There’s a reason why so many modern horror movies struggle to earn positive praise from critics and punters alike these days, and it doesn’t require a film degree to figure it out. Simply put, they’re boring. Horror has very much become synonymous with the kind of film that amounts to a tired series of predictable jumpscares - all of which have been done, and seen before. The fault lies primarily with modern horror makers having their priorities out of order. So much focus these days seems to be put upon the idea of creating something scary - a new setting here, a good trailer there - before diluting the final product to attract a mainstream audience. Film companies have lost sight of what horror really means, and the best way to unsettle an audience remains in going beyond what even their own imaginations could deem frightening. Such a tactic doesn’t even need to be an extravagant break from the norm either. Just a new and disturbing take on a familiar setup, or the invention of a monster that defies even the wildest of mental images, and there you have it - a decent frightfest on paper is now an undisputed classic on screen.
John Carpenter’s The Thing, now widely considered one of those undisputed classics, is classed as such because it doesn’t just succeed in one of these areas - it succeeds in both. Even at thirty-five years old, it remains an impeccably disturbing movie whose union of B-movie sci-fi, visual gore and stifling paranoia is enough to keep a viewer on the edge of their seat, and a hand on their stomach. It takes that most standard horror settings - an unwitting group alone in a remote wilderness - and unleashes a creature upon them so cleverly concocted that it ticks that first box of defying expectations. It then centers the threat of this creature entirely around the group’s own trust in one another - thus providing the twist. Throw in an iconic soundtrack, unprecedented amounts of body-horror gore and a rising star in Kurt Russell, then you don’t just have a cult horror hit - you have a genre-setter, although one that isn’t completely devoid of rough edges.
The Thing is a considerably grittier redux on The Thing From Another World, a B-movie classic from the 1951 that also garners its own cult following. While lacking the hamminess of its original, it definitely keeps the same premise: that of a 12-man American research crew, based out in the Antarctic, becoming set upon by a long-dormant alien lifeform that can change its form at will. Be it human, canine or anything in-between, this ‘Thing’ can mimic any organic creature - so long as it can infect them first. This doesn’t mean much for the research crew initially, who all seem more preoccupied with trying to relieve the boredom of their various duties in the isolation of the South Pole. But a surprise visit from their neighbours - a team of Norwegian scientists - soon moves them on from finding ways to kill time to finding ways to kill the deadly, shape-shifting monster of the title.
Like all great horror films, The Thing throws the viewer off-balance right from the outset. Its opening scene, depicting a defenseless huskie fleeing across the desolate Antarctic from the rifle shots of a Norwegian scientist pursuing by helicopter, seems both bizarre and cruel. It’s clever too, because that’s exactly what the film wants you to think. Aside from its feature monstrosity, this is a film that loves to fright via its love of deception. The moment this seemingly innocent animal gets rescued by the American team from the deranged, gun-wielding Norwegians chasing it (and who promptly get themselves killed in the chaos that follows), we are fooled - even if just for a short while. It may become glaringly obvious - via a particularly revolting transformation sequence - that the crew’s new arrival is anything but the grateful, fuzzy canine they brought in. But for the brief time it has us, the film quite succinctly shows how easy - and deadly - it is to trust things at first-hand. It’s a message both viewer and the film’s central figures will grow weary of, especially when it continues to repeat itself in one increasingly gruesome flashpoint after the next.
Even before the arrival of their nemesis - which had been sleeping under the surface of the Antarctic for thousands of years before the film’s beginning - the men of U.S Outpost #31 don’t exactly enjoy each other’s company to begin with. Out in a frozen wasteland without a hint of civilization for miles, they’ve had plenty of time for the faults of their various personalities to grate on each other. Central to this crew of scientists, engineers and eventual victims is helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell). Just like everyone else, he’s pretty fed up with his stationing at the outpost, and largely spends his time on the camp’s chess computer and drinking copious amounts of whiskey. He’s also the one character who seems to have any real depth of personality, largely thanks to Russell giving him a gruff, no-nonsense persona which while cliched, is a perfect component for the film’s eventual battle for survival. The rest are more of a less-defined bunch. There’s the typical guy driven half-mad by their own isolation (David Clennon as Palmer, a mechanic), the temperamental camp dissident (Keith David as Childs, also a mechanic), the guy who sucks at his job and takes his frustrations out on everyone around him (Thomas Waites as Windows, a radio operator) and a good number of science nerds (with prominent appearances from Wilford Brimley and Joel Polis as the camp’s biologists, Blair and Fuchs). Even L.A Law’s Richard Dysart pops up here as Dr. Copper, the camp’s resident physician. It’s a hefty menagerie, and unfortunately the movie doesn’t really dedicate much at all to developing them on an interpersonal level - aside from portraying a shared sense of mild animosity for each other and apathy for their own shared seclusion. Ultimately it doesn’t matter much, because the movie’s touted monster soon instils a level of fear and mistrust into the proceedings that doesn’t let up until the final credits.
