“Chariots of the Gods, man. They practically own South America.”
Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, Donald Moffat
In a Nutshell:
John Carpenter’s remake of 50s sci-fi classic, The Thing from Another World, returned to the key concept of the source material, John W. Campbell’s short story Who Goes There? Instead of Christian Nyby’s lumbering “super carrot”, Carpenter gave us something far more terrifying – a hostile alien organism that can absorb and perfectly replicate its victims.
Despite this, The Thing bombed at the box office. Audiences and critics were put off by its cynical attitude, bleak ending and gross special effects. Its arrival also coincided with a much more heart-warming close encounter – Spielberg’s misty-eyed tale of a short, turd-like creature with a glowing finger and a desire to “Phone Home”.
Like the creature itself, The Thing scuttled away into the shadows and found a new place to hide: VHS.
It was the perfect medium at the perfect time, and The Thing found many willing victims on home video. Horror buffs and kids with access to their dad’s video club card were far more willing to look beyond what the critics claimed were the film’s faults and see its true form – a cult classic that is now regarded as one of the greatest horror movies of all time.
The Plot: The Antarctic winter is closing in and the twelve men at US Outpost 31 are isolated and bored, playing pool and cards, smoking weed, watching re-runs of old game shows. Their monotony is shattered when a helicopter from the neighbouring Norwegian camp approaches, chasing a sled dog across the snow and ice. They are so hellbent of killing the pooch that one manages to blow up their own helicopter and the other is shot by camp commander Garry (Donald Moffat).
Helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and the outpost doctor Copper (Richard Dysart) head over to the Norwegian camp to see what the story is, and find a scene of murder and madness. Among the destruction, they find a sarcophagus of ice and a corpse barely recognisable as human smouldering in the yard.
Back at the outpost, biologist Blair performs an autopsy on the twisted remains. He finds that the internal organs all seem normal – but the contorted face certainly doesn’t seem like an ordinary human.
Meanwhile, the outpost’s dog handler Clark (Richard Masur) has put the Norwegian dog in the kennels with the others. That’s when the shit hits the fan…
The Thing is a triumph of casting – twelve guys with little or no back story, yet they are all so distinctive that we know exactly who each one of them is, even when he’s wrapped up in a parka with the hood up…
Kurt Russell is obviously the star of the show as MacReady, although this is a far more down-to-earth role than in Carpenter’s Escape from New York or Big Trouble in Little China. His no-nonsense helicopter pilot is convincing as the man-of-action with an introspective, non-conformist streak, who is reluctantly thrust into the role of leader when things go nuts.
Keith David creates a menacing impression as the brooding Childs. He’s the only one to really challenge MacReady in the leadership stakes, and the pair share a suspicious toast in the film’s brilliantly downbeat ending.
Others to note: Wilford Brimley as the huffing, harrumphing biologist Blair, who figures things out thanks to his amazingly ancient-looking hostile alien simulator; Moffat as Garry, who has one of the best sweary moments in the film (and that’s saying something – there are a few to choose from); David Clennon as the outpost’s resident stoner Palmer, who provides some of the film’s most quotable gallows-humour laughs (“You gotta be fuckin’ kidding…”)
Carpenter managed to persuade legendary composer Ennio Morricone to provide the film’s chilly score. Reportedly, Morricone put together a whole bunch of music, both orchestral and synthesized. Not satisfied, Carpenter played him his own score for Escape from New York and said, “Can you do it a bit more like that, mate?” So The Thing‘s score is basically maestro Morricone doing an impression of John Carpenter, and it works a treat – the insistent, minimalist theme suggests something deadly patient, the slow heartbeat of an implacable, merciless enemy.
It was the special effects that turned a lot of critics off on first release, but what do critics know, right? Rob Bottin’s effects on The Thing still hold up as some of the most astonishing in modern cinema, even when held against some of the best CGI available today. In fact, part of the appeal of The Thing‘s gloopy effects is that they are definitely not pristine, boring, intangible CGI – they’re real and you know what they feel like.
Once the Thing breaks cover and attacks, the creature isn’t just killing people, it’s destroying them, perverting their bodily form to surreal extremes and corrupting their features into ghoulish parodies of their former selves. Bottin has the imagination to keep up and he varies the palette in the creature scenes instead of lashing them with fake blood. It was a wise decision. It’s still really gross, with sickly whites and yellows, viscous greens, sinister blues and purples, but if it was drenched in blood it might have been too gruesome.
Hostile Alien Assimilation Simulator for BBC Micro – everyone had a copy back in the day.
The Thing has aged extremely well by any standard and still kicks ass thanks to its combination of taut direction, likeable performances, nerve-wracking tension and insane special effects. It remains the gold standard of what could be achieved with practical effects in a creature feature, and deserves its place in the canon of greatest horror movies ever put on film. It blew me away as a teen and remains a compulsive watch even after a tenth viewing, and it’s one of those movies I can’t wait to show my kids!
If you loved this, also check out: The Blob (1988), The Void (2016), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Buy your copy of The Thing at Amazon HERE