The Thing (1982)

Directed by John Carpenter

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So The Thing is pretty great.  It’s a contained sci-fi horror movie with more emphasis on the horror than the science fiction.  The movie takes place almost entirely inside of a lab in Antarctica where a bunch of scientists, led by Carpenter favorite Kurt Russell, run into ‘the thing,’ an alien organism which kills its prey and then takes their form to blend in.  It’s a parasite, is what it is.

The Thing has similarities to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and a later movie, 1998’s The Faculty might as well be a remake of this film.  The problem is clear, an alien, and the danger is that you can’t tell it apart from your best bud.  This creates an immediate source of conflict in which not only do the humans fight the aliens but themselves and their own paranoia as well.

I may be wrong, but the idea of such a horror story, where the danger looks like you or me, came about during the Red Scare in the 1950s.  It was a time when the public’s fear of communism was encouraged, when HUAC sought to identify suspected communists and burn down the forests to make sure none survived.  It was a time when the problem wasn’t as bad as the reaction to that problem.  It’s not unlike much of the misguided anger that followed the September 11th terrorist attacks.

These types of horror movies deviate from the types of horror films that came earlier, in which the danger was obvious.  In those instances, the danger was something like the Frankenstein monster or Dracula.  The danger was foreign, ‘other,’ exotic, etc.  The same idea could be found in 2017’s The Shape of Water in which the white, conservative norm (personified by Michael Shannon’s character) was incredibly fearful of the aquatic creature, a benign character made dangerous by how unknowable and foreign it was.

So The Thing is a reaction to those kinds of horror stories and certain cultural events.  In this movie, the reaction to the ‘thing’ is overblown but understandably so.  This story acknowledges the danger while showing how easy it is to go too far in the name of self-preservation.

The film opens with a harmless, even adorable dog running through the snow as it is shot at from a helicopter by a couple of Norwegian scientists.  The dog reaches the facility containing the rest of the cast, and the Norwegians shoot at our heroes before a dropped grenade blows them up.

Kurt Russell, as MacReady, is our hero, and we know it because he’s Kurt f*ckin’ Russell aka Snake Plissken from Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981).  MacReady leads an investigation into the facility burned down by the Norwegians.  It’s not clear what happened, just that it ended badly.

The dog which the Norwegians pursued is put in a pen with a bunch of other dogs.  Soon the dog, really the alien parasite, blossoms in a gory display of ingenuous practical effects and devours the other animals before escaping and hiding somewhere in the facility.  At this point the movie is something like Ridley Scott’s Alien.

But soon they find that the alien is able to mimic its hosts.  Slowly but surely, the crew is picked apart until only a handful remain.  MacReady leads the charge, making just about every new discovery before the rest of the crew.  He’s the one who tells them to be careful because the alien can mimic them, but soon he is suspected to be an alien himself.

MacReady now must fight for his own survival amongst his friends, and the subsequent heightened paranoia leads him to kill one of the crew in self-defense.  MacReady eventually provides evidence that he’s still a human in a tense experiment meant to expose the remaining parasites.

The story evolves like a tightening noose, picking off the humans until only two remain at the very end.  The story is like so many other horror films, but what makes The Thing stand out is how delightfully gory it is.  Like with the wolf-transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London, it’s pretty amazing what Carpenter and his team pulled off.  This is a movie about spectacle as much as any computer effects-driven movie today is.  The story works to ratchet up the tension before some kind of inevitable spectacle takes place.  Some of these effects haven’t aged well in the sense that we fall for them, but they still have a fascinating appeal in just how silly they are.

There doesn’t really seem to be a wrong way to react to this film.  It’s scary in the right places, but the gore is so over the top in some instances that it’s hard not to laugh.  Like with other horror films, there is a fine line between the horror and the comedy.  This is a premise played straight but which is so absurd and silly that you have to have fun with it.  We know that most of the characters will die, so the story becomes less about will they/won’t they and more about how they die.  The escalating tension has more to do with the escalating spectacle, and sure enough the film goes out on a bang, with MacReady blowing up the facility just as the Norwegians had done.

So how are you really supposed to take in this movie?  I found it much more engaging on a visceral level than Carpenter’s Escape From New York, a movie quite hilarious but also hard to really buy into.  In that film there is enough self-awareness to prevent you from every really jumping into Plissken’s world.  In The Thing, however, there is a balance between the self-awareness and the truly riveting drama.  You might not realize how sucked in you are until it’s over.

Up Next: The Faculty (1998), The Wrestler (2008), Suspicion (1941)

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