Growing up in the bible belt of America, John Carpenter’s teacher read the bible to him in school everyday as part of his education. By the time he'd reached the third grade the daily recital of the book had ended with Revelations. Although he didn't understand the meaning of it, the imagery mesmerised him and piqued his interest in the idea of the end of things. This coupled with growing up in the shadow of atomic fear during the Cold War galvanised his fascination with the Apocalypse. This was an idea he explored in a trilogy of films that included 'The Thing', 'Prince of Darkness' and 'In the Mouth of Madness'. Each took a different approach in their exploration of the theme but were tied together by their links to cosmic horror.
The first in the trilogy was the 1982 landmark horror film 'The Thing', a remake of the Christian Nyby film 'The Thing From Another World' which in turn was based on the 1938 novella "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell. The film tells the simple story of an American research team in Antarctica who encounter a parasitic alien organism that can imitate any other lifeform that it comes into contact with, leading to widespread fear and paranoia in the camp.
From the very beginning the film establishes a tone of dread through the synth bass driven score from Ennio Morricone as it plays over the opening credits. This is then followed up by the opening scene where a Norwegian helicopter follows a husky dog through the frozen desert of Antarctica, opening fire on it for an inexplicable reason. This image in and of itself already evokes feelings of the end of the world due to the vast nothingness of the setting and the panic behind the hunting of the dog.
Carpenter then introduces the twelve man crew of the nearby American research facility, Outpost 31. An all male cast (with the exception of a voice cameo from Adrienne Barbeau) led by Kurt Russell, the actors inject just enough personality to their characters to differentiate them adding intrigue whenever the threat of the creature emerges. Alone and isolated they are almost like a petri dish of the oncoming apocalypse not only in how mankind could be affected by such a threat but in how they would react to it.
Carpenter does a masterful job at displaying how claustrophobic the camp is through Dean Cundey's expert cinematography and his slow burn approach throughout the film. The camera slowly moves through tight, dimly lit hallways showing how there almost is no escape, giving a whole sense of inevitability to the film. This is perfectly summed up through the way in which the infected dog stalks the camp, observing it's potential victims and surroundings while waiting for the right moment to strike.
The investigation of the remains of the Norwegian camp acts as a moment of horrifying foreshadowing of what is to come as members of Outpost 31 investigate it's remains, laced with frozen bodies. Outside are the charred remains of a nightmarish humanoid figure leading to more questions rather than answers. It offers the audience the first glimpse of Rob Bottin's groundbreaking special effects makeup as it is something that had never been seen up to this point on film. From this point it is clear that this isn't going to be your average "man-in-a-suit" alien invasion film.
The discovery of the alien spacecraft touches on some Lovecraftian influences. Like the elder gods from the similar setting of 'At the Mountains of Madness', Norris (Charles Hallahan) estimates that it had been buried in the ice for nearly 100,000 years, separated from man for good reason. The manner in which the creature attacks members of the camp carries ties to Lovecraft too as it is done with complete indifference and apathy making it all the more terrifying. It is all an act of opportunity to survive. Blair's notes sum it up perfectly when they state, "the chameleon strikes in the dark".
The autopsy of the humanoid creature found at the Norwegian camp sows the seeds of fear and confusion within the group and the second autopsy of the dog-like creature after the kennel incident furthers this fear and mistrust as the group discover how the creature can assimilate and imitate any organism it comes into contact with. From the beginning there are little touches of conflict within the group as Garry (Donald Moffat) criticises Windows (Thomas Waites) for a lack of effort to get radio communication up and running and Bennings (Peter Maloney) complains about Nauls' (T.K. Carter) loud music. Incidents like these can be chalked up to early onset cabin fever but later on they play a significant role in the group dynamics as relationships of trust erode.
The most pivotal scene in the film is when Blair (Wilford Brimley) runs a computer simulation to examine the speed at which the creature can assimilate and imitate every living organism on the planet. The entire scene is sold on Wilfred Brimley's grimaces of despair and the gentle haunting strings of Morricone's score. Blair's reactions are merely a reflection of the hopelessness of the group's situation and he feels he is the only person who knows what needs to be done for the greater good to stop this silent invasion going global. He goes to the extremes of completely isolating the group by sabotaging all transports, killing the remaining dogs and destroying the radio before being taken down and separated from the group.
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As characters begin to be picked off one by one and suspicions grow, the tension increases as characters turn on each other or refuse to work together. Palmer (David Clennon) doesn't want to investigate part of the camp with Windows and Blair warns MacReady (Kurt Russell) to watch Clark (Richard Masur) due to how close he was with the dogs. MacReady sums up the situation in a tape recording he makes as a form of a last will and testament when he says, "nobody trusts anybody now and we're all very tired".
A pseudo murder mystery, the film is laced with red herrings (like MacReady's torn clothing) and constant questions of who is who. The extra dimension of having a creature that can consume not just the body but the mind of it's host makes the viewer carefully examine and question the motives of each character, combing over every look or line of dialogue. It is this aspect of the film that has allowed it to endure as a classic of the genre. It is all one big game of devil's advocate for the audience to see what they would do and who they would trust if they were placed in this scenario.
In the aftermath of the defibrillator scene where the head of the infected Norris separates from it's body to escape, the group figures out how every cell of the creature is it's own living organism. In response to this MacReady devises a blood test where he would apply a hot wire to a blood sample to see how it would react. This is probably the most tension filled scene of the film as Childs (Keith David) denounces the test as "bullshit", maybe to protect himself or maybe because it's what he truly believes. It is set up in such a way to make the audience believe that a reaction will occur once Garry's blood is tested, given previous accusations of him tampering with the blood needed for earlier tests. Low and behold he is innocent and that Palmer was infected in a shocking flame filled, head chomping moment of chaos.
The scene is a clear nod to the AIDs crisis of the time where evidence of the disease wasn't clear on the surface but it could be detected in the blood. This is a perfect summation of the apocalyptic nature of the film as Carpenter explains in the documentary, 'The Thing: Terror Takes Shape' when he says, "it doesn't come from bombs dropping, it comes from within". It is within that this destruction of self takes place and spreads from person to person until no one else is left.
When the remaining survivors realise that the creature's plan is to hibernate until a rescue team arrives, they decide to take out the camp in a final act of defiance. The grand finale sees MacReady as the seemingly sole survivor facing off against an assimilated Blair. He manages to take it and the entire camp (laced with explosives) out with a stick of dynamite. Exhausted, he sits by a smouldering fire where he is approached by Childs. Unsure as to whether or not he has been assimilated and vice versa they both decide to sit and wait for the cold to take them. Over the years many fan theories have circulated as to whether Childs or MacReady were assimilated or not at this point but they miss the fundamental point that ultimately "The Thing" has won. The world ends for both men as they succumb not only to the cold but with their paranoia dying with mistrust in their hearts and mind.
Upon it's release, 'The Thing' was mauled by critics with Roger Ebert claiming that the film offered nothing beyond the special effects and it fared poorly at the box office with the popularity of 'E.T. The Extra Terrestrial' (released a few weeks prior) still fresh in the minds of audiences. However time has been kind to the film as re-examinations of the film see it as being more than just a grotesque spectacle of B-Movie splatter. It is a film about human relationships in times of crisis, whether we choose to work together or stand alone in the face of fear and paranoia, where the end comes at a glacial pace as we are destroyed from the inside out.
- Joseph McElroy