“It’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.”
John Carpenter’s The Thing was released in 1982, but I saw it first in the mid-1990s. It hooked me right away. The opening caption: Antarctica, Winter 1982; and the scene: a helicopter chasing a dog, its passenger shooting at the animal sprinting across the empty snow towards a remote research station. The set-up was thus swiftly established, the mystery deftly embedded. What followed that strange opening chase was a science-fiction horror film as tense, atmospheric and imaginative as any I had seen in years, and one to which I have returned several times.
John W. Campbell’s ‘Who Goes There?‘ was published in Astounding Stories in 1938, and was first adapted for film in 1951, as The Thing From Another World. The politics of the age gave this quirky B-movie classic a strong flavour of Cold War distrust, and though it offers melodrama, wit, and thrills, it also seems inescapably quaint to modern audiences. For one thing, it suffers from man-in-a-suit syndrome. The more obviously a monster is just a person in a suit, the less we’re persuaded of its alien origin. If the film falls short enough of this aim, the spell is broken. (Some scenes in the Alien franchise work better than others for precisely this reason.) The Thing From Another World came out at about the same time as The Day The Earth Stood Still, and the contrast between friendly and hostile aliens would be repeated later, as we will see.
The 1970s brought auteurs to the fore, among them John Carpenter, who was going through a purple patch. He directed, scored, and wrote or co-wrote Dark Star (1974), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), and Escape from New York (1981). Carpenter was a big fan of Campbell’s story, which he had read as a teenager, and of The Thing From Another World, which is shown playing on a television in Halloween. Universal Studios initially turned him down as director of The Thing, but when he proved himself commercially he became a more attractive candidate, and they hired him. The film’s lean, measured script came from the pen of Bill Lancaster, son of Burt.
In the decades since the previous adaptation of Campbell’s story, commercial film-making had become a lot more sophisticated. The dramatic improvement in special effects had made a particular mark on genre films. Film critic Roger Ebert described the FX for The Thing as “among the most elaborate, nauseating, and horrifying sights yet achieved by Hollywood’s new generation of visual magicians”. They were also organic, i.e. non-computer-generated. Smoke, mirrors, guts and goo. Monster designer Rob Bottin worked so hard on the film (18-hour days on a diet of candy and soda, according to the production notes) that he ended up in hospital, at Carpenter’s request.
Yet the creature’s grotesque outlandishness is grounded by the authenticity of the environment in which it appears. The film is carried by strong (albeit roughly sketched) characters who behave with realistic moodiness and camaraderie. This is basically about a bunch of 12 guys in a strange place and an extraordinary situation, one that threatens not just their lives but the survival of humanity. The monster they meet in the ice quickly undermines normal human dynamics, or what passes for them in an Antarctic research outpost where the only hint of femininity is the voice of MacReady’s electronic chess player.
R.J. MacReady, the main protagonist, is played characteristically well by Kurt Russell as a kind of everyman and reluctant hero — though “hero” is definitely overstating it. MacReady makes mistakes and he’s very grumpy, but all things considered he’s fairly normal. So are his colleagues, more or less, except they’re all a bit stir crazy, and some are temperamental if not downright unstable. Gradually dominating the petty power games are the elements themselves: outside, a storm is picking up. When the creature’s essential nature as a shape-shifter is revealed, this small, cramped group’s fear and aggression escalate rapidly. Alienation rips through the paranoid climate and grows to fever pitch. As viewers we are kept guessing as to who is human and who has been taken over by the Thing.
On its release, The Thing did not take the film world by storm. Some thought it too derivative of Alien; squeamish viewers were just horrified. Being released around the same time as E.T. didn’t help it. Audiences flocked to Steven Spielberg’s traditionally minded fantasy classic and its friendly alien lead, and largely stayed away from Carpenter’s odd film with its sinister and repulsive “star” and its downbeat, obliquely apocalyptic vision. The Thing wasn’t quite a flop, but it took time to find its audience, and in the meantime it left many people nonplussed or plain revolted. Chiefly through videotape, and then DVD, did it accumulate a strong cult following who recognised its greatness. As Peter Nicholls wrote in Fantastic Cinema: An Illustrated Survey, “its comparative failure at the box-office could be a testament to its ambitious breaking of new ground”.
More than a quarter-century later, The Thing still has much to offer. Few horror films of any era generate such an enjoyable ambience of dread, menace, and claustrophobia, with occasional frights for good measure, and such an awful, awesome monster. The infamous special effects hold up very well. The collector’s edition DVD is cheap and packed with goodies, including a commentary from Carpenter and Russell, and a feature-length documentary on the film’s production. I haven’t seen the Blu-ray edition, but I’m sure it looks stunning (Dean Cundey’s cinematography is outstanding). If you’re in the west of Ireland around now you can catch it on the big screen at Galway Omniplex, which is showing it on Monday 26 October at 7 pm and on Tuesday 27 October at 9.20 pm. Regardless of format, if you’re a horror fan who has yet to see it, you’re in for a treat.