifter proficiency to take their physical form(s) and walk undetected among the rest of the populous as a normal human being. This ability – of course – gives it the camouflage to easily strike again.
Who is a friend? Who is a foe? A more appropriate question is: How many friends or foes does one have?
Carpenter’s horror masterpiece combines “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956, 1978) with an Agatha Christie story, like “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974, 2017) or “Evil Under the Sun” (1982). Now, our villain isn’t from some faraway corner of the globe. In the film’s opening scene, we see a spaceship enter Earth’s atmosphere, but yes, this antagonist is undoubtedly evil. Then again, maybe it is just Mother Nature in her most bizarre, lethal, and unworldly form.
Like 12 men on a jury, the guys operating this secluded government facility come in all shapes and sizes. A mix of scientists (like Dr. Blair (Brimley, sans his famous mustache) and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart)) and support staff (like Nauls (T.K. Carter) and R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell)) are left wondering who to embrace and who to shoot. Actually, MacReady – a bearded, alpha male with a penchant for J&B scotch whiskey and computer chess – chooses his weapon wisely, as he instinctively decides that a flamethrower is the best defense against this threatening baddie.
Although the actual combat between the humans and alien is excessively violent, noisy, and extremely gory, psychological horror fills this high-stakes murder-mystery. The creature can attack at any moment, but it prefers lonely, solitary circumstances. Carpenter establishes the physical environment from the get-go with several camera shots of the camp. We see that this large semi-sprawling metallic facility accommodates plenty of radio and computer equipment, small dimly-lit offices, storage rooms crammed with boxes, and a recreation center complete with a ping pong table. Several times, no one appears on-screen. This research station sits in the most isolated place on the planet, and it’s pretty darn quiet inside too, with an infinite number of discreet places to hide.
“This thing doesn’t want to show itself. It wants to hide inside an imitation,” MacReady declares.
Even random conversations are filled with tension because – for example – is Fuchs (Joel Polis) speaking with Childs (Keith David) or an extra-terrestrial imposter? In one scene, MacReady talks into a tape recorder to document his and his coworkers’ ominous predicament, but our director frames him in the lower right portion of his camera lens and leaves a wide-open space – with an open doorway showing an empty hallway – to our reluctant hero’s left. Carpenter tees up the potential for a sudden, ferocious confrontation, and the audience will surely wince in anticipation of one.
With good reason, because “The Thing” is the ultimate horror whodunit, but it’s also known for its mind-blowing practical effects that still hold up 38 years later. The Thing might look like MacReady, Norris (Charles Hallahan), Clark (Richard Nasur), or anyone else, but then an army of snake-like tentacles, spider legs, or green tendons smothered in slimy goo will burst from underneath its skin and wrap-up a victim with malevolent intent.
During a 2017 interview, Keith David recalls the remarkable and realistic special effects.
“I remember the first day that we walked in and saw the dog that explodes. As I recall, the ASPCA came in because they thought that it was a real dog and wanted to make sure we weren’t mistreating these animals,” David says.
Although The Thing wants to kill in the shadows, director of photography Dean Cundey displays visual effects artist Rob Bottin’s wonderfully-repulsive creations of visceral guts and gore in plain view with shiny, bright lights. Cundey doesn’t lean subtly here, as he proudly shows off every square inch of Bottin’s dastardly handiwork, along with the sounds of our suffocating stalker’s sickly shrieks, splashes, and swishes.
While Carpenter’s “Halloween” (1978) spills very little blood, “The Thing” is the polar (pardon the pun) opposite. The two movies diverge in another key way. His Michael Myers slasher film raked in about 70 million dollars in theatres, but this Antarctic terror fest (actually filmed in the ice fields above Juneau, Alaska and also Stewart, British Columbia) only pulled in 19 million bucks at the box office, and critics offered mixed reviews at the time. The depressing, doomsday outlook didn’t lift audiences spirits either.
In a 2008 interview, Carpenter said, “I made a really grueling dark film, and I just don’t think audiences in 1982 wanted to see that. They wanted to see ‘E.T.’ (1982), and ‘The Thing’ was the opposite of ‘E.T.’”
Thirty-eight years later, audiences are much more receptive to “The Thing”, which Carpenter appreciates.
He adds, “I’m very proud of the movie. I always loved it. It’s one of my favorites of my own films.”
Well, “The Thing” is my all-time favorite horror movie. It’s that good. Come on, you can trust me.
⭐⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: Bill Lancaster, based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s “Who Goes There?”
Starring: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, and T.K. Carter
Runtime: 109 minutes
Image credits: Universal Pictures