The Thing (1982): 32 year review
When asked what my favorite scary movie is, the geek in me knows there are just too many gory and spooky films to choose from. There are bunches and bunches of awesome horror out there, but,for better or worse, John Carpenters The Thing is one of my all time favorite horror movies. There are few horror movies that I can watch over and over without ever getting bored. Some horror movies are seasonal, such as: Friday the 13th is typically reserved for Friday the 13th’s or anytime during the summer, Halloween is reserved for Halloween, Gremlins is during Christmas, and so on. There is something about The Thing that keeps me coming back. From the opening scene with the space craft crashing into the earths atmosphere, to the seemingly innocent snow dog running from a deranged Norge gunman, and the discovery of the still smoldering Norwegian base camp, the setup reels you in and doesn’t let go. As we watch these scenes progress, we’re given little nibbles of foreshadowing (death, isolation, and an otherworldly discovery in the Arctic tundra) and the ever present somber tone, beautifully captured in the movies main musical score (some of Carpenters best musical scores), all this sets the pace and mood till the final conclusion.
Released during the summer of 1982, Carpenters take on John W Campbell’s novella, “Who goes there?” faced steep competition from other sci-fi releases, including: E.T. and Blade Runner. The Thing held the #8 spot during the summer blockbuster season and garnered some rather harsh criticism for being overtly graphic and agonizingly slow. The Thing presented a message that just was publicly receptive at the time. As George Romero has commented on the film, it was an era when we had little trust for those around us and ourselves; however, The Thing has since grown in popularity (mostly with horror geeks) and through the decades has established an impressive cult following. What Carpenter once called his “biggest regret” has now been named amongest the best in science fiction and one of the scariest movies in horror. This proves again how inconsequential box office rating are compared to how good a horror movie really is. In my eyes, The Thing could have eaten that nerd E.T. and assimilated Rick Deckard; however, apparently The Thing was a creature before its time.
Instead of going through the movie, giving away key plot develops that you could be discovering for yourself, i’ll go through the parts of the movie that impressed me the most. The Thing, as I see it, is one of the best science fiction horror films ever to grace cinema. The only other contender is Dead Space, a game which is fundamentally similar to The Thing, but hasn’t yet been made into a live action movie…not yet at least…and since we’re on the subject, who could pull off a Dead Space film other than John the master of horror Carpenter? (I know its just an internet rumor, but wouldn’t it be amazing for him to direct Dead Space?) Anyhow, this is all beside the point. Lets get back to the subject at hand. As we discussed in the opening of this review, The Thing comes at us with the perfect setup, the small little bits of information, drawing you in, forcing you to beg the question: What the heck is going on here?!? The best part is how isolated the characters are in the story are. Nothing tops old man winter to make one feel all alone!
And isolation is a classic backdrop for any horror story. Separate you’re characters from the world and odd choices will ensue when conflict rises. The Arctic adds the feeling of vulnerability; in contrast, a swampy humid location would typically coop stories about madness. However, The Thing isn’t so much a story about madness; its more about paranoia. Cut off from outside help characters become forced to take matters in their own hands, making isolation (or closed environments) the best way to heighten the feel of terror.
As far as characters go, John Carpenter could not have picked a better actor to play anti-hero MacReady than Kurt Russel. Other than Escape from New York, Big Trouble in little China, and Star Gate, The Thing is one of my favorite movies with Kurt Russel at the helm. His portrayal as the ruffy, drunk camp pilot, with a keen leadership ability during a crises, was spot on and completely believable. The same could be said regarding the rest of the actors, including both Wilford Brimley and Keith David. Each and every character was perfectly portrayed without the cheesy need of explaining who does what. Unfortunately, many horror movies fail with simplicity. You do not need to explain every single detail; let the story explain who the characters are through their actions. Just a little something to consider whenever you write your next screenplay: less is more.
