Right behind Michael Mann, John Carpenter is my favorite filmmaker of all time. The diverse range of films he has given the world are entirely unique and wildly entertaining. In 1982, he ventured to pay homage to one of his favorite filmmakers, Howard Hawkes, by helming a re-adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. short story “Who Goes There?” Hawkes had done so previously in 1951 with The Thing From Another World. What Carpenter gave us is what I consider the best film he’s ever made. A grippingly effective science fiction horror film with an amazing atmosphere of slow building paranoia and sickening alien gore. John Carpenter’s The Thing became a classic of the genre due not only to a solid ensemble cast, but an elite crew that make this such a fantastic film that continues to hold up thirty years later.
In the winter of 1982, a twelve-man research team at a remote Antarctic United States research station discover an alien life form that was buried in the snow and ice for over 100,000 years. They soon realize that not only is it still alive after a deep freeze burial and a fiery defeat by a Norwegian camp, but that it has the ability to imitate any living thing to exact detail. Before they know it, the alien organism has infiltrated their camp, posing as any number of these men. Paranoia and distrust runs amuck in this isolated compound as no one knows who is human, and who is The Thing.
Time always seems to be the best judge of quality. Upon its release, The Thing did poorly. This was because 1982 was the summer of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, and many dark science fiction films did badly in the shadow of that wondrous, fantastical film. Blade Runner, which opened the same weekend as The Thing, also suffered at the box office because of this. However, since then, The Thing and Blade Runner have become two of the most revered films of the genre garnering massive praise, and are recognized among the best works from directors John Carpenter and Ridley Scott, respectively. They are both amazing films in different ways, but have both influenced the genre immensely.
Beyond anything, what stands out the most in this film are Rob Bottin’s amazing creature effects. What he achieves puts him on the same level with the absolute best in the business. Effects master Stan Winston also lent a helping hand in a sequence or two, but Bottin is the main man responsible for the richly disgusting slimy alien gore and mind blowing physical creations here. The detail he put into his work to create such twisted and purely alien designs remain as impactful and effective today as they were in 1982. That’s the work of a master, and it lead to him working on blockbusters such as RoboCop, Total Recall, Se7en, Mission: Impossible, and Fight Club. It is a massive loss to the industry that he has been absent from it since 2002. Bottin was a fascinating personality with a wild artistic mind that was ripe with brilliance. This film is eternal testament to his talents.
Speaking of which, John Carpenter’s pure horror talents have never been more taut or focused than in this film. It’s the perfect blending of paranoia, creepiness, gory horror, tension, and suspense. Nobody does it like John Carpenter, and only from his expert direction could this film have become as timeless and consistently effective as it has become. Also from him comes a perfectly selected cast fronted by Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady – the cool and rational mind, the level-headed one of the bunch. Also featured in this ensemble are Keith David, A. Wilford Brimley, Thomas Waites, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur, David Clennon, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, T.K. Carter, and Donald Moffat. They all inhabit their characters so distinctly and vibrantly. Each man has their own look, and aren’t easy to mistake one for another. Their personalities and characteristics set them all apart very nicely, and all of the cast grasped onto the growing paranoia excellently. A beardless Brimley brings forth a fantastic performance as well as Blair flips out partway through the movie tearing apart the communications center. He plays crazy to immensely entertaining effect. Later, he is truly unsettling leading into the film’s climax. Keith David is constantly entertaining as the gung ho, take-no-crap from anyone Childs. However, Russell clearly remains the most central protagonist of the film bringing stability to the chaos, and handling all the various dimensions of MacReady awesomely.
The script written by Bill Lancaster is wonderfully constructed. Sadly, Mr. Lancaster passed away in 1997 due to a cardiac arrest, and was not able to contribute his thoughts to Universal’s amazing Collector’s Edition DVD. The Thing was the last piece of cinema Lancaster was directly involved with, and at least he could say that he bowed out of filmmaking on a seriously high note. This happens to be a pure classic in the genre of science fiction & horror. The dialogue is always great, never ever cheesy or cliché. There are bits of humor, but nothing that works against the tone of the film or the scene. Any director would be privileged to work with a script this well-conceived.
The cinematography is an absolute pleasure here, and that is forever to be expected from Academy Award winning director of photography Dean Cundey. In the opening minutes of the film, we are given stunning shots of the immense arctic landscape that clearly establish how isolated our characters are. The photography can even prove to be terribly creepy at times such as the storage room scene after MacReady breaks into the compound. Kurt Russell looks ghostly with the brilliant blue lighting upon his snow covered self. Cinematography in a Carpenter film has always been a strong point, and you cannot deny its strength here. It helps evoke the proper emotions at the right times by capturing atmosphere in its compositions and lighting. Another such element is Ennio Morricone’s score. Right from the get go, it sets the tone for the entire film. It grips you and never lets go. This score is haunting, relentless, brooding, and terribly chilling. This is such a powerful score, and despite that Carpenter did not compose it, it does have many elements of his own scores in it. Morricone had scored many “spaghetti” westerns including The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, and we would later score The Untouchables. To this day, Morricone continues to score many films, mostly Italian ones.
What makes this film so effective is due to the psychological aspect of the story. The paranoia slowly develops in the company of these men while trust diminishes. These characters are nicely setup from the start establishing their relationships and personalities so vividly that later you see how seamlessly the alien has infiltrated their ranks. No one acts any differently, and it is surprising how complete the disguise is. Under a human guise, the Thing turns down the chance to take over as the leader of the group. The life form is not looking to be obvious. It has no ego, and is possibly doing this out of fear for its own survival. It wants to hide, be subversive so that it can keep doing what it does without suspicion. Using covert methods, it can slowly take over the entire camp until it is in total control. However, when threatened, it is a brilliant idea that each part of it is an individual whole that will fight for its own survival. This makes it just that much harder to definitively defeat as even one molecule’s survival can be disastrous, in time. Mixed in with the diverse and dimensional performances, every aspect of paranoia and fear that this film deserved is greatly fleshed out and realized here.
When taking in all of this excellence, one can’t help but realize they are watching a classic piece of science fiction / horror cinema with John Carpenter’s The Thing. From Carpenter’s expert direction, Bottin’s masterful effects work, the stellar production values, the power of Morricone’s score, the amazing cinematography, and certainly the stellar acting talents of this whole ensemble cast you will get a perfect film. The atmosphere in this motion picture is something that many filmmakers fail to inject into their own films. My interest in horror films has waned in past several years. First, it was the torture porn trend, and now, I just don’t see much of anything out there with this level of atmosphere and craftsmanship. John Carpenter’s masterpiece gets a perfect, solid rating from me – 10 out of 10. I did see the 2011 prequel, and while it excelled in the horror and atmospheric areas, it didn’t have the memorable characters or amazing creature effects that set Carpenter’s film apart from the competition. You surely can’t perfectly imitate a masterpiece.