Even in an age of CG and torture porn, the Thing still remains one of the most disgusting, terrifying visions ever put to film. An entity capable of taking over anything living, it seizes the hapless members of the U.S Outpost one by one, and only ever reveals its true hideous form once its disguise is exposed. The slower points of paranoia-induced tension as the camp members slowly lose trust in each other’s real identities only works because of just how monstrously horrific these revelatory moments actually are. When The Thing transforms, it’s both ugly, and unpredictable; one minute a quivering mass of tentacles and mutated human (and dog) anatomy, the next a spiderish, stalk-eyed nightmare with a human head for a body. The unnerving nature of its metamorphoses - and the implied possibilities of them being both virulent, and infinite - are what make this creature one of the greatest horror has ever produced. Its mystery and seeming invincibility share an aura with Ridley Scott’s Alien, and you can’t help but wonder that the similarity was on purpose. It makes it all the more frustrating, therefore, that we’re given its backstory right in the opening credits - all the way up to showing its spaceship crashing through the Earth’s atmosphere. Such a giveaway dampens the atmosphere a little. Opting to just reveal the Thing during its first horrific transformation, and having the camp crew stumble upon its craft without a prior introduction would surely have amplified the fear factor all the more.
As it is, it’s still nail-biting stuff - and not just because of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston’s sterling effort in the special effects department. John Carpenter’s influential camera work, which was instrumental in making his previous works Halloween and The Fog such a success, is on fine display again here. It’s especially the case when Carpenter visually ruminates on the sheer desolation of MacReady and his crewmates’ surroundings, from long takes of snow-swept tundra to the no-frills concrete mundanity of the camp itself. With the Thing gradually picking off its inhabitants - all of whom eventually require extermination by flamethrower to keep the lifeform from infecting others - the outpost’s confines almost become as imposing as the monster stalking them. Even in the little things like the camp’s narrow halls and the junk-laden mess rooms, the sheer claustrophobia that envelopes the movie is prevalent. With Ennio Morricone providing a minimalist electronic soundtrack to add as a backdrop, the anxiety and knowing that the Thing is soon going to erupt on camera again becomes nigh on unbearable. Eventually it does hit a breaking point with one notably unforgettable scene. Once MacReady, flamethrower on one arm, is done testing blood samples of his remaining teammates as they watch on while tied to furniture, the film is wise enough not to try racking up the suspense and paranoia any further and promptly gets to its climax. The payoff isn’t quite worth the wait, but the dialing-up of the tension itself - and most certainly the sickening viscerality of the film in general - provides more than enough entertainment to be worth getting riled up for.
Indeed, the ending of The Thing is perhaps its most disappointing aspect. The final scene is certainly one of the most original and clever conclusions for a horror movie ever, capturing the film’s sense of hopelessness perfectly. But the final confrontation with the Thing itself is far too brief. It’s quite the letdown, especially given how much work the film has put into making its main beast seem so unstoppable. When all is done and the credits roll, you’re left with the slight feeling that the film could have done with an extra twenty minutes or so - at least to give its creature a better send-off, and its protagonists more time to make their bond seem more legitimate. And perhaps it’s these little rushed corners that led to the movie being so poorly regarded on its initial release. With the lack of time given to develop its characters further, it’d be easy to palm The Thing off as just another nasty gorefest - all body parts and no brain. But deeper inspection will prove that its wit lies in its unbridled creativity. Tense, repulsive and still startlingly original, The Thing deserves its status as an enduring classic in the sci-fi horror mold. It may not be the undisputed greatest - it’s not even Carpenter’s greatest (cough, Halloween) - but it’s still a bloody fine ride nonetheless.