Reading through some of the old reviews, the one thing that had turned most critics off in the 80’s was the very thing that made this movie a legend, the use of traditional special effects. Oh, and don’t worry, i’m not going to go on a rant here regarding CGI and traditional, but let me just say, comparing the original 1982 with the recent prequel, Carpenter’s will always be better because of his employment of hand crafted monsters, instead of computer simulations. For me, traditional effects are able to gross me out more than CGI; and its all because of the real factor, knowing somewhere out there in some back lot studio garage, these painstakingly crafted Things are still there, waiting to be rediscovered and sold in some Hollywood auction. Call me a horror snob all you want, but can you honestly disagree that when the Norris-Thing’s head started spouting spider legs, the sound and image didn’t make you cringe? This memorable scene was an unforgettable moment in horror. Norris has a heart attack, or seems to, and poor doc Copper steps in to save his life, only to lose his…and his arms! The Norris-Thing’s transformation was the second best monster moment in the movie, topped only by the Blair-Thing at the end of the movie.
Despite what others critics have said, the effects do not overpower the story, nor are they over done. The story, etched in paranoia, is still very potent. Well into the second day, folks at the United States National Science Institute Station 4 rapidly become suspicious of each other. The Thing, as they discover, can assimilate any biological life it comes into contact with… “It could be anyone of us…” is a phrase said once or twice around camp. Eyes dart between old friends and anyone acting or doing anything out of the ordinary is called into question. Who is friend and who is foe? Who can I trust? As MacReady told Blair, “Trust is a hard thing to come by these days.”
Not knowing who can be trusted magnificently adds to the feeling of isolation. Who’s got your back if the only person you can trust is yourself? In this respect, Carpenter brought out a lot from Campbell’s original novella, “Who Goes There?” Beside the Norris and Blair-Thing’s, the Bennings-Thing, with its thunderous scream, echoing out into the winter storm, was one of the creepiest moments in The Thing, and an excellent moment of paranoia. The effects were minimal here, there wasn’t much of the monster to see. The scary part was that Bennings was the first –known– member of station 4 to become absorbed by the alien. And as Garry so eloquently pointed out, “Bennings was my friend….I’ve known him for ten years.”
Though this review is without a doubt positive, that doesn’t necessarily mean the movie isn’t without its imperfections. There were a few bumps in the story that threw me off. The biggest one was when MacReady and company discover, or assume, the Things plan to go back into hibernation as it waits for the spring rescue crew to arrive. To this, MacReady plans to “heat things up around here,” which I wasn’t sure if he meant to burn the Thing or to heat up the camp so that it couldn’t go into hibernation…see where i’m going? Their in the antarctic, the fire will eventually extinguish and the Thing will still be able to hibernate. However, if you’ve been following our heroes development through the movie, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that MacReady isn’t really thinking straight, he’s sleep deprived and extremely paranoid. Endings can be the hardest part in a story to pull off without upsetting the audience. Everyone has an opinion. And though MacReady’s plan didn’t quite make sense to me, it was still an excellent and believable ending. They know their going to die, they just want to ensure the Thing dies with them.
The bottom line: The Thing is obviously a favorite. My review is glowing. The Thing is a favorite not only because of my love for the 1980’s or John Carpenter flicks, but because of its sheer intensity as a horror movie in general. Every aspect of this movie screams horror: a movie thriving on classic macabre motifs (isolation and paranoia) to deliver something uniquely chilling, which is: Who can we trust? If you are a true horror fan, of any caliber, you really need to watch this movie. Some folks may argue and say Halloween or Prince of Darkness was Carpenter’s best work; however, it is my humble opinion that The Thing was Carpenter’s best. The only hiccup in the story, for me at least — other folks may spend countless hours trying figure out and make sense of every single thing said, which is pointless — was MacReady’s plan at the end of the movie. However, sometimes these imperfections can actually make the story more believable and besides, isn’t the point of horror for its characters to make dumb decisions that do not always work out in the end and they have to do something different to save the day or fail doing so because of said dumb decision? Sure, The Thing wasn’t a box office success, but who cares? Since the 80’s, The Thing has become enshrined as one of the most important horror-sci-fi films with one of the longest lasting shelf life any film can hope to accomplish, which is to say, timeless. And regardless of what some critics are saying, The Thing was not a remake of the 1951 classic film The Thing from Another World. Carpenter’s take was actually more true to the original novella that spawned both movies. However, Carpenter being the classy guy that he is, payed tribute to Christian Nyby’s film with a few added easter eggs.
So, however you can, either buying it, renting it, borrowing it, or streaming it, watch this movie! You will NOT be disappointed.