Should I Watch..? 'The Thing' (1982)
What's the big deal?
The Thing is a sci-fi horror film released in 1982 and is based on the 1938 novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell. Director by John Carpenter, the film tells the story of a remote scientific research base in Antarctica that is terrorised by a shape-shifting alien creature. The film stars Kurt Russell, A. Wilford Brimley and Keith David and features the special effects work of Rob Bottin to create the Thing itself in its various guises. Initially, the film was slammed by critics who criticised the film's lack of characterisation as well as claiming the effects were too repulsive. Only earning $19.6 million in the US, the film found true success in the then-burgeoning home video market and has since gone on to become a cult classic. Today, it is regarded as not just one of Carpenter's best films but also one of the best horror films of all time as well as a pioneer of what would come to be called 'body horror'. It would be followed by a prequel, also called The Thing, in 2011 which received a mostly negative reception as well.
What's it about?
At a remote scientific research base in Antarctica, the American crew spot a low-flying helicopter in pursuit of a runaway sled dog. As it nears, the Norwegian helicopter appears to be shooting at the dog and even deploys grenades in an ill-fated attempt to kill it. After the chopper crashes, a survivor escapes the wreckage and continues firing at the dog - accidentally wounding one of the Americans. Eventually, the shooter is taken down by the base's commander Garry and the rest begin to tend to the injured man as well as bringing the dog in for safety.
As the base's pilot MacReady and medical doctor Copper fly off to the Norwegian base to discover what happened, dog handler Clark befriends the sled dog and kennels him with the rest of the base's dogs. MacReady and Copper discover the Norwegian base has almost been burnt to the ground and uncover numerous corpses, some twisted and malformed while others appear to have commit suicide. Recovering some of the bodies as well as some of the Norwegian research notes, they fly back to their base where they witness something truly horrifying emerge in the dog cage...
A. Wilford Brimley
Release Date (UK)
26th August, 1982
Horror, Mystery, Sci-Fi
Razzie Award Nomination
Worst Musical Score
What's to like?
I've never been a huge fan of horror films because in the majority of cases, they simply aren't scary enough to get me jumping in my seat. But The Thing doesn't tend to go for jump scares but instead, it attempts to slowly creep into your subconscious and then chill you to the bone. The film is far more aggressive and dark than the original adaptation (1951's The Thing From Another World), focusing far more on the effects than its human cast. But the effects are a huge part of the film's success - with a lack of CG, the film's reliance on physical puppets and mechanical creations make the Thing far more scary than it has any right to be. It's more nightmarish and disgusting than the Xenomorph from Alien which is saying something and with each appearance, it becomes an even more grotesque blend of teeth, claw and spindles and an otherworldly alien scream.
The brilliance of the narrative is that it remains relevant, whenever an adaptation appears. Not only is The Thing a parable about Cold War paranoia but also the potentially apocalyptic threat posed by the AIDS virus which was a very real fear at the time. Russell delivers a performance that underscores Carpenter's faith in him (Russell was only just beginning to shape his career as a leading man after floundering in Disney comedies in the Seventies), portraying a flawed individual trying to lead his colleagues to survival while realising that survival may be a step too far. He's supported with good performances from David (who doesn't get enough screen time for me) and Dysart as the doctor who soon realises exactly what they are up against. And while it didn't work for the Razzie committee, I felt the minimalist electronic score composed by Ennio Morricone fit the film perfectly although it is a bit too reminiscent of the type of score Carpenter himself usually composes.
- Rob Bottin, who was only in his early twenties at the time, had a team of over 35 people working with him in creating the Thing while the Dog/Thing creature was developed by special effects wizard Stan Winston, who declined credit for his work. Bottin spent so much time on the film that he was taken ill during filming with exhaustion and pneumonia.
- Carpenter was particularly hurt by the film's failure as he considered The Thing as one of his best films. He was stung by one critic who called him a "pornographer of violence" which made him consider quitting being a director altogether.
- Two of the characters in the film are called Mac and Windows which later drew parallels with the battle between tech giants Apple and Microsoft although this is purely coincidental. Incidentally, it was Waites who insisted that his character be called Windows due to his glasses during rehearsals - nobody knew why Carpenter agreed to the change.
- Unused music from Morricone's Razzie-nominated score would eventually be used as part of the soundtrack for The Hateful Eight where, ironically, it would win Morricone an Oscar.
What's not to like?
I fully understand why critics at the time were put off by the incredible effects in the film. Yes, they do look and move in a crude manner but such is their design and the amount of slime and goop deployed that they do bear a high degree of realism. There is no doubt in my mind that these hideous creations will haunt your dreams, especially if this is your first horror film, so their repugnance is to be applauded and not demonised.
However, the film does neglect some of its characterisation and feels deliberately vague and ambiguous at times. Half the time, we don't see characters attacked by the Thing (so when they do change, it's something of a what?-shock) and one character's fate is never even explained. Even the ending still has questions floating up from the nihilism in the air. I wanted to learn more about these characters, what they were doing in the Antarctica and why a research base needed quite so many guns, flame-throwers and grenades. It feels more jaded and much less optimistic than The Thing From Another World and is more focused of scaring its audience than entertaining it. But at least The Thing works very well indeed as a horror.
Should I watch it?
The Thing is a laser-focused horror, designed to get under your skin and haunt my mind in the traditional of a psychological horror but also churn your stomach through its incredible effects work. It's the most complete horror film I can think of, working hard to provoke a reaction from any kind of horror fan - even at the expense of characterisation. It's cold, bloody, bleak and utterly effective.
Great For: horror fans, Antarctica scientists, owners of Alaskan Malamutes or Siberian Huskies
Not So Great For: the squeamish, horror newbies, the under 18's, anyone suffering from night terrors
What else should I watch?
While it wasn't the first body-horror film, The Thing did help to usher in a new era of films that centred on various mutilations, mutations and deformations of the human body to gross out its audience. Films like Videodrome and the 1986 remake of The Fly became synonymous with the subgenre, both of which were directed by horror maestro David Cronenberg whose earlier films Scanners and Shivers also helped bring body-horror back to the masses.
According to Wikipedia, the first recognised body-horror film was 1958's The Blob, one of numerous teen-orientated B-movies featuring monsters emerging from scientific experiments gone wrong. Another is the original version of The Fly from the same year which one critic at the time described as "certainly one of the most revolting science-horror films ever perpetrated". While body horror is more common in cinema these days, possibly the best exponent of the craft is author H.P. Lovecraft whose Cthulhu mythos has inspired numerous works of art including this very picture.
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© 2019 Benjamin Cox