The men of an Antarctic base encounter a deadly force from space in The Thing
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Kurt Russell (MacReady), Wilford Brimley (Blair), TK Carter (Nauls), David Clennon (Palmer), Keith David (Childs), Richard Dysart (Dr. Copper), Charles Hallahan (Norris), Peter Maloney (Bennings), Richard Masur (Clark), Donald Moffat (Garry), Joel Polis (Fuchs), Thomas Waites (Windows)
In a curious coincidence, The Thing was released on the same day as Blade Runner. Both have since gone on to become landmark science fiction films, hugely influential to future film makers. Both have scenes that linger in the memory, and have ambiguous endings fans have discussed for decades. Both were also disastrous box office bombs and with negative critical reactions.
The Thing is a creeping masterpiece of sci-fi, body horror and paranoia. On an Antarctic base, an American research team rescues a dog being pursued by two Norwegians from a base close-by (the two Norwegians are both killed, one accidentally, one shot dead after firing at the Americans). Investigating the Norwegian base to see what happened, they find it destroyed and a series of grisly corpses, including one with two faces. Soon it becomes clear the Norwegians fell victim to an alien who has the power to perfectly copy and replace living organisms. The Americans realise they are trapped on the camp, with no idea who them may now be a “Thing” rather than human.
John Carpenter’s creepy, atmospheric horror film is an endlessly gripping thriller that rewards constant rewatching. Its shot with an unnerving simplicity of movement, with the focus getting tighter and tighter. We start with an unsettling helicopter shot taking in the panorama of Antarctica but, before long, the action is confined to single rooms in the American camp, with our leads shouting suspiciously at each other. The whole film is underplayed by an eerie Ennio Morricone score that really gets under your skin with its haunting electronic strains. It’s a classic by any definition of the word, and it never, ever gets old or tired: I’ve seen it a dozen times, and each time new small moments grab me, shots enchant me – and it never fails to be tense, unnerving and scary.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding” a character states at one point. It’s pretty easy to imagine that this was the reaction of the critics at the time, at the onslaught of body horror. The Thing’s process of absorption is not only disgusting (usually involving flesh and skin peeling back to reveal all sorts of crazy shit), but its defence mechanisms involve similar depths of insane grossness. By the time our heroes are incinerating replacements with a ruthless lack of concern, we’ve already seen chests turn into massive tooth jaws, a dog Thing peel its own face off, and a head of a Thing separate itself from a burning body, grow spider legs and scuttle away. You’ve got to be fucking kidding indeed.
The Thing is pretty much a landmark in prosthetic work (you’ve never seen anything like this before). And the body horror still packs a major punch – I couldn’t eat my sticky bun while the Dog Thing ripped itself apart in the middle of a kennel early on (those poor other dogs by the way…). Some of the most effective stuff is actually the smaller scale moments – there is a great moment where a Thing grabs another character by the face and hand and face merge together. It has a truly yucky feeling to it. It’s all so carefully constructed and inventive that it haunts and fascinates. But if it was just a parade of gross images and nightmare fuel it wouldn’t have lasted. What makes it work is that it has a cracking story and a great set of characters.
Carpenter collects a terrific group of actors, headlined by Kurt Russell. Russell’s MacReady is the perfect lead for this sort of film, a grizzled maverick slacker who reveals (when the shit hits the fan) the natural charisma of the born leader, the only man there able to make the hard calls. He even has a perfect little introduction scene, playing chess with a computer (whose voice makes it the only female character in the film incidentally). Having narrowly lost the game against a tactically more cunning opponent, he pours his drink into its workings, effectively destroying the game board. That gives you a pretty accurate idea of where the film is going. The whole film is Macready’s struggle against an opponent who is cunning, brilliant and (almost literally) faceless – is it any wonder he decides that destruction could be the only way to win?
The rest of the cast give a lot of depth to their otherwise trope-based characters. In particular, Dysart, Brimley, David, Hallahan, Moffat and Masur stand out for creating unique feeling characters, each of them feeding into the growing paranoia that infects the camp. Because that’s what makes this film last: it’s a brilliant study of paranoia, suspicion and a group of macho men (to varying degrees) squabbling aggressively with each other in a confined space. Carpenter really captures this sense of twisted group dynamics – establishing plenty of tensions and personality flaws and clashes even before the horror begins. It feels like a real cold war movie: interlopers in our midst, but we don’t know who they are. It’s a slow burn that really pays off when the action explodes in the second half of the movie.
And that pay-off is compelling. A particularly masterful sequence involves a series of blood tests (now a hoary old stable of these things, but at the time something really new). MacReady essentially ties up all the other remaining characters (living and dead) and sticks a scolding hot wire into a blood sample from each man. The idea being the blood of any Thing will react aggressively to the “attack”. Carpenter really lets this scene build slowly – not least because MacReady is holding all the men at dynamite and gun point. The slow build-up reveals a few innocent men, each untied to help Macready. Then just as MacReady (and the audience) begin to relax – someone fails the test and the scene jumps into body horror chaos. Completing the tests after that is a near wordless sequence of jump cuts from test to test, with the number of untied men slowly growing. It’s brilliantly done: slow – quick – slow. Perfect tension drama. It’s the centrepiece of the whole damn movie.
The other thing Carpenter really understands is that set-ups like this are perfect discussion fodder for fans. Just as we love to debate whether Deckard is a replicant or not, there are plenty of similar points in this film. Most of this revolves around Blair, the first to work out the danger the Thing will cause if it reaches civilisation: when does he become infected? How many of his actions are human, how many Thing? At one point MacReady visits him (isolated in a hut) and finds him sitting calmly asking to come back in. Creepily beside him, an unused noose hangs from the roof: it’s not commented on in the scene at all, but it speaks volumes for possible interpretations. This sort of stuff throws itself open to a debate for the ages – the film enigmatically provides enough clues without definitive answers. It does this for a number of events – deaths go unexplained, materials are destroyed and we never find out by whom. The film is full of shady events, of key moments happening off camera, of mysteries going as unanswered for the characters as they do for the audience. Ripe for you to add your own interpretation.
The final scene of the film continues this: the surviving characters sit in the burning wreckage of their base. For all they know, either or neither of them may, or may not, be Things. But it hardly matters: the cold is coming in and we (and they) know anyone left in these conditions will be frozen in a matter of hours. So you get this brilliantly low-key, weary but charged exchange:
Survivor #1: Maybe we shouldn't.
Survivor #2: If you're worried about me...
Survivor #1: If we've got any surprises for each other, I don't think we're in much shape to do anything about it.
Survivor #2: Well, what do we do?
Survivor #1: Why don't we just... wait here for a little while... see what happens?
So – the question stands? Who is a Thing and who isn’t? It’s a perfect, unsettling, final frame discussion point – and one that has kept feeding debate for years.
The Thing is a nasty, grimy, tense, unsettling, gruesome, gory, yucky, scary, paranoia-inducing masterpiece. It’s easily the best thing John Carpenter ever made (its failure at the box office seemed to break the director’s spirit, as nothing he did ever again reached this). As a slow-burn, cold war flavoured conspiracy and suspicion story it’s out of the top drawer – it captures perfectly the psychosis and fear that can be brought on by trapped isolation. It’s crammed with perfectly formed scenes. It has a terrific, nearly nihilistic feel to it – even the most competent of the men (MacReady) is way out of his depth here. Our alien nemesis is a master of psychology and tactics. So is the film.