Since it’s October, I thought it appropriate to take a look at something horror themed for our bonus review. John Carpenter’s The Thing was not received well when it first came out in 1982. It was critically panned in such savage ways you’d think I had been alive and doing criticism back then. The odd thing about it is that, since then, it’s become known as a classic of horror. So, let’s take a look and see if we can figure out why that happened.
We open with a Norwegian helicopter trying to chase down an adorable husky dog that’s running over the Antarctic tundra. The dog arrives at an American research station and they, naturally, come to its rescue. But the question remains, why were these Norwegians going to all this effort to try to kill a dog? The Americans decide to check their research station only to find it absolutely annihilated with some disturbing bodies straight out of an Ito Junji work. That’s when they discover the horrifying truth. The “dog” is actually a shape-shifting organism that absorbs other organisms into itself and takes on their forms. Now the scientists in the station don’t know who to trust versus who’s already the titular thing.
The worst thing I can say about the film is that some of the characters exit the story in kind of anti-climactic, abrupt ways. I wouldn’t say that’s worth severely panning the film over but it is something of a flaw.
In contrast, there are a lot of positive aspects to the film. It is very good at building up suspense and atmosphere. Right from the beginning, there is a subtle sense that something’s not kosher, and I’m not talking about Kurt Russell’s all shellfish diet, even before the evidence for what starts piling up. And one of the big factors that works in the film’s favour is that the major characters only see the Thing in its monstrous form when it makes a mistake or when they happen to walk in on it when it’s in the process of absorbing someone or something. And that’s much more effective than a monster that’s always in your face.
The scenario is quite ingenious as well. You could not make this scenario work anywhere besides a remote station in Antarctica. The Thing would have too many potential victims to realistically be stopped. There’s also an inherent sense of claustrophobia and paranoia that stems from having a small group trapped within a research station where they can’t escape and they don’t know who to trust. That makes for a strong source of tension. I also appreciate that the station’s crew, even though they are in a paranoid situation and don’t know who to trust, think rationally, make a lot of solid points during their discussion and work towards finding solutions. Save for one who figures out what the thing escaping could mean and goes slightly mad.
This is another element where I can be a bit critical of the film. There’s not that much to the characters in general. To its credit, they’re several steps up from the token casts you get in most slasher films but that isn’t saying much. A lot of them are just kind of flat. Try describing characters like Norris, Palmer, Fuchs or Copper and there’s really not much to say.
Cinematography, Visual Effects:
Some of you youngsters may not remember this, but there was a point where visual effects were done using make up and other practical methods rather than CGI. I know, it’s hard to fathom but it’s true. And in that realm, The Thing is pretty damn extraordinary. For 1982, these effects were absolutely top of the line. Even by today’s standards, they look a lot better than most CG effects I’ve seen. And Rob Bottin was in his early 20s when he was working on these designs.
It also helps that this film knows how to use gore strategically. It’s not over the top, excessive or otherwise miss-handled. It’s there when it should be there. The scenes are just really well done.
Acting and Music:
There are three performances that really stand out. Kurt Russell as MacReady, Wilfred Brimley as Dr. Blair & Keith David as Childs. Although it is a little odd hearing Keith David knock Voodoo when we all know he’s got friends on the other side. All three of those blokes are fantastic in this. Ennio Morricones music is really good as well. It has a good amount of impact.
So, why did The Thing get so much vitriol? Honestly, I think it’s that ET came out shortly before it and people were upset over a harsher, more pessimistic view of aliens contrasting with that film. Because, in terms of quality, this is a really good horror film. One thing you have to credit Carpenter with as a director, he knows what tools he has to make a horror film work and he knows how to use them so they have an effect without going overboard. And this film may very well be where he was at his absolute best. It also had top notch effects, great actors and a superb script from Bill Lancaster. Yeah, it has some minor issues but it’s still an excellent film. And I give it a 9/10.