The Thing (1982)
“If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?”
The Thing is horror master John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 film The Thing from Another World, which stars James Arness as a Frankenstein-esque alien menacing a scientific expedition. While The Thing from Another World is an undisputed horror classic, Carpenter did not want to merely repeat its shocks. He decided to go back to the original short story by John W. Campbell Jr., entitled “Who Goes There?” Consequently, The Thing follows this source material much more closely than the 1951 film. No longer a tale of a monster attacking from the outside, it is now a story of a threat coming from within, not without. Instead of “Keep watching the skies” (the last line from The Thing from Another World), the tagline for this film could be “Keep watching the guy next to you.” What John Carpenter has created is a magnificent tale of fear of paranoia, without even the comfort of knowing that the threat “is out there.” In The Thing, the danger is among us.
The Thing introduces us to the twelve members of an isolated US Outpost in the Antarctic, which has been invaded by an ancient alien being. However, unlike the easily recognizable creatures of yore, this alien can perfectly copies any life form it encounters, blending in perfectly with its surroundings. Not even the audience is always aware of who the alien and who isn't... Paranoia soon grips the camp and it is up to R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) to discover the alien's true identity and protect the future of mankind.
Arguably, the most memorable aspect of The Thing is the special effects wizardry of Rob Bottin, who presents us with one of the most dazzling and shocking monsters in screen history. Bottin (whose credits include The Howling and Fight Club) offers us an alien that has no true form of its own. We don’t even have the comfort of at least knowing what the creature looks like; we only ever see it in some misshapen state between hosts. A true “thing” that is made up of ever-changing parts of bodies, combinations of species (once you have seen it, it is a safe bet that you’ll never forget the head with spider’s legs), and unearthly screeches, Bottin creates a monster that is ever-changing, horrifying, and, most importantly, completely believable.
These astonishing effects compliment characters that are down-to-earth and credible. We never learn much about the characters; instead, they are nothing more than archetypes. Kurt Russell plays the laconic hero, Wilford Brimley the wise man, and Keith David the no-nonsense tough guy. We learn their last names and their jobs at the base, but not much more - certainly nothing about their backgrounds or their personal lives. While this lack of depth might appear to be a weakness, it is actually one of The Thing’s strengths. Because we are already familiar with the straightforward hero, or the wise old curmudgeon, we mentally fill in the characters’ backgrounds ourselves. This allows us to jump into the story with as little dull exposition as possible, and also provides us with an instantly familiar spectrum of characters with which we can readily identify.
The Thing's outstanding cast fleshes out these rather thin characters, and gives us a vivid presentation of terrified and believable people. Each one of the actors brings to life people who are paranoid and horrified. Their reactions to the bizarre and terrifying situation they find themselves in are so believable that you might almost think you are watching a documentary. The actors bring us to a place where every look has two meanings, where the most innocent phrase may have a sinister interpretation, and where a brief absence can be the difference between human and alien.
Nearly all the actors in this film give pitch perfect performances. Keith David’s portrayal of Childs, one of the camp’s natural leaders, is a wonderful example. Throughout the whole film he gives off a “Mr. Cool” vibe, always trying to be the person who has everything in order. Even as events seem bleaker, he keeps acting more and more in control. Nevertheless, his braggadocio covers a great deal of fear. In the blood test scene, when Palmer (David Clennon) starts changing before their eyes, Childs begins kicking and screaming in fear, showing us just how scared he really is. Thomas G. Waites gives an equally outstanding performance, portraying Windows, the communications officer, as a scared man desperately trying to cling to someone. Throughout most of the film, he seems almost in tears, and at one point even smashes through a window to get to a shotgun. Constantly looking around with his jaw always dropped, eyes darting about from person to person, Waites's character is always desperately looking for some reassurance. About the only one of this stellar cast that does not give an outstanding performance is Wilford Brimley, who plays the doctor, Blair. He plays his character too over the top, particularly in the scene where he is destroying the communications center. When he screams “Nobody is getting out of here… nobody,” or later when he yells at Childs “I’ll kill you,” he is so overwrought that it provokes laugher rather than fright. Nevertheless, despite this one disappointing performance, the members of the cast bring a chilling reality to this fantastic and horrifying film.
