By Ezra Stead
John Carpenter’s The Thing, USA, 1982
Directed by John Carpenter
Continuing with my Month Of Halloween Movies (MOHM? Think of it more as a modified yoga chant and less as me crying out for my Mommy), it’s time now to revisit one of my perennial favorites, one that first traumatized me as an impressionable seven-or-eight-year-old when I saw it on a dubbed VHS tape, which is probably the best way to be introduced to any horror film from the 1970s or ’80s. John Carpenter’s vastly different, and I would argue superior, updating of the Howard Hawks produced, Christian Nyby directed classic The Thing from Another World (1951) is undoubtedly one of the nastiest, darkest horror films ever to make it to mainstream movie screens, a spiritual descendant of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and a predecessor of David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986). Don’t get me wrong – the original is absolutely one of the very best of the 1950s UFO-paranoia movies, with only Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) really equaling or exceeding it. It’s just that Carpenter’s relentlessly dark vision and the supremely grotesque special effects created by Rob Bottin easily trump even the best of the ’50s for sheer terror and awesomeness. Also, Kurt Russell’s iconic turn as the anti-hero of the story, R.J. MacReady, is one of the quintessential performances of ’80s machismo. Let’s look at the three main things that make this movie so great, beginning with Russell.
Mac, as he is called throughout the film, is a complete bad-ass. We can see this right from his introduction, when he pours himself a glass of Scotch on the rocks and arrogantly makes his move in a chess game against a computer voiced by Carpenter’s real-life wife at the time, Adrienne Barbeau. When his gambit fails and he is checkmated by the emotionless machine, he calmly dumps the remainder of his drink into it’s circuitry and calls it a “Cheating bitch.” Clearly, this man is the leader of the twelve-man crew out in the midst of the frozen nowhere that is Antarctica, should the need for a leader arise. Which, of course, it does, soon enough. Mac is so damn cool one of the other guys, Windows (Thomas Waites), even tries to look like him, with a beard and sunglasses clearly modeled after the look of his ostensible man-crush. While Mac is indisputably the man, taking the power that is rightfully his by virtue of being Kurt Russell but never abusing it without good cause, some love deserves to be spent on the rest of the cast as well, particularly Wilford Brimley as Dr. Blair and Keith David (who would go on to spectacularly fist-fight “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in a later Carpenter masterpiece, 1989’s They Live) as Childs, the only other man on the base with balls big and brass enough to stand up to a heavily armed Russell later in the film, albeit only briefly. Dr. Blair has perhaps the most interesting character arc, as he is the first one to thoroughly examine the creature and realize its terrifying potential, and it drives him gloriously mad, culminating in a great scene in which he basically destroys the entire base with a goddamn ax.
On to the main attraction: the Thing itself. Sweet Jeebus, I can’t believe I first saw this movie as a child and lived to tell you about it. The Thing is one of the greatest triumphs of special effects ever created, and truly one of the most horrifying works of art ever constructed. When we first see it, attempting to assimilate a pack of huskies into repulsive, evil alien form, it is absolutely disgusting. The best glimpse we can get of its true form is something like an amalgamation of centipedes, intestines and the creepy “baby” thing from David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), and it’s all moving at once. Truly hideous. However, it is when the Thing is mid-transformation that it really gets terrifying; this must be the closest thing in cinema history to actually visually capturing what I think the great H.P. Lovecraft must have had in mind when he wrote of “the Thing that Should Not Be,” a creature so unspeakably awful and wrong that to look at it for too long is to lose one’s mind, which is exactly what the men in The Thing do, beginning with Blair. I have little doubt that the upcoming remake / prequel / cash-in opening next weekend will replace Bottin’s extraordinary work here with CGI, and even less doubt that it will fail to hold a candle to the real practical effects he created with makeup, prosthetics and stop-motion animation.
The Thing was made during John Carpenter’s creative peak as a filmmaker, which lasted roughly two decades and included such unforgettable classics as Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), Escape from New York (1981), Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994). Of all of these and the others I haven’t mentioned, and with all due respect to the game-changing Halloween, The Thing might be the best, and is almost certainly the scariest. One thing that many of the scariest movies ever made – including Alien, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and Brad Anderson’s Session 9 (2001), just to name a few – have in common is a feeling of isolation. The scariest thing in the world is made at least a little less scary by the presence of other people, the comforts of familiar surroundings, the possibility of escape. The Thing offers none of these, as the characters are already isolated from the beginning, and by the end, no one is sure if the other people who are nearby can be trusted, or if they have become the Thing. It’s a truly terrifying and relentlessly bleak vision captured by Carpenter with almost sadistic perfection; throughout the film, he has us exactly where he wants us, and he never lets go. Though I am generally immune to this sort of thing, having been weaned on a plethora of horror movies from a very young age, The Thing also contains some of the scariest “gotcha” moments ever to make an audience jump, especially in the autopsy scene when Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) gets a little more in-depth than he planned, and in the third-act blood test scene, when Mac’s brilliant idea for finding out who is still human works even better than he’d planned.
Of course, there are other elements that make The Thing the all-time monster movie masterpiece it certainly is, including a great script by Bill Lancaster (adapted from the story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr.), stellar cinematography by Dean Cundey and, perhaps most significant in creating the frightening atmosphere, the score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, who is still best known as Sergio Leone’s favorite composer (among other things, he created one of the most famous musical cues of all time for 1966’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). Carpenter usually scores his own films, and without careful attention to the opening credits, it would be tempting to believe he did this one as well; basically, Morricone created the best John Carpenter film score John Carpenter never made. As with all great horror films, there is humor as well, but it is dark and sparing, appearing only in just the right places, and the ending of the film is so uncompromisingly grim and ambiguous it never fails to have me on the edge of my seat, no matter how many times I see it. It is all these elements and more that make John Carpenter’s The Thing perhaps the scariest film of the ’80s, and one of my favorite horror films of all time.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.