The Thing (1982)

Director:  John Carpenter 

Cast:  Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David
Plot:  Scientists in the Antarctic are confronted by a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of the people that it kills.

Genre:  Horror / Sci-Fi
Awards:  -
Runtime:  109min
Rating:  M18 for violence and gore, and disturbing images. 

John Carpenter can be regarded as an enigma in American cinema.  Admired as one of the leading horror practitioners of the post-Star Wars era, his subsequent output since the mid-1980s far from reflect the brilliant filmmaking skills he once wielded.  Carpenter regards The Thing as the first of his ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’ together with Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988).  In a morbid way, it is perhaps an apt description for a filmmaker whose incredible slide from being lauded as an influential horror master to a run-of-the-mill director of forgettable junk is nothing short of, well, apocalyptic.

It is best to look at The Thing as the last of Carpenter’s ‘Great Horror Trilogy’ which includes Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980).  The sudden, inexplicable loss of ability thereafter to even create averagely decent genre pictures is mysterious, and I shall leave it at that.  The Thing is science-fiction horror in the mould of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) but it is set on Earth in the Antarctic continent.  Written by Bill Lancaster who loosely based his screenplay on John W. Campbell’s story 'Who Goes There?', The Thing is also an (even better) remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951).

Several men working at a remote research station discovers an alien buried in the snow, or what is left of the alien’s imprint in the snow.  Now unfrozen, the alien enters their facility in the most unlikeliest (but later quite obvious) of means, especially after the realization that it can change its identity by taking over the bodies of living organisms begins to send shockwaves down the twelve-men team.  Right from the start, Carpenter builds a sense of isolation and gloom with wide, sweeping shots of the vast, barren, icy landscape as a chopper flies above it.

Slowly, paranoia takes over when the alien starts to attack and imitate some of the men. Guessing games are played and mutual trust becomes a rare commodity.  While Alien employs the ‘less is more’ technique to frighten audiences, The Thing is the direct opposite. Carpenter and his crew of visual and makeup effects artists bring the terror right-in-your-face via some of the most grotesque images ever conceived.  Short of describing how nightmarish they are, these images could be imagined as a cross between David Cronenberg (The Fly, 1986; Dead Ringers, 1988) and Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, 1982; Evil Dead II, 1987), a fusion of surrealistic violence, and bodily invasion gore which are hallmarks of 1980s horror.

If there is a flaw to the film, it is the lack of character development of the supporting roles.  This comes as a result of having too many characters (twelve!), more so than from a weak screenplay.  It seems like who lives or dies is unimportant because first, the film does not intend to work (other than that of fear) on our pathos, and second, the deaths of these characters (oxymoronically ugly and beautiful) are excuses to raise the bar for cinematic horror to artistic heights.  Carpenter could have tightened the film up with fewer supporting characters, so that each could be given the chance to match up (and play along) to Kurt Russell’s excellent performance, giving the film an ‘acting balance’ akin to an ensemble cast rather than Russell and eleven extras.

Carpenter, who usually scores his own films, pushes music composition duties to Ennio Morricone whose minimalist soundscape accompanied by a thumping beat successfully help to force an uneasy atmosphere of existential dread upon the viewer.  The Thing is a milestone in horror cinema (that I will not argue against).  However, I feel it is not the masterpiece that many have made it out to be.  But then again, who could ever forget what Carpenter has achieved here?

GRADE: B+ (8/10 or 3.5 stars)

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