Isolation has a unique effect on the mind. Over time, a person alone may see or hear that which isn’t there. The mind can and does play tricks on the subconscious when cut off from contact with the outside. It’s a reminder that the most brutal torture is that which a person can inflict upon themselves under extreme stress and solitary confinement.
Imagine then a group of people segregated from the rest of the world, effectively removed from it and placed in the most desolate, remote wasteland on the planet where limited supplies are enough to last the winter but no longer, a small facility – strong enough to survive gale force winds yet offers no comforts of home – to live and work in, and only a few construction vehicles to aid their scientific research.
Cold, isolation, and drudgery are the daily elements of each man’s life. A game of cards might be enough to give their minds a respite, however brief, but if those cards have been used often enough, an observant man might deduce who has what cards in their hand thus adding to the confinement rather than elevating them out of it.
Then introduce a threat that is invisible, ruthless, and camouflages itself as the guy next to you. If the threat, alien in origin, infects another, that person becomes the threat as well. Dropping a menace into such an environment would turn it into a powder keg as one by one each person would turn on the others until no one trusted anyone else. But the threat is still there, and slowly closing in on the survivors…
A remake of the 1950’s classic “The Thing From Another World”, itself an adaption of the short story “Who Goes There?”, “The Thing” stars a bearded Kurt Russell as helicopter pilot R. J. MacReady for the crew of a US research base in Antarctica. The lives of him and his team are turned upside down when a Norwegian pilot shows up shooting at a sled dog for unknown reasons. The man is rapidly dealt with, the dog is left alone, and MacReady heads out to check out the Norwegian camp in search of answers. The crazed man’s rationale for trying to kill the dog clears up soon enough, but by then it’s too late.
The films of John Carpenter run the gamut from Western remakes (“Assault on Precinct 13”, “Ghosts of Mars”) to satire (“They Live”) to pure horror (“Halloween”, “Village of the Damned”) to his end of the word trilogy (“The Thing”, “Prince of Darkness,” “In the Mouth of Madness”). It’s the first of this quasi-trilogy that we’re looking back on today, and in a weird way it works better now than it did upon release.
The beauty of “The Thing” is how it taps into the basest elements of fear among a crew who have no one else to trust but each other. Remove that faith, the absolute conviction which above all will ensure a man’s survival at the edge of the world, and all that’s left is out-of-control survival instincts in a place where no one will swoop in to save the day. Once the true nature of the threat is revealed, the crew wind up at each other’s throats and events spiral out of control right down to the famous ending.
Revisiting the film now is interesting because all of us now face the question of who can we trust. Is the person next to me someone I can trust or someone I should fear? Do they have a virus that could infect me and my family, or are they safe to be around? The present schism in our society hinges on being able to answer that, and “The Thing” quite cannily tapped into a similar fear. At the time of the original story, communism and the Red Scare were the biggest threats our nation faced. Who was a communist, and what if they looked just like me? Other films of the era (such as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” & “I Married A Communist” aka “The Woman on Pier 13”) excavated that specific fear for the diamond mine it was.
When “The Thing” came out in the summer of 1982, it failed at the box office for a variety of reasons – some said it was because the alien in question wasn’t cute and cuddly like “ET,” while others complained about the excess gore and general nastiness. The true form of the creature is never revealed, and for a very good reason. It’s an ingenious solution to what was, I’m guessing, a budget problem despite having more money available than what Carpenter usually worked with at the time. When you want to go big with the monsters and the effects, those cost money and sometimes you have to economize.
The result is limited screen time for the creature but when those moments hit, they do not disappoint. Viscera, body parts, and more are brought to life with outstanding work by Rob Bottin, Stan Winston, and everyone else on the team. Each instance is like a time bomb waiting to go off, and the rising tension escalates so much throughout that when one of those moments happen, the panic is palpable.
Who else could be on those things? Are there any left? If there are, how bad is the next one going to be? And will anyone make it out of this alive?
I’ve been a fan of the film and revisit it annually. It’s a hard film to get through the first few times because it seems, at first glance, to be a film about tension and atmosphere at the expense of character. Each actor has just enough of a personality to separate them from one another. What sets it apart from other films though is how it delivers a masterclass in minimalism. Where some films might deliver a winding monologue, in “The Thing” a character has to summarize the situation in a line or two. Exposition scenes are short, sweet, and to the point.
Expressive and highly detailed backstories of characters have rarely been the focus of Carpenter films, and the same applies here. But if you pay attention to the details in each character’s clothes, the way they move or hold themselves or respond to the ever escalating pressure, you can see who these people were before the film started.
If you’re looking for a film with characters who resonate and speak to you on a personal level, this isn’t that kind of movie. Instead, the focus is on fear and watching what happens when you can’t trust the man standing next to you.
Underscoring it all is a subtle nod by composer Ennio Morricone, who gave us the greatest score for a Western ever, to Carpenter and his preference for quieter music. This film is all about tension, and the score never gets in the way, which is as it should be.
Without delving too much into the ongoing times we find ourselves living in, “The Thing” is a brilliant display of what can happen in a pressure cooker situation where trust has been removed entirely. What if you can’t trust the person next to you and the two of you have to save, or at least try, to save the survivors of an alien attack?
Are there knocks against it? Absolutely. Far too many characters disappear for just long enough before reappearing as a red herring. Some of the acting is rather wooden, and at least one death is breezed over so quickly that there is an entire thread out there devoted to how the character died.
Wilford Brimley is also underused as Blair. He’s great in his scenes, especially once he connects the dots and realizes where events are headed. But then he disappears for a large chunk of the film and it’s weakened because of it. Something that does always make me laugh is how, during his conversation in the shed with MacReady, neither man addresses the elephant in the room.
“The Thing” has endured because outside of the fantastic practical effects, which are truly gruesome and inventive, the real scares come from asking a simple question – “What happens next?” This question lurks around every corner, in every room, under every bed.
“The Thing” isn’t for everyone but if you’re a fan of good scares, extreme tension, and powerhouse special effects, it is worth checking out. In addition, it’s also an excellent guide on how to write a tight screenplay that doesn’t have an ounce of fat on it. Everything happens for a reason, every line is just right for the moment it’s delivered. Actors had to improve backstories to flesh their characters out, and the talent was strong enough to succeed. This is how you do a sci-fi horror film, and it’s wonderful to see it held in such high esteem today. If you haven’t seen it, check “The Thing” out and you will not come away disappointed.