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.
Love this film!!!
This movie’s still scary, even after all of these years. The remake’s okay too, but this is where the real magic’s at. Good review.
Hey Dan, cheers buddy. The remake was actually better than I thought it would be and I liked the fact it was a prequel of sorts.
Truly one of the greats by John Carpenter, and perhaps only surpassed by ‘Alien’ in sci-fi/horror. Fine write-up, my friend.
Thanks mate. Alien and The Thing are equally good in my mind, both for different reasons. Man, I need to watch Alien again though and soon!
Couldn’t agree more with your great review. Overshadowed and underrated, for sure. I love this film. 🙂
Thanks for the feedback Cindy, always great to read your comments. We definitely agree!
Excellent review. This should have had a much bigger box office than it did, especially since it is far better than Blade Runner. At least, that’s my opinion.
Thank you buddy. There are too many examples of classic movies that either tanked at the box office or didn’t get the critical love they deserved when they first came out.
Top write up mate. It’s starting to look dated now I think and as such probably not as scary anymore, but it’s still a brilliant film. Just love how bonkers the whole thing is.
Hey Chris, thank man. The effects actually still stand up in my book; you can’t beat physical effects over digital. They’re timeless!
Excellent work my man! The Thing is top quality stuff. Probably Carpenter’s best. Such a shame it wasn’t well received on release (often the case with Carpenter) but you’re right… Over time it has certainly proven it’s worth.
Cheers Mark. I’m split between this and Escape From New York for Carpenter’s best. He was the king for about 10 years and then things went a bit pear shaped, but the run he had from Assault… until They Live was pretty great!
Yeah, he certainly nose-dived and I think the box office failure of The THing contributed to that. The studios lost faith in him bringing in the bucks.
The Thing is a classic for sure but my second favourite would probably be Prince of Darkness believe it or not. Such an underrated horror.
Great movie! Great post! Well done!
I know, I know…
Excellent write up here Mark! Definitely can’t fault it. What with all the flaws and silly logic, it is still an absolute blast and a great watch!
Cheers Zoe! Couldn’t have said it better!
Great work Mark! I’m a big fan of the suspenseful paranoia built up here too. The remake, not so much!
Thanks Adam, sorry for the delay in coming back to you mate. The remake wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be in my book and I thought it better that it was a prequel and not a remake.
The Thing is gruesome, gory fun. Or, what little of it I have seen anyway. Still haven’t summoned the courage to watch it all in one sitting! Hahah #wimp
Great retrospective man, a compelling choice for certain.
Bugger, sorry for not getting back sooner mate. It’s not that bad! Man up! Sit and watch it in one sitting I beseech you!
Hi there Mark! Well, can’t say I’m a fan of gory sci-fi horror, however gleeful it may be, ahah. I know lots of ppl love this one tho.
It is gory, there’s no denying that! probably best to leave alone 🙂
2 words, Mark: Perfect Post. (Gotta share this one, thanks!)
Three words in reply: Thanks very much!