FILM REVIEW: The Thing (1982)

The Thing (USA, 1982)
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilfred Brimley, Richard Dysart

Here's a quick question to kick us off: what do The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Shawshank Redemption, Harold and Maude and The Thing all have in common?
The answer: they are all films which underperformed at the box office but have since become widely regarded as classics, thanks to video, DVD and word-of-mouth. And just as Shawshank has become something of a poster child of Christianity (not that I'm complaining), there are few true sci-fi fans who do not bow their heads reverentially at the mention of John Carpenter. Having made us chortle during Dark Star and entertained us with Escape from New York, he now proceeds with scare us to the point of madness with The Thing.

The Thing is ostensibly a remake of the 1952 Howard Hawks film The Thing from Another World, although Carpenter's version is much closer to the 1930s source novel, Who Goes There?. Carpenter was a huge fun of the original, but complained that the film's limited budget had taken the edge off the creature; it remained scary, but it was closer to Frankenstein's monster than any kind of imitating life form. With a budget of $15m, The Thing was Carpenter's most expensive film to date, allowing him to fully address this central problem.

The most obvious aspect of The Thing is its brilliant special effects, created by Rob Bottin under the supervision of Stan Winston, who would later do the special effects for the Terminator films. It sits happily alongside An American Werewolf in London and The Howling as one of the first horror films to properly utilise animatronics and developments in latex rubber. The designs of the Thing in whichever form it takes are genuinely scary - the twisted skulls are like real-life versions of Gerald Scarfe drawings crossed with the paintings of Edvard Munch. And the multiple effects shots, like the jaws appearing in the chest or the head-spider scuttling across the floor, are shot with a great sense of rhythm so that you can never rest long enough to try and spot the joins.There has been much comparison between The Thing and Alien, and there are some obvious similarities. Both are based on the idea of a creature emerging after thousands of years, feeding on human flesh to survive and being defeated by incineration. And both films were groundbreaking in their effects design; both H. R. Giger's alien and the head-spider are instantly recognisable. But there are two crucial differences between the films to do with the creature, namely what it represents and the way in which it is presented to us.

In Alien, the creature is profoundly sexual, with its phallic head and inner set of teeth which 'rape', 'penetrate' and 'impregnate' the human hosts. The film is a thesis on the male fear of pregnancy and the more general fear of our bodies being invaded or violated. In The Thing, the creature is a physicalisation of paranoia; it represents and reflects the natural suspicion we have of others who are different to ourselves, and takes that feeling of mistrust to the extreme. The film has a racial undercurrent in this regard since the crew come from a variety of racial and cultural backgrounds; early on one of the white members of the crew complains over the intercom about one of the black men playing a Stevie Wonder record. Though it is stretching a point, The Thing could be presented on one level as an allegory for race relations in 1980s America.With regards to the presentation of the creature, Alien's fear comes from withholding it. The sense of intense claustrophobia and paranoia (which The Thing never quite matches) come from only showing glimpses of the horror, and letting the audience's imagination do the rest; the nightmare escalates and gets projected onto the reality, leading both characters and audience to be hysterical when they finally see the alien. The Thing goes the other way, breaking the Hollywood convention of withholding the monster and hence defying what was deemed acceptable. This, together with the success of E.T. the same summer, might help to explain the film's poor box office.Because the designs of the creature are so twisted and shocking, the film draws on the believability of the characters to keep things grounded in reality. If the monster were simply picking off cardboard cut-out teenagers running around in their underwear, there would be no sense of threat either with regard to the characters or that such creatures could actually harm us. Instead, Carpenter carefully shoots the more expository scenes to have a heightened sense of terror; when the computer predicts how many would be infected if the Thing got off Antartica, we shudder in fright at what kind of devastation that entails. The score combines Ennio Morricone's strings with Carpenter's signature synthesisers to create a very threatening mood.

Because of its emphasis on paranoia and trickery, The Thing is closer to Philip Kaufman's (superior) remake of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (appropriate, since Carpenter would later direct They Live which is closely modelled on Body-Snatchers). There is something about the Thing's imitations which seem like pod people: they have a sense of distance to them, and like the pod people they have a defence mechanism which they use when threatened by humans.
The film brilliantly keeps throwing you off the scent; because there are so many characters you are never completely sure whom you should be watching. MacReady acts like a private eye for a lot of the film, and as in many film noirs he is an unreliable narrator who receives conflicting information. On at least two occasions the people we suspect through and through of being infected turn out to be clean, and vice versa. Carpenter shoots the base like a grittier version of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining; the recurring use of a steadicam in the corridors recreate the feeling of unease in that film and reinforce the non-existence of trust. As Macready quips sarcastically to Blair, when there is no-one left to trust, "why don't you just trust in the Lord?".

The ending of The Thing remains a bone of contention among film fans. Some found it too dark and nihilistic, even for the extreme circumstances; others thought it was too abrupt and felt tacked-on in the absence of something more conclusive. An alternative ending was shot in which Kurt Russell was rescued and tested negative for the Thing, but this was never previewed. Much like The Shining or The Blob (another film Carpenter admires), the inconclusive ending is perfect for The Thing. It conveys both the desperation and futility of the characters' predicament, and is deep-rooted in the fear that one of them is the Thing. You sit there expecting a last-minute twist, namely that one of them will start to transform as in Body-Snatchers. But any such twist is withheld, leaving only icy fear mixed with a sense of sadness for these two men.The Thing is not quite a masterpiece. There are occasional moments, particularly in the exterior shots, where it feels like scenes are dragging, and when the explosions start happening in quick succession you do begin to lose interest. But it is on a par with Kaufman's Body-Snatchers as a chilling, thrilling horror movie which comes stuffed to the gills with substance and visual innovation. Carpenter's best film remains Hallowe'en, and The Thing does take second place to Alien in the pantheon of sci-fi horrors. But it is a very honourable second, and it remains a must-see.

Rating: 4.5/5
Verdict: Terrifying and technically accomplished


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