John Carpenter has built up enough of an oeuvre that everyone has their own pick for his elite work, but for me it’s “The Thing” (1982) in a landslide. I appreciate “Halloween’s” status as a slasher trope codifier, and “Escape from New York’s” guerrilla grit, but “The Thing” is the director’s most fully formed masterpiece. It’s mentioned a lot for its elite practical creature effects and its portrayal of paranoia within a small group, and it has made must-watch lists during the coronavirus pandemic thanks to its story of a mysterious infection. But what most defines the film for me are its sense of place and sense of dread.
The film begins with a Norwegian helicopter gunman trying to shoot a dog bounding across the Antarctic snowscape. That sense of “What the heck is going on?” never dissipates; instead it morphs, much like the alien creature that eventually appears. None of the members of the U.S. military/scientific outpost – led not officially, but for our purposes, by Kurt Russell’s MacReady – understands the Norwegians’ frantic pleas before they accidentally blow up their helicopter and get themselves shot to death for their inexplicably panicked behavior.
The atmospherics of this snow-blown camp – filmed in British Columbia – are evocative. I love the ephemera that’s peppered around; it’s clear that a dozen people live and work here. There’s a warmth to the rec room, where – in the last moment before the s*** starts to hit the fan – the group members play cards, shoot pool and read on the couch. No one seems like best buds with anyone else, but with that constant wind outside (always buried in the sound mix) and occasional mentions of the 40-below temperature, we know they’d rather be in here than out there.
The whole all-male cast is great, but Russell sets the tone. The bearded, shaggy MacReady is tired and morose, and he evokes a “screw it all” attitude even more so than Snake Plissken. At the same time, he is the blue-collar guy who will do what needs to be done, even if he doesn’t enjoy it – whether it’s devising the blood test that reveals who’s been possessed by the creature, or shooting a man who makes a sudden move toward him.
We also get some vintage Wilford Brimley as Dr. Blair, the scientist tasked with doing the autopsy on the strange corpse brought back from the Norwegian site. Deep-voiced Keith David is Childs, another alpha male who clashes with MacReady. All told, there are 12 men at the encampment, a perfect number for playing out the classic mystery/paranoia structure that dates back at least to John W. Campbell Jr.’s “Who Goes There?” (1938), which screenwriter Bill Lancaster draws from.
Campbell’s novella was also adapted into “The Thing from Another World” (1951), and Carpenter’s film was later expanded upon in a prequel also titled “The Thing” (2011). Plus, “The X-Files” did its version with 1993’s “Ice” (1.8), and many science-fiction authors have done some variation on small-group paranoia. It’s an endlessly fascinating premise.
Creature effects legend Rob Bottin is almost synonymous with “The Thing,” which is filled with classic imagery. Poor Dr. Cooper (Richard Dysart) tries to resuscitate a man, whose stomach opens up and chews off his arms. A head springs free of a (seeming) corpse, grows spider legs and flees the room. A highlight reel of “The Thing’s” special effects make it look like a silly B-movie, but in context, they are part of a great B-movie.
Early on, Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey frame shots so we don’t get a good look at the creature. The creepiness is still very much on the screen – witness the blood frozen in place where it dripped off the corpse of a man who killed himself at the Norwegian camp. But the creature remains a mystery for a while; when Blair does the autopsy, he reports that all the internal organs are normal. It’s just a weirdly disfigured man, apparently.
We know better, and on some level, so do the characters, even though they don’t know they are in a horror movie. They stare at the bizarre corpse, and yes, Carpenter and editor Todd Ramsay are showing off Bottin’s work, which is sometimes a no-no in film editing. But it makes sense here. You can’t help but stare at something you’ve never seen before (even in horror movies).
In addition to the weirdness and the wind, Ennio Morricone’s score is ever-present, getting under our skin – although it’s not overbearing by any means. Lancaster gives us a particularly chilling ending wherein MacReady and Childs – who may or may not be possessed – sit outside the range of the fires engulfing the camp. They’ll freeze to death if they are both human. If Childs is a creature, he’ll freeze in perfect hibernation, ready to attack the rescue team and ultimately wipe out humanity. The fatalism is mirrored by Morricone’s score, which continues to drip dread over the closing credits. “The Thing” is meant to linger with a viewer.
In contrast to Carpenter’s dark comedy “Escape from New York” from a year prior, “The Thing” barely has any comic relief in it, yet I wouldn’t say it’s oppressive or hard to watch. It retains the fun of a B-horror film despite being the very best example of the form, and the progression of events is engrossing even though we’ve seen it all before (just three years earlier in “Alien,” in fact). The creature effects are striking, but too extreme for a viewer to dwell on their plausibility.
The outpost – for all its functional prefabricated qualities – has an appealing safety-from-the-storm quality. We want to retreat into it, and it’s chilling when we can’t anymore, when the card-playing and lounging around gives way to horror and infection fears. The creature comes from outer space, but it’s Carpenter’s portrayal of a remote smattering of humans on Earth – and perhaps the last stand of humanity – that’s most impressive about “The Thing.”