“The Thing” (1982, John Carpenter)
Within man exists an innate fear of the alien and the unknown. This fear is rooted in our instincts of self-preservation and propagation. John Carpenter’s “The Thing” tackles this fear and its consequences head-on, pitting man against alien in a completely desolate arena, where the only thing that matters is one’s will to survive.
“The Thing” is set in Antarctica on an American scientific research camp. The story begins with two Norwegians (from another camp) chasing and trying to kill a dog in a helicopter. They are unsuccessful, and instead chase it right into the American camp and inadvertently blow up their helicopter with thermite, leaving the Americans with no explanation of their violent behavior. As it is revealed later in the film, the dog is actually an alien capable of assimilating and imitating any other life form. As the Americans investigate the strange behavior of the late Norwegians, it leads them to discover the nature of their new (sometimes) four-legged friend, but by then it has already sown the seeds of destruction and paranoia throughout the camp and its team. The stage is set for Carpenter’s horrific drama to unfold.
One of the elements of “The Thing” that contributes most to its merit as a horror film is that it chooses carefully what information to give the viewer. There are many scenes that are purposefully ambiguous and left without explanation (and some of the action occurs off-screen), and the viewer is expected to draw their own conclusions from them. This is not a movie that will hold your hand along the way and make sure you understand what is going on. Most of these scenes create tension and suspense because the viewer is not sure who has or hasn’t been infected by the thing, and the ambiguity provides many possible opportunities for the characters to be infected. Just like the Antarctic crew, the viewer must always be on their toes and vigilantly watching.
The visual effects used for the alien are another defining feature of “The Thing,” and without them the movie would not be as frightening. Groundbreaking for their time, the special effects and makeup by Rob Bottin separates “The Thing” from the typical sci-fi horror film. While they are fantastically grotesque, they still have an element of realism that only makes them even more terrifying. One of the more particularly disturbing effects is the Norris spider head. The thing has imitated Vance Norris (Charles Hallahan) and is revealing itself as the thing to the team. R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), the film’s hero, torches the alien with a flamethrower, but its head separates from its body, pulls itself away from the flames with an extended tendril-like tongue, and then sprouts legs and a pair of eye stalks as it tries to escape. While the thing can perfectly replicate and imitate humans, it is simultaneously an amorphous monstrosity within that can come out at any time. This duality is what makes it so terrifying and unsettling. Without realistic human-looking special effects, the terror of hiding in plain sight would not be as effective.
While the alien is the cause of the paranoia among the crew, the backdrop against which it is set heightens this paranoia even more. The barren wasteland of Antarctica is the scariest place one could imagine for this story to take place. It is isolated from the rest of civilization, almost no life can survive there (one of the exceptions being the thing), and it seems as alien and foreign to us as the creature does. The American Antarctic team is literally the last line of defense that can stop this alien from infecting the rest of the planet, and with the little resources available to them because of their location they must rely solely on human ingenuity and tenacity (and a few flamethrowers and barrels of kerosene) to defeat the thing.
Those looking for a simple cut and dry horror flick should stay away from “The Thing,” as it may leave you confused, bored, and with a full barf bag. “The Thing” is for those who want to experience a confrontation with one of man’s worst fears, realized in a way that is disturbing when seen and even more disturbing after you’ve seen it, while the thoughts it creates rattle in your head keeping you awake at night.