“We’re a thousand miles from nowhere, man. And it’s gonna get a hell of a lot worse before it gets any better.” – Windows
John Carpenter’s The Thing wasn’t well-received when it was released in 1982, which apparently hit Carpenter pretty hard. It’s a shame because had he had the foresight to understand the turnaround the film would experience, he’d never have worried; The Thing is now one of the most celebrated horror movies of all time and rightfully so. Combining some of the best elements of horror and suspense, it’s one of the few movies I’ve seen that can deliver real chills, and scare consistently through repeated viewings.
At a remote outpost in Antarctica, a small group of American researchers have their work interrupted when a babbling Norwegian chases a stray husky into camp, wildly firing bullets from an assault rifle. His erratic shooting eventually gets a researcher shot, and in the confusion the Norwegian is killed. It’s the first week of winter, and with a heavy storm coming in the next few days and communication cut out the science team is left to its own devices to figure out exactly what the hell is going on. Helicopter pilot R.J. Macready (Kurt Russell) flies out to the Norwegian camp to find answers, but the investigation only raises more questions when he finds the place wrecked; a suicide victim frozen, the camp destroyed, a mysterious excavation and the burned corpse of something grotesquely disfigured. Macready brings the cooked body back for an autopsy, and all hell breaks loose – Some creature has infiltrated the site, gruesomely tearing apart and assimilating itself into a perfect replica of its victims. The team tries to contain the monster, but when it escapes in the confusion, there’s no way to be sure who is still human and who has been taken by the Thing.
Remember special effects? Real effects? The kind that actors could actually see and touch? The kind George Lucas continues to systematically erase from his Star Wars saga? They’re all present and at their best in The Thing. For whatever reason, the brain can tell when it’s real and when it’s digitally created, and there is something gut-wrenching and visceral about a corpse twisting and ripping itself apart that has to be done with physical props. The Thing is punctuated by horrifying examples of this, scenes where body parts pop and tear, explode and gush that will make your stomach revolt against everything in your body that is making you watch. It’s a celebration of traditional effects work, incorporating all the best techniques – stop motion, robotics, make-up – they all have their moment in the spotlight. Especially now in post-CGI Hollywood, seeing tangible, existing monsters is a treat.
As with all horror, gore is only at its best when used appropriately and Carpenter definitely knew this well: The pacing in The Thing is perfect. The movie opens with long shots and slow pans, exposing the isolated vastness of the Antarctic landscape. This is all overlaid with a plodding synth beat from Ennio Morricone’s awesome musical score. Subdued dialogue and the sparse white environment make for a disquieting atmosphere right off the bat. It’s a fair way in before the Thing reveals itself, and over an hour before anyone is killed. The build in tension is painfully slow, exploding into action in bursts and retreating again into suspense, all the while climbing toward the final climax.
The audience is constantly put in the position of guessing who is still human throughout the movie, and this is probably its greatest strength. By keeping so many cards close to the chest, it’s impossible not to get drawn in. The entire crew falls to dissent and distrust quickly becomes the main theme of the story, and because the director often leaves the viewer in the dark as well, there are large chunks of the movie where the audience isn’t any better off than the characters are. Everyone’s left in a terrifying clusterf–k, and no one knows who to trust. It’s game theory at its best. What makes the suspense all the more delicate, is that by staying close together the crew can keep an eye on another, but this exposes more of the group to infection. On the other hand, in order to keep the camp running and to try to kill the Thing they have to split up and handle multiple tasks, meaning there’s no telling who’s been taken while everyone’s been apart. Trying to keep their sanity in check becomes more and more difficult as their co-workers one by one turn inside out and shower the compound in blood and organs, and before long even the ones who haven’t been infected are trying to kill one another.
It’s hard to describe the feeling you get the first time you finish watching The Thing; like your guts have been rung out, and become useless. The movie emotionally exhausted me.
By juggling so many well-executed horror principles The Thing plays its audience like a violin, creeping us out with real tension before shocking us with vomit-inducing gore. It’s a finely tuned machine that includes some of the most iconic moments in horror history. It’s also got one of the greatest and creepiest animal acting performances of all time. And I just got a puppy, so re-watching the movie for this review nearly killed me.