Minor spoilers for The Thing.
We’ve all been there, right? We hear about certain iconic films in our lives, whether it be through images, parodies, recreations, essays, or in rankings, yet despite being aware of said movie, never actually got around to watching it. Well, that was me with John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing. I heard it was creepy, gross, that its practical effects were stellar. It was all these things, and more, making it quite possible, one of the best horror films ever.
The Thing, a remake of the 1938 novel, Who Goes There, which was turned into the 1951 film The Thing From Another World, stars Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady, one of a dozen or so scientists operating a laboratory in Antarctica. One day, a helicopter flies to their camp, piloted by a deranged Norwegian from a neighbouring lab. The pilot was hunting a dog down and opened fire on the scientists. It’s a great opening as you’re actually joining the tail end of another conflict (which is explored in The Thing 2011, which is a prequel film of the same name), but are completely in the dark about what’s going on, just like the scientists. Did the pilot have cabin fever? Why chase the dog?
Things slowly start to take a turn for the worst though. The dog that they adopted into their camp, yeah, he’s an alien. The Norwegian crew discovered an ancient alien wreckage in the ice, dating back hundreds of thousands of years, and accidentally let the parasitic creature on the loose. The pilot, the last survivor of that encampment, knows what’s what, but he’s gone off the rails a bit too much to slow down and try to make sense, nevermind the language barrier. The Thing’s power is quite interesting. It can copy anything in its immediate vicinity, becoming a perfect replica of any organic being. It has the same mannerisms, gait, accent and instincts, in the case of its human mimicry. The actors themselves weren’t privy to who was infected until it was time for the movie to reveal that information, ensuring they didn’t unconsciously change their personality.
Now, for those who are sensitive to gore and/or dogs getting harmed, you may want to back away from this movie, or at least have your hands on standby to cover your eyes. This is quite possible the grossest flicks I’ve seen, but it’s part of what makes the movie so good. The parasite’s transformations are bloody, oozy, gory and entirely practical. Nothing feels like movie magic, as watching a parasite emerge from a host is entirely seamless, and credit to Rob Bottin for that, who was 22 at the time. The great Stan Winston also worked on the film, uncredited. I’d say the effects are second only to the first Jurassic Park in terms of effectiveness. The creatures are horrific nightmares and never once feel like props.
Once the crew becomes privy to the parasite, the real fun of the movie begins. Confined to the isolated and cold lab in the middle of the biggest desert on the planet, the team begins to descend into madness and paranoia. Who can they trust? They begin to point the finger at each other, get more riled up. What’s more is that despite filming in L.A., the soundstages were set to freezing, meaning the cast ended up working in very cold conditions and were miserable and easily agitated, which only bolstered their performances. Meanwhile, the parasite takes advantage of the situation, quickly replacing members of the team with a new copy, unless the transformation is interrupted.
I think the first thing that surprised me with the movie, right off the bat, was that it was scored by the late, great Ennio Morricone (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly), and the score is certainly a character of its own. Whether it’s the low, eerie bass riff that opens the movie, or the haunting and wailing string arrangement, this film’s score is top-notch. But aside from that, is how amazingly perfect Kurt Russell is in this movie. He’s serious, smart, a potential alcoholic, and just paranoid enough to make others question him, despite his logic and intelligence. He figures out that sparking their own blood samples will cause the parasite to reveal itself, something that takes a lot of convincing to do. He should have been looking at their eyes instead though. Per an interview with cinematographer Dean Cundey for the 4k John Carpenter boxset:
“So we were looking for some kind of a subtle way, to say which one of these (men) might be human. You’ll notice there’s always an eye light, we call it, a little gleam in the eye of the actor. It gives life.”
Intelligence is something that sets this movie apart too. This isn’t a mindless hack and slash movie. John Carpenter (Halloween) uses slow camera movements to build tension and demonstrates just how quickly trust goes out the window when there’s a threat to a community. The thing may be a monster, but the people it’s hunting aren’t angels either when push comes to shove. The movie shows that many people are either ignorant or selfish when put in a situation like this, which has dire consequences on the mortality rate of the camp.
It’s also worth mentioning that this was an eerie and relevant movie to watch in 2020. The threat may be a sentient alien creature, but it behaves very similarly to a virus. One of the key ways to defend against the Thing’s powers is to actually social distance from it. If the Thing succeeds in its mission and can get to the mainland, it will spread rapidly and infect the population. Watching some people flaunt the rules or eye roll at Mac’s commitment to staying safe echos a lot of headlines and rules we have amid the pandemic. Then there’s the fear of who might have it and who doesn’t and how suddenly, trust goes out the window. Many of the scientists either don’t believe or are too slow to adapt to the thing’s powers, which allows it to spread and multiply. It’s strange how this 80s remake would be one of the go-to movies to represent the state of this year. Movies like Contagion show the life and times of the virus and how it impacts the globe, but The Thing scaled it back to see how ignorant and how underprepared we are at following basic instructions to prevent the spread.
I’ve yet to watch the 2011 prequel but if time permits, maybe I’ll squeeze that in before the 31st and leave my impressions of that film here as well. That said, I’d love for Gun Media, the team behind Friday The 13th: The Game, to tackle an asymmetrical multiplayer game version of this, which would likely be similar to the game Among Us, but still. Who to trust among your party, but with a gory, horror movie twist? Sounds right up their alley. Overall though, I think The Thing is a bonafide horror classic and I’m utterly bamboozled it took me this long to watch it.