John Carpenter’s 1982 Masterpiece, The Thing: A Retrospective
John Carpenter, one of the greatest horror filmmakers of all time, is probably best known for his 1978 Slasher classic, Halloween. Since its release it has become a staple of holiday viewing in the month of October and beyond, for even the most casual of horror fans. Halloween changed the face of the genre forever, but it is my opinion (as well as so many other fans) that what came next completely overshadowed the lumbering, masked killer that is Michael Myers. In what can only be described as artistic irony, we get the first glimpse into the film in the small, black and white television in Tommy Doyle’s living room, right before Michael Myers goes to work.
If you’re paying attention, you can see the title sequence for a movie titled The Thing. What? How is that possible, you ask? Simple. The Thing first made its way to the silver screen in 1951 as The Thing from Another World, which was derived from a 1931 novella by a man named John W. Campbell, Jr. The novella, known as “Who Goes There?” served as the basis for both films.
However, the next incarnation of The Thing undeniably trumps the previous versions…even the original written work. It is a feat that happens very rarely, but it can be done. And with a master of horror like John Carpenter, this should come as no surprise.
My first recollections of The Thing come from my grandfather watching it in the basement by the fireplace when I was a child. He wasn’t a horror fan, but this was one of his favorite films. However, I could only see certain parts. Some of them were too scary for me, he would tell me.
As I got older, that memory of watching the men in the snow on the television screen stuck with me, coupled with my Grandfather’s comments, so I bought it on DVD. I turned it on at 3:30 am, and when the credits rolled, the sun was coming up. Regardless, I was still frightened by what I had just seen.
The Thing stars Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady, a helicopter pilot who travels to the arctic in order to help investigate a disaster at a scientific research facility. What he finds there is more terrible than he could ever imagine. Hidden in the frozen wasteland of Antarctica is a malevolent extraterrestrial being, capable of assimilating itself to look like anyone. It could be you. It could be me. And that’s only the beginning of the terror.
One by one, the crew starts diminishing. Who is infected? Who can you trust? In the arctic base, where the outside temperature is well below freezing, a sense of claustrophobic dread sets in…and damn, is it unrelenting.
Throughout the film, we get some of the most visually scarring and gruesome transformations that have ever been committed to film. You can thank special effects artist Rob Bottin for your nightmares here. At only 22 years old, Bottin had truly been a genius of his craft. The Thing, as it can be called, is absolutely terrifying when it takes on its own shape and removes its human disguises. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft will be in awe at the otherworldly forms. They look like terrifying, mutated, deadly crustaceans, probably just like Mr. Lovecraft had in mind when he wrote his grim tales many years ago.
The film runs smoothly yet dreadfully through its 109 minute timeframe, with the help of the phenomenal acting by Kurt Russell and ominous score by Ennio Morricone. Which, by the way, I had always found strange; up until that point, John Carpenter had scored all of his films himself. The scores in Carpenter’s films are always one of their strong points, and in The Thing, it is no different. Although not done personally by Carpenter, you can easily be fooled into thinking that it was at times. Morricone takes many cues from the director’s previous movies and makes it into something different but still hauntingly familiar. The added symphonic aspect by Morricone, especially the maniacal plucked violins only add to the impact of the film.
There is no shortage of gore in this film either. Although some may feel that they take the splatter too far, I must respectfully disagree. It makes the sense of the alien assimilation that much more terrifying. Not only does it take over your body, but it will tear it to shreds when it wants to and morph human flesh into something more terrifying than you can ever imagine. Well, I mean, you’ll clearly be able to imagine in when you see it in the film, but you know what I’m getting at. It’s insane. Trust me.
But, let us not forget what is quite possibly the strongest asset to this film; Kurt Russell. Without him, the movie would just feel like it was missing something. He portrays his character as a super badass, always thinking rationally, and always keeping his cool. His lines are delivered with conviction and power. And when he wields that flamethrower? Well, you’d find it hard not to believe that Mr. Russell was born to destroy aliens in the Arctic.
To me, The Thing is one of the most perfect horror movies ever made. There are no plot holes and there is never a moment where the movie seems to be dragging on. The sense of confusion as to who is really an alien and who is not is overwhelming. To this day, Carpenter and Russell both admit that neither of them know which of the surviving characters were assimilated by the Thing, if either of them even were. It ends on a perfectly ambiguous note that will keep you wondering and debating for years, being that there never will be an official answer or proper sequel.
This is John Carpenter’s favorite film of his to date, and I understand why. It’s my favorite film of his, too. If you’ve never seen The Thing, you are doing yourself a huge disservice. If you can stomach some extremely gory scenes and want to see a claustrophobic mystery about violent aliens in the arctic, watch this now.
Also, Kurt Russell’s beard is incredible here. Just had to throw that in there.