Many of you probably know the story behind John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” It came out in the summer of 1982, two weeks after Steven Spielberg’s “E.T,” and while the alien from Spielberg’s movie was warm and cuddly, the one in Carpenter’s was cold, ugly, and utterly vicious. As a result, “The Thing” was quickly derided by both critics and fans alike, and no one hid their disgust towards Carpenter for what they saw as pornography of violence. In all fairness, however, the movie was released at the wrong time of the year. To release it during what Carpenter called the “summer of love” opposite not just “E.T.,” but also “Star Trek II” and “Tron” was a big mistake on the part of Universal Pictures, and they would have had more luck had they released it in the winter of 1982.
Years later, “The Thing,” like many of Carpenter’s movies, found the audience it deserved through home video and digital media. Perhaps it was ahead of its time, but it is now considered, and rightly so, one of the best horror and sci-fi movies ever made, and it is easily the best horror remake in a sea of horrendously crappy ones. It certainly plays better today than it did when first released, and it is still utterly terrifying 35 years after its release.Unlike the original Howard Hawks version of “The Thing,” Carpenter’s movie hews much closer to the short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. The movie takes place at an American scientific research outpost in Antarctica, perhaps the coldest place on Earth. We are introduced to a bunch of men who are studying the surrounding area, and they look bored and listless as they pass the days smoking, drinking scotch, watching “Let’s Make a Deal” reruns, and playing ping pong. One day, they are met by a wolf being shot at by a Norwegian for no discernable reason. This later leads to events which make them realize they have encountered an alien of unknown origin unearthed from the ice after thousands and thousands of years. It then proceeds to imitate every creature it comes into contact with, and it is revealed any of them could be the thing. They have to destroy the thing before it reaches civilization because, once it does, it would mean the end of the world.
The premise of “The Thing” is genius because it allows for an unending escalation of tension and suspense throughout. Like the characters, you have no idea who to trust. The paranoia which closes in on the characters puts them in an airtight cage, and this cage gets smaller and smaller as it heads to its infinitely bleak climax. There are no women to be found which eliminates any sexual tension and could have added an unnecessary element to the movie. Many say this makes the movie sexist, but it is a ridiculous charge.
“The Thing” was released when the whole world started to become aware of the AIDS virus. The idea of any virus infecting us completely and rearranging our body to the point may have seemed unreal to us back in 1982. But today, it is a reality more horrifying than ever, and it presents itself with no cure. This makes “The Thing” even scarier to take in when watching it now. The scene where Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) observes a computer image of the virus infecting a human host is one of the movie’s scariest moments, and it feels like an all too real a possibility today. The only thing truly dated about the scene is the computer graphics look like they are from some old Atari game, but it doesn’t change anything.
This movie also marks one of several collaborations between Carpenter and Kurt Russell who started working together on the TV movie “Elvis.” After all these years, Russell can still make you believe he is a regular guy like the rest of us, and his role as helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady is one of his best. You never get the feeling Russell is acting here. Instead, he inhabits the character he plays, and you follow him every step of the way without any doubt of who the hero really is.
Carpenter cast “The Thing” perfectly with actors like Richard Masur, Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat and David Clennon. But one of the best performances comes from Brimley as Dr. Blair. In the past, we have seen him in countless oatmeal commercials and in roles as the grandfather we wished we had in our lives. But his role in “The Thing” offered him an opportunity to go completely against type. Brimley goes from curious to utterly horrified by what this unknown creature can do, and he ends up wreaking havoc in a way you would never ever see in an oatmeal.
Another great actor in this movie is Keith David who plays Childs. David has a don’t mess with me intensity, and he matches Russell’s intensity every step of the way. The tension between them is as frightening as is waiting for the thing to make its next horrifically gory entrance.
But let’s talk about who the real star of “The Thing” really is, and that is Rob Bottin who designed the movie’s horrifically brilliant special effects and makeup designs. Long before the advance of computer technology, Bottin had to make all these designs from scratch, and what he came up with is now considered a benchmark in his field. The thing mimics everything it touches, and this must have been a huge inspiration for him as it allowed his imagination to run amuck with infinite possibilities. You never know what’s coming next, and this makes “The Thing” even scarier.
Some have called this movie a “geek show” made only with the intention of grossing people out. Granted, a good case could be made for that, but “The Thing” explores a theme that is commonplace in many of Carpenter’s movies; the struggle to maintain one’s individuality. Of never letting go of who you are because it allows you to survive in a world which keeps finding new ways of robbing your individuality at any given opportunity. The threat of this loss is very real, and the characters have the unfortunate disadvantage of being stuck in one of the most remote and desolate places on Earth.
I also imagine a big complaint people have about “The Thing” is we never learn about the alien or where it came from. Basically, we know it’s from outer space which imitates whatever it comes in contact with, and it clearly deals with the cold better than any of us do. Here’s the thing, do we really need to know everything about this creature? Maybe not knowing is more terrifying than knowing. It leaves a lot of things to the viewer’s imagination which I love because it leaves so many possibilities open for how this horrific situation is going to play out.
“The Thing” truly is Carpenter’s masterpiece as it shows him to be a true master of horror and suspense. He endlessly generates unbearable tension throughout, and just when you think the movie has peaked, you realize it has not. Carpenter’s goal here is not just to make us jump out of our seats, but to make us feel the terrifying isolation and complete lack of trust these characters are forced to endure.
Carpenter has said “The Thing” was the first in his apocalypse trilogy (the other two were “Prince of Darkness” and “In the Mouth of Madness”), and it does have an unrelentingly bleak tone which made it seem completely out of place back in 1982. As time goes on though, many of us keep thinking the world is coming to an end with more deadly diseases like the Ebola Virus among others, and the scenario this movie presents us feels all the more frightening and immediate as a result.
Some movies are robbed of their greatness through the passage of time, and we watch them and wonder why we liked them in the first place. But “The Thing” is an exception as the passage of time has made it all the more effective. You can’t help but think its story was ahead of its time, and it remains one of those movies I never ever tire of watching. It has more than earned its place on the list of my all-time favorite movies.
* * * * out of * * * *