Review: John Carpenter’s The Thing
We had some bad storms last night. The girls all slept in the basement. Once I’d gotten them all to sleep, I had a little time on my hands before I turned in myself. Nothing on the DVR was especially appealing and I wanted to make the most of my time alone. So I decided to see what was on Starz (we have it free for a year thanks to Dish Network – thank you, Dish Network!)
I didn’t expect to find anything worth watching and I didn’t plan to stay up very long at all. But to my surprise, John Carpenter’s The Thing was on. And it had just started. At 9:40! It had probably been a good 10 years since I had watched The Thing and since Starz had the courtesy to start it exactly when my daughters finally fell asleep, I decided to settle in for some creepy alien thrills.
My first memory of The Thing also involved cable. Back when The Thing made its debut on HBO, I was (seemingly) the only kid on the block who wasn’t allowed to watch it. But I heard all the gory details on the playground. To be honest, it creeped me out and I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to watch it.
At some point, I finally did see The Thing for myself and frankly it didn’t make much of an impression. I guess the movie I had constructed in my mind based on the lurid playground retellings scared me more than the real thing. Also, I just don’t think I was in the right frame of mind to properly appreciate The Thing.
Over the years, I’ve revisited The Thing a few times. And each time, my appreciation for it grew a little. But I was never what you would call a fan. Until last night, that is. Last night, it was late, I was all alone, the wind was whirling and the windows were open. This caused the bedroom door down the hall to periodically open and shut on its own.
It was just me and the family dog in the dark with the sounds of a storm just outside and plenty of “house noises” for ambience. Before long, I found myself wondering if our dog had been replaced by an alien creature. When she looked over at me from the love seat, was she sizing me up as a candidate for replacement?
The first thing that impressed me was Kurt Russell as pilot RJ MacReady. Whenever you see Russell in a John Carpenter movie, you know he’s going to be the consummate bad ass. And The Thing is no exception. MacReady is the kind of guy who will shoot you in the head on the off chance you may be an alien and show little to no remorse if it turns out he just killed a scared guy with a scalpel instead. MacReady’s the kind of pilot the flies off into a snowstorm knowing he might not come back. He threatens people with sticks of dynamite like he’s Wile E. Coyote. And if a computer beats him at chess, he’ll pour coffee all over the damn thing.
Typically this means you get Russell in John Wayne swagger mode like in Big Trouble in Little China or Escape From New York. And that can be a lot of fun in a movie that is constantly winking at the audience. But The Thing doesn’t wink. It doesn’t even blink. So Russell (despite his badassery) is stripped of the usual bravado and hidden behind a big, bushy beard.
Unlike most action heroes, Russell’s MacReady doesn’t have any one-liners. Almost from the get-go, he knows he’s in over his head. And shit just gets more real from there. Before the film’s final act, he’s already come to grips with the fact that none of the men in the research facility (himself included) is going to survive this experience. He’s just trying to prevent armageddon before his inevitable demise.
That’s part of what I loved about The Thing. It’s bleak. These guys are dead before the opening credits. They just don’t know it yet. They are surrounded by snow and ice with no help in site. As one character says, they are “a thousand miles from nowhere”. They are constantly radioing for help and no one ever hears them.
The elements alone would be enough to take these guys out. They are hanging on by a thread. You get the sense that even if a monster hadn’t shown up and started eating them, these guys would have gone stir crazy and shot each other up before the winter was over.
Carpenter does a great job of conveying that. The set must have been freezing! You can constantly see the fog of the characters’ breath. And everthing is coated in permafrost.
But then the monster does show up. And it’s a killing machine! Most movie monsters these days look more or less the same. Some variation on the Giger-inspired creature from Alien. But the monster in The Thing is always changing. Each incarnation is more hideous and unnerving than the last.
What’s more, it’s intelligent. I think that fact gets overlooked in all the gore. But the alien in The Thing isn’t just a mindless killer. It’s got a plan. It built some kind of space craft out of the wreckage of the researcher’s vehicles so it could get back to the mainland. And when that plan failed, it decided just to freeze itself and wait for rescuers to restart the cycle.
Speaking of the monster and gore, let’s talk about the special effects. These special effects were cutting edge in 1982. And they hold up remarkably well. Sure, the physical effects may look somewhat crude compared to today’s slick computer-generated effects. But because they were real, they have a physical presence that CGI lacks. Yeah, some of the effects are clearly fake. But they give the film an otherworldly quality that is wholly appropriate and unnerving.
When The Thing was released, critics focused only on the gruesome effects and labeled the film revolting. But nearly 30 years later, it’s possible to look past the effects (which are still pretty shocking even by today’s standards) and get sucked in to the story of growing paranoia among an isolated group that has to rely on each other for survival – but can’t trust that anyone else is even human.
One of the other things that impressed me about The Thing is how lean it is. At 109 minutes, this movie is all killer and no filler. Carpenter starts building a sense of dread from the first shot. And from there, it’s one money scene after another. From the dog creature to the spider head to the infamous blood tests, The Thing is a relentless roller coaster that never lets up.
To top it off, the movie ends with several characters’ fates undecided. Most movies feel the need to neatly tie up all the loose ends and over-explain every single detail. But in the chaos of the finale, one character disappears never to be seen again. And the “survivors” are left to an uncertain fate, but most likely they are going to freeze to death. And that’s assuming they are even human which is actually a pretty big assumption.
And what of the alien and his plans for world domination? For all the audience knows, they are right on track. There’s actually very little reason to believe that MacReady did anything more than slow the alien down a little. That’s just how The Thing rolls.
I can see how audiences in 1982 would reject The Thing. They were basking in the warm-glow of the feel-good alien vibe of ET. Blade Runner (also released in 1982) had a similar fate. Thankfully, both films have built up an audience in the long years since on video. But while Blade Runner has gone on to critical acclaim (to the point of possibly being over-rated), The Thing is still more or less a cult film.
I’m glad to officialy join the Cult of The Thing. Few movies so deftly combine the genres of action, horror and science fiction. And fewer still dare to be so ruthless, shocking and grim.