John Carpenter seemed to be on fire by the time The Thing opened on June 25, 1982. Halloween was a surprise hit followed by The Fog and Escape From New York, both of which had been modest hits. But as any Hollywood actor, producer or director will tell you, you’re only as good as your last movie.
It didn’t help that audiences were crying their hearts out seeing an alien showing a suburban family the love it needed. Why spend money to watch an alien kill people? And not just kill them, but to kill them in a way that they’ll be running from the theaters to throw up their popcorn and junior mints.
Set at a research facility in Antartica, The Thing focuses on a dozen men working there who are terrorized by an alien entity that can assimilate any of them or any living organism. It all starts when they see a Norweigan helicopter chasing a sled dog toward their facility. The pilot is trying to shoot the dog and inadvertently shoots the meteorologist George Bennings (Peter Maloney) in the leg while the station manager, Garry (Donald Moffat) returns fire and kills him in self-defense. The passanger of the helicopter accidentally blows up the helicopter with himself in it.
Unaware of what they were up against, even though they’re telling the Americans in Norweigan, the dog is a monster, Clark (Richard Masur), who is the dog handler, takes the dog with him. R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), a Vietnam vet and helicopter pilot and the physician Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), fly to the Norweigan base where they discover that it burned as well as corpses at the site. There’s also a charred humanoid creature that they bring back for Blair (Wilford Brimley), the senior biologist to perform an autopsy. During this time, the dog has been walking around the base and goes into a room where one of the people’s shadow is shown.
Later that night, Clark puts the dog in the kennel with the other dogs. At this point, the other dogs sense something is wrong as the dog reveals itself to be the alien creature and tries to assimillate with the other dogs. MacReady hears this and sounds the alarm. One of the mechanics, Childs (Keith David) uses a flamethrower to incinerate it. Blair performs a necropsy and also discovers it’s part dog and part something else.
From data from the Norweigan base, they discover a large excavation site with a partially buried spacecraft. A geologist, Norris (Charles Hallahan) discovers the alien has been there for at least a hundred thousand years. But there is problems back at the American base as Blair is growing paranoid over the fact that the alien creature can assimilate the rest of the base and eventually the world.
And at this point, the twelve men don’t know who to trust anymore as they suspect that it’s assimiliated one or more of them. But who to trust and who to be cautious of? The Thing is based on the short novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. It also shows similarities of “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” a Twilight Zone episode during the first season where a normal American residential suburb turns into chaos with the neighbors start accusing each other of being aliens. Of course, this episode written by Rod Serling himself was a metaphor for the Cold War Red Scare that had followed the post-World War II era.
This is the second adaptation of the novella by Campbell. In 1951, Howard Hawks produced a movie The Thing or The Thing From Another World that some critics say was also a metaphor for the Communism Red Scare. However, by 1982, there was no Red Scare but the Cold War was still ongoing. Carpenter doesn’t focus on politics which is just as better. Seeing all the 12 men to slowly doubt each other excels the movie above what would’ve been dismissed as a creature feature. That’s not to say the effects designed by Rob Bottin aren’t impressive.
Much of The Thing‘s best moments is the gruesome special effects. I would strongly advise someone with a weak stomach not to eat anything before, during or after this. I’ve even heard them say they used the filling that goes into Twinkies for some of the more groady scenes. What the audience doesn’t know won’t hurt them.
But none of this is good if Carpenter and the cast don’t make it believable. I would say this movie doesn’t really have a protagonist. We’re expected to follow MacReady but he’s not exactly the heroic type. He’s scared and frightened like the rest. Brimley gives a nice performance as Blair. We often think of him in senior citizen roles or as the spokesman in diabetes commercials, but here he does a good role. It’s been reported they actually used real animal parts for the autopsy scenes and Brimley was okay with it as he had worked on ranches and had to dispose of dead animals.
The casting of T.K. Carter as Nauls, the cook, who is often on roller skates does come off as a little racist for the time period. And Childs smokes a joint with the fellow mechanic, Palmer (David Clennon). But these are small things you can overlook. There’s a feeling of isolation, even worse considering they’re in Anatartic during a heavy winterstorm. The ending, which I won’t mention, has led many people to speculate if one of the characters has assimilated.
Ennio Morricone scored the movie. He would later use samples he discarded for his score to The Hateful Eight, which follows the same tone. Quentin Tarantino said he used The Thing as a basis while writing that movie. In both movies, people are isolated during a heavy winterstorm with people who may not be who they think they are.
I think the universal appeal to The Thing is that you never really know who someone is. You hear stories of people who have had two families or were able to live a double life as a serial killer or prostitute without anyone knowing. Maybe it’s because we don’t chose to look closer and examine things. Even though it’s pretty obvious who the principal alien-thing is, Carpenter got a crew member to play the shadowy figure so no one would be able to tell. All I’m going to say is it’s not MacReady even though that might have been a nice twist.
Unfortunately, The Thing wasn’t a big hit with critics nor audiences. Produced for $15 million, it reportedly only made $19.6 million in North America. Thankfully, the movie came out at the right time as the home video market and cable premium movie channels exploded in the mid-1980s. Audiences were able to discover The Thing in the comfort of their own homes.
It also gave us another one of Carpenter’s greatest movies, Starman. He had already begun production on Christine by the time The Thing was in theaters so he couldn’t be removed from that. But Carpenter thought he may not get much work, so when Starman came his way, he quickly accepted the job. It’s the only movie he’s directed that was recognized by the Academy Awards with a nomination for Jeff Bridges. (Incidentally, Morricone won his only Oscar for The Hateful Eight).
By the time the 1990s rolled around opinion had begun to change on The Thing as many media critics giving it more favorable reviews. Some critics have called it one of the best movies of 198s, the 1980s, as one of the best movies of all time. It’s also hailed among horror fans as one of the best ever.
It surely is a movie to be scene if you’re a fan of horror. It combines body horror with creature feature as well as elements of psychological thriller. And some could even say it’s a little bit of a slasher as the characters are picked off in similar fashion. But like I said, the heart of the movie is the feeling of being with someone who may or may not have a malicious intent. In one scene the characters are sitting right next to a thing creature. We never know until it’s too late.
What do you think? Please comment.