Fans of John Carpenter’s gleefully gory sci-fi horror may have felt their pulse quickening when stories emerged earlier this year of ancient bacteria coming back to life after lying dormant in the arctic tundra for thousands of years.
Thankfully, said bacteria pose no danger (we are told) to humans or animals, but the same can’t be said for the parasitic organism that unleashes industrial-level havoc on a remote Antarctic research station after having been dug up by unwitting scientists.
Carpenter had already shown himself a master of genre cinema in such classics as Assault On Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978) and Escape From New York (1981) and went one better with his adaptation of John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? by fusing horror and science fiction into a singular nihilistic entity.
A painful box office failure on its release – thanks in no small part to it having been released on the heels of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and on the same day as Blade Runner – The Thing, like its relentless antagonist, refused to go softly into the night and instead ground out a cult following.
One of the strengths of the film is its tremendously strong cast, each of whom treats the material with the respect it deserves and gives their character a distinct personality. The cliques and clashes that already exist among the cabin fevered occupants of the American research base are already there before the Thing shows up.
Carpenter has never been one to waste a shot and launches into The Thing as he means to go on with a husky running towards the station as it’s being chased down by two strangers in a helicopter frantically shooting at it. It’s a memorable, action-packed opening that immediately introduces us to the film’s adversary and impishly undermines the old saying ‘man’s best friend’ (the director has more fun a little later when Stevie Wonder’s Superstitious plays in the background).
The director cleverly fades scenes out early on to heighten the suspense and make you question who the dog is visiting. Indeed, rarely has a canine’s neutral expression been laced with so much foreboding as it stares out of a window or looks off camera.
The moment the Thing finally shows itself is as shocking as it is grotesque (“it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is” as Richard Masur’s Clark succinctly points out). It’s here the film could so easily have gone off the deep end, but it’s down to the then 22-year-old Rob Bottin’s sensational creature effects (assisted by veteran Stan Winston, who declined opening titles credit in order to give full kudos to Bottin) that it works so brilliantly.
Ask anyone what they remember most about The Thing and, more often than not, they’ll point to the scenes where the creature appears, most indelibly in the celebrated chest defibrillation scene, wherein David Clennon’s bewildered Palmer speaks for all of us when he sputters “you’ve gotta be f**king kidding…”.
The sense of encroaching paranoia and hopelessness (“Nobody trusts anybody now. There’s nothing else we can do; just wait.”) is amplified both by Ennio Morricone’s menacing synth score, built around a simple two-note structure, and the hugely impressive production design. While filmed mostly on artificially frozen sound stages in Los Angeles, the decision to also film on a purpose-built research station in British Columbia in the depths of winter pays off immensely. The location adds a desperate remoteness that underlines just how vulnerable and threatened the team are.
Led by Kurt Russell’s increasingly mad-eyed Macready, the film is chock full of memorable performances, in particular Wilford Brimley’s crazed Blair and Donald Muffat’s station leader Garry, who gets one of the film’s best lines when he says: “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter tied to this f**king couch!”
It isn’t perfect; characters are implausibly sent off on their own instead of staying together and make other odd decisions in order to keep the film going, but master of suspense Carpenter outdoes himself by constantly turning the screw.
Still thrillingly chilling more than 30 years on, The Thing has rightly earned its place along other classics of horror and remains an eye-popping (and stomach chomping) movie experience.