Overview: In the spirit of #hAElloween, I took some time to look back at Kurt Russell fights shape-shifting aliens with dynamite in John Carpenter’s greatest accomplishment, The Thing. Universal Pictures; 1982; Rated R; 109 minutes.
A Masterpiece in Alien Terror: The history of The Thing is troubling. It was released in 1982 during the same month when people clamored to see optimistic science fiction such as E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which are highlights of the genre, but proved that public interest was elsewhere. What John Carpenter established here was more than a complete 180 from what audiences wanted from the science fiction at the time. The Thing isn’t quite a character study but it is an examination of men pushed beyond paranoia.
The Warmest Place to Hide: In the isolated tundra of Antarctica, a group of scientists discover a shape-shifting alien beneath the ice. This “thing” can transform into any living organism it so chooses. And that’s where the tension builds to a boiling point, before erupting in a most incredulous manner. The mystery behind which of these men are possible “things” is the narrative that the characters, and audience, follow, leading to a sense of involvement from the viewers. Just as Kurt Russell and company try to deduce who is “one of those things,” we try to figure it out ourselves.
The cast of a dozen men, led by Kurt Russell, Keith David, and Wilford Brimley, are all working to the best of their type cast abilities. They play likable when they need to be likable and distrusting when shit hits several fans. When the terror begins, the actors give the characters a dramatic turn that feels earned and believable. The switch feels natural but not casual. These are ordinary people caught in extraordinary situations. It doesn’t turn anybody into full-fledged action heroes, rather an everyman pushed to the edge of his limits. It’s a nifty trick Carpenter uses in most of his films to employ audience sympathy, even when you’re not entirely sure who to trust. And when the creature reveals itself, hold onto your butts.
Disgusting Feast for the Eyes and Ears: The Thing’s practical effects are out of this world. The manner in which tentacles erupt from victims of the shape-shifting creatures is vile. The visual essence of the creature design is grotesque in all the right ways. I’m not one who thinks CGI can’t hold a candle to practical effects by any means, but for all those that enjoy that debate: The Thing should be your go-to line of defense. With pitch perfect lighting accompanying the fascinatingly disturbing transformation sequences, the practical effects are continuously bolstered by a top notch sound design. Every bone snap, every eye rupture, is authentic enough to turn even the strongest stomach. The sounds of The Thing are not to be understated. It’s among the best of the horror genre.
As for the score? It was nominated for a Razzie back in 1982. This is a classic case of what I like to call “the prolonged ass foot.” It’s when someone makes a mistake that comes back to make them kick themselves in the ass. Ennio Morricone’s now iconic score skillfully ties together the themes of isolation and paranoia spreading throughout the film. If you throw a Halloween party and you don’t have this song on your spooky playlist, prepare for a case of the “prolonged ass foot.”
See What Happens: If you haven’t seen John Carpenter’s The Thing, I can’t implore you enough to watch it. Personally, I’ve kept up a tradition to watch it every year ono Halloween since 2007. To many audiences, John Carpenter’s greatest achievement may be his contribution to the slasher genre with Halloween. But to me, The Thing is the pinnacle John Carpenter experiment. Combining the nail-biting tension of his iconic slasher with the claustrophobic atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s Alien, this is a science fiction horror movie for the ages.