Any horror fan worth his salt has a deep respect for John Carpenter. Although most of his recent efforts have lacked originality and quality, we have to give him his due. His filmography is impressive to say the least. I know that my generation can credit Mr. Carpenter with a few soiled Fruit of the Looms because of the likes of Halloween, Christine, In the Mouth of Madness, They Live, and The Fog. But horror is not his only instrument. He also directed, Big Trouble in Little China, Starman, Escape from New York, and Escape from L.A.. However, I would count his 1982 classic, The Thing, as the film that encapsulates Carpenter’s style and ability above all his other works. This film, over 30 years old, still watches very well. The pulsing suspense and gory visuals are still effective even to my eyes which have now seen “superior” computer generated effects. It isn’t nearly as scary to me as it was when I first saw this film at 14 or 15 without my parents permission. In fact, I probably owe some of my dislike for dogs to this film, but it is a worthwhile film nonetheless.
This story of a small group of researchers braving an Antarctic winter at a remote research outpost is brilliant. After the seemingly deranged man with the rifle blows up his helicopter and shoots one of the researchers as he continues to hunt this seemingly innocuous canine, he is quickly taken out by a sharpshooter with a pistol. The men quickly put two and two together and determine that the men in the helicopter were part of a Norwegian research outpost some miles away. Radio communications are failing and even with a blizzard rolling in, MacReady and his team decides to go and investigate. They arrive to find a disturbing bloodbath.
The corpses of the Norwegian outpost members are strewn across the site, and several of them are grotesquely (and inexplicably) deformed. Much of the outpost has been torched in Kerosene as well, leaving some of these “bodies” burned. The initial scope of the Norwegians investigation is not known because all of their research is in another language, however after a little more probing, it’s revealed that the Norwegians had discovered the site of an ancient Antarctic crash, and they managed to excavate some sort of extra-terrestrial relic.There’s really no other word to describe it. The plot is refreshingly simple: R.J. MacReady (played by Kurt Russell) and his colleagues are startled one afternoon as a dog comes running across the frozen wasteland that surrounds their station. What catches their attention about this particular situation, though, is that the aforementioned husky is being pursued by a helicopter. A man with a rifle is leaning from the open door of the helicopter, trying desperately to kill the dog. MacReady and company emerge as the helicopter lands, and they try to make sense of the situation.
Carpenter has built some suspense as we see the damage that this creature could cause and we know that the Norwegian camp was destroyed. However no one knows what this alien relic might be and many of the team are skeptical about the existence of any alien life forms. Especially those which are able to kill and copy any organism they encounter. However, our thirst for gore is quickly satisfied after returning from the abandoned site. Some of the bodies were taken for examination and the sweet and friendly puppy which has been roaming all over the facility is put to bed with the other dogs in a kennel. We soon become privy to a disgusting transformation as this dog’s face blows off and begins splitting open, snarling, sprouting tentacles and devouring the other dogs in the kennel. The commotion is stopped as MacReady calls for a blowtorch and the freaky scene comes to a relatively peaceful end. However, this gives the scientist, played by my favorite diabetic Wilford Brimley, enough information to connect the dots and calculate with his impressive 80’s computer that there’s a 75% chance that one ore more of their party members is, in fact, the alien, and if this alien were to make it to the mainland all mankind would be infected in 3 years time.
The remainder of the movie is admittedly a bit of a mess both literally and narratively. As many of the researchers are attacked and infected paranoia abounds as the group starts to become suspicious of one another. Carpenter does an absolutely flawless job of building the tension between each of the characters, and the audience is never really sure about who’s human and who isn’t For those seeking answers this can be frustrating and disappointing. However, the real “monsters,” in many ways, are the people themselves. Many of them are willing to resort to murder to ensure that they don’t become infected. The setting plays a great role here too, as a blizzard sets in that causes a massive whiteout. They characters are surrounded and trapped not only by the oppressing elements but also by uncertainty and terror. It makes for a chilling atmosphere that constantly keeps you on the edge of your seat.
In addition to all of that clever storytelling, The Thing boasts some of the best special effects I’ve ever seen. Again, this was filmed in 1982, and, in my opinion, everything looks more realistic than the CGI-splatter fests that we see in so many horror movies today. When the alien life-form is taking over something, it’s an extraordinarily gory process—it almost makes you want to puke. It’s one of those movies where you can tell that everyone involved was simultaneously taking it seriously and having fun with it. Despite it’s over the top nature, though, it feels necessary; we, as an audience, believe that the transformation would be a gruesome process. I’m certainly not going to post any clips from the film although there are plenty out there to showcase the gore even more than these pictures have. However without the rest of the film, it all seems to be simply pointless blood and death.
It is surprising to me that this out of all of Carpenter’s films is the only one currently in the IMDb Top 250. However this could be due to the recent release of the prequel which isn’t even worth the pixels I might use to review it. The Thing was not well received when it was released. It debuted at 8th and never improved. It received praise for it’s technical achievements but overall lackluster reviews. It only lasted 4 weeks in the theater. Though, in it’s defense, it was competing against Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. And two other much more family friendly alien movies which were released two weeks prior: E.T.: Extra-Terrestrial and Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan. John Carpenter considered The Thing one of his biggest failures saying, “I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit…The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane.”
While I would not encourage everyone to see this film, if you are a fan of the horror genre or are just in the mood for a good cringe, The Thing, is well worth the few dollars it will cost you to snag the DVD. You can also check it out on Blu-Ray, but I would encourage you to have a vomit bag ready because I don’t know if you can handle all that high definition carnage. It will become a regular especially when Halloween, or that winter blizzard, comes around. Have you seen The Thing? What do you think about it? Want to praise Kurt Russell for rocking one of the silver screen’s best beards? Let me know in a comment below or on Twitter or Facebook.