1982 was a good year for alien movies. The people were not really ready for it, but it was. Not only did Spielberg’s friendly and warm-hearted E.T. - The Extraterrestrial debut at Cannes, and went on to become the world’s highest grossing film, but Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan made justice with a really good motion picture to the Star Trek TV series, and Liquid Sky shook up the indie cinema scene. And, of course, the release of John Carpenter’s gruesome, thrilling and tense take on John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There: The Thing, probably named because of the other adaptation of Campbell Jr.’s story, The Thing from Another World (1951). But not only did Carpenter’s The Thing do poorly at the box office, it was also heavily criticized for the raw material (some level of gore and on-screen autopsies of the creature). Almost four decades later, and the movie has gone through one of the biggest re-evaluations in cinema history, becoming a standard bearer for the horror “monster movie” subgenre, and a mandatory stop for cinephiles all over the world. How does a day make a difference.
One thing is certain: Nowadays, loved or hated, The Thing is still a topic of discussion. As far as this reviewer goes, I stand with the most recent evaluation. The Thing is an example of tension-building through dialogue, while also being a visually striking, fear-provoking monster flick. And, in the category of alien Sci-fi movies, it is up there with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Alien (1979) and Predator (1987) in the race for the top spot.
The premise of the film, being synthesized, is that a group of norwegian scientists in Antarctica found a 100,000 year old UFO buried in the snow. They find a frozen creature next to it, and thaw it out. The norwegian team proceeds to be almost entirely slaughtered by the unknown beast, that is able to shapeshift into other life forms. A dog, that in reality is the creature, escapes, and is chased all the way to an american base. There, it is unknowingly welcomed, until the Americans investigate the norwegian base. They find about the powers of the Thing, and from there on, the film assumes a “who-do-I-trust” suspenseful setting. The pace is never slow, because the viewer is always on the edge of its seat.
The protagonist, R. J. MacReady, is brilliantly portrayed by Kurt Russell, in what would be his third collaboration with John Carpenter. The partnership started with the 1979 TV movie Elvis, and continued with Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and Escape From L.A. (1996). As always, the chemistry between actor and director is important to build up a good result in the form of the film. Here, Russell brings in powerful voice tones, and his characteristic sheer physicality to give his best portrayal of a helicopter pilot who must assume a leading position with his colleagues in order to fight an unknown threat. Amongst the supporting cast, noticeable names are Keith David (They Live), Wilford Brimley (Country) and Donald Moffat (Rachel, Rachel).
John Carpenter is almost guaranteed to knock it out of the park when it comes to horror, having The Fog (1980), Halloween (1978), and so many others under his direction. The Thing wouldn’t put him in critic’s graces in 1982, but in the long run, it would define his directorial style, and find its appreciation, being one of the career-defining works that cemented him as one of the authorities on the genre.
The soundtrack is beautiful, and that is not for no reason. John Carpenter himself and his long-time collaborator Alan Howarth composed some of the tracks together. The fact that the director himself composes the pieces ensures an extraordinary blend between scene and music. But not only that: for select parts of the score, Carpenter had the compositions of cinematic-music icon, Ennio Morricone. The legendary italian composer made the iconic soundtrack to Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, apart from other big movies like The Untouchables and Death Rides a Horse. And to The Thing, he brought an electronic vibe, in order to approach Carpenter’s own style of music, while also incorporating european elements. The main theme for the film has its own deep meaning, representing the absorption process by the Thing, the main instrument being… An organ.
The visual effects were ahead of their time. So ahead of their time, that critics and casual cinemagoers alike bashed them for being “too gruesome” or “too gross”. There are ways and ways to create fear. One of them is properly scaring people - using jumpscares, or tense and uncomfortable situations -, the other is to gross them out. And The Thing, even though it does scare in the first way really well, relishes in this second one, utilizing the advantage of working with the anatomy of a fictional creature, especially a shapeshifting one, to create horrific settings and on-screen situations. Examples of it are an autopsy of what seems to be a burned human being by the beginning, and the Thing absorbing a few alaskan malamute dogs.
The thing about… Uh, The Thing, is that it is one of the early 80s monster flicks that would set the bar high for many others to come. Despite not being well received at its time, it would find deserved recognition after a re-evaluation. It has great attributes such as strong acting, directing, visual effects and a killer soundtrack. In its setting of Antarctica, The Thing delivers proper ice cold chills. For a movie about a shapeshifting creature, this one finds itself being inimitable. Oh, the irony.