When we think of John Carpenter's masterful sci-fi horrorshow The Thing, what usually springs to mind is the surreally shape-shifting xenomorph of the title, sprouting twisted, leering, deformed heads and crackling crab legs and wildly waving tentacles and gnashing monster teeth. The Thing is an incredibly, memorably, gruesomely visceral film, probably the gooiest, goriest, most blatantly gut-punching major studio production of its era (which is ironic given that Richard Heffner, the chairman of the MPAA's ratings board at the time, had vowed to be harder on rating movie violence and had been doing so for some time).
However, for all its visual horrors, The Thing is, at its core, a classically structured whodunit,-although in this case it is more of a whoisit? "Who Goes There?," the source novella by science fiction titan John W. Campbell Jr., first published in 1938, had been adapted in 1951 as The Thing From Another World by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby. Carpenter's film is often referred to as a remake, but it isn't because screenwriter Bill Lancaster returned and stayed much closer to the original story, which focused on the queasy impossibility of determining who is human and who is a shape-shifting alien in human disguise. The Hawks and Nyby film is a classic of its era, but Carpenter's work is in a largely different vein and is its own beast.
The story is set entirely at a remote Antarctic research station in the subzero-frozen dead of winter. The station is manned by a dozen men of varying temperaments and personalities played by a roster of character actors that includes Wilford Brimley as a taciturn pathologist who becomes almost insanely paranoid; T.K. Carter as a sarcastic, roller-skating cook; Keith David as a brusque mechanic; Charles Hallahan as a meek physicist; and Richard Masur as an intensely reserved dog handler. The film's nominal star is Kurt Russell, who plays a hard-drinking, heavily-bearded, perpetually scowling helicopter pilot named MacReady. Russell had previously worked with Carpenter on his 1979 made-for-television movie Elvis and the dystopian action film Escape From New York (1981), and his rising star status is perhaps the film's only flaw, as it suggests all too clearly who is most likely to be one of the last men standing (although, to Carpenter's credit, The Thing ends on a true downer, with a nihilistic sense of ambiguity that makes the open ending of 1978's Halloween seem feel-good).
The Thing was Carpenter's first studio-backed project, and he took full advantage of the scope of resources now available to him. He and cinematographer Dean Cundey, with whom he had worked on his previous three films (Halloween, 1980s's The Fog, and Escape From New York), create a constant sense of entrapment and isolation. They use the frozen expanse around the research facility (actually a glacier in northern British Columbia) to reinforce the distance between the characters and the rest of humanity, which might as well not exist, and the close quarters inside the facility to reinforce the characters' paranoia and make it all but impossible to determine who has been exposed to the alien and therefore may no longer be human. As they did in Halloween, Carpenter and Cundey use the wide Panavision frame to engulf us visually, leaving plenty of room around the dark edges to suggest what might be lurking just off-screen. Italian composer Ennio Morricone supplies an effective musical score, although many of the most memorable synthesizer beats are pure Carpenter (who composed the music for most of his films).
Of course, as noted earlier, the film's special effects are, in many ways, the star of the show, which were a point of criticism in some circles. The mechanical and prosthetic effects were all designed and created by Rob Bottin, who was only in his early 20s, but had already made a major impact on the horror genre with his werewolf transformation effects in Joe Dante's The Howling (1981). Bottin's creature creations are genius in the way they merge all manner of twisted, nightmarish imagery, playing off the familiar and making it utterly horrifying. The film's reliance on traditional physical effects (no CGI here) gives it a palpable sense of texture and realism, similar to ????'s effects in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979). The effects also play into the film's various tones: sometimes they are simply grotesque, at other times they are shocking (such as the moment when a character's abdomen suddenly and unexpectedly turns into a giant toothed maw), and other times they are blackly comical (such as when a disembodied head-Thing sprouts spider-like legs and scuttles off in the background as the terrified characters look for it).
But, as successful as the effects are, they would constitute little more than a finely crafted freak show if Carpenter and his cast didn't generate a constant, escalating sense of dread and suspense. The Thing is, in its gut, a variation on Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None," the classic story in which characters in a remote setting are murdered one by one while the remaining characters try to figure out who the murderer is. The Thing itself is less a character than a conceit that Carpenter uses to pit the characters against each other. It helps that Carpenter has such a finely tuned sense of what is genuinely unsettling, which sets the film apart from the spate of splatter films that were dominating the horror genre at the time. Interestingly, the film's best scene, in which MacReady attempts to determine who is the Thing by testing the blood of each man with a heated wire (he has realized that each part of the Thing is an independent organism that will try to save itself) has no gore or viscera in it and operates entirely on the fundamentals of good ol' fashioned suspense. It's a corker of a scene and one that rewards with both a jump-scare of imminent worth and a pay-off that is simultaneously terrifying and hilarious. Carpenter would go on to make several more very good movies in the 1980s, including the moving sci-fi romance Starman (1984), the oddball cult classic (1986), and the consumerist satire They Live (1988), but it is hard to argue that The Thing isn't the pinnacle of his work as a filmmaker-a film that is fascinating, horrifying, and utterly engaging from the first frame to the last.
Copyright 2017 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright Shout! Factory
Overall Rating: (4)
Get a daily dose of Nashville Herald news through our daily email, its complimentary and keeps you fully up to date with world and business news as well.