Carpenter’s direction is masterful. As in his classic Halloween, Carpenter uses the corners of the frame to great advantage. During one particularly tense scene, Clark (Richard Masur), the dog keeper, can be seen quietly picking up a scalpel and preparing to attack MacReady. Just barely in camera, on the far left side, only we in the audience see it; the rest of the characters do not. However, instead of reassuring us of MacReady's humanness when he shoots Clark in the head, Carpenter's use of the camera only makes us more paranoid. In another breathtaking scene, a character’s belly opens up with shark-size fangs, and bites off the doctor’s arms. MacReady sprays a flamethrower at the assimilated man (the only way to truly kill the “thing”) but doesn’t notice that the man’s head has ripped off his own body, sprouted spiders legs, and started to crawl away. Carpenter shows us this in a tight close-up of MacReady, while the head slinks off to the left. It is only when Palmer looks back and says “You gotta be f**kin’ kidding” that MacReady notices and takes action.
A dark film, The Thing is shot mostly in dimly lit corridors and rooms; many of the outdoor scenes, particularly near the end, are at night. Most of the time, the base feels like a darkened maze, where anything can come from anywhere at anytime. The camera slowly prowls through the corridors, just as one of the frightened characters might do, suggesting isolation and despair. Even the well-lit outdoor scenes are oppressive. All one can see is a never-ending white landscape. The sense of isolation is palpable, making the film even more frightening. There is no possibility of help. We are on our own here, and we cannot tell our friends from our enemies.
Carpenter also uses his direction to quickly strip away all of the veneer of civilization from his characters, exposing the fear and paranoia beneath. One of the techniques he uses is to add small, unobtrusive imagery that contributes a constant state of unease the film. We see a noose hanging in Blair’s shack, a blanket starts to move when Windows’s back is turned, and the assimilated Blair’s fingers under the skin of Garry's (Donald Moffat) face. These small details make sure that we stay uncomfortable between the loud, monstrous outbursts. It doesn’t matter if we’re seeing a quiet discussion between two characters, or if we’re watching the Things violently assimilate someone. We are never allowed a moment of relief, leaving us almost as haggard as the characters. Carpenter never tips us as to who is human and who is not. Even the scientists that are assimilated act as if they were human; there are no strange looks or mysterious phrases from the assimilated characters. No one, not even the audience, knows who can be trusted, and who can’t.
Probably the best scene in The Thing is the tension filled, sweat-dripping blood test sequence. By this time MacReady has figured out that every part of the alien is an autonomous entity. Tying up all the remaining characters to a couch, he takes a sample of their blood, and then applies a hot wire to each sample to see if it reacts. One by one, we see each man tested. Clips of MacReady testing the blood cut away to close-ups of each person’s face. Carpenter skillfully misleads us, by having the conversation debate over all the rivalries and suspicions that have been circulating among the men. We listen this paranoid debate over who might be the Thing, when Palmer’s blood finally reacts (the blood screeches loudly and jumps out of the sample container). This reaction comes as a shock, we having been so caught up in the intricacies of the discussion.
The Thing is definitely one of the most intense and horrific films ever made. Outstanding special effects, superb casting, and brilliant direction all combine to create an unmatched tale of paranoia and terror. From its opening moment to its conclusion, The Thing forces us to experience the horror and suspicion of its characters in a way that few other films can. It imparts a sense of genuine and inevitable dread. While from a historical perspective, Halloween is unquestionably more significant, I believe that The Thing is John Carpenter’s masterpiece.
Screenwriter Bill Lancaster is the son of actor Burt Lancaster.