I’m going to go ahead and be very upfront with you: I truly love this film. While I don’t have a perfect memory of the first time I ever watched it (In 1982 I was too young to see an R rated movie in the theater-Thanks Mom!), I can hardly remember a time in my life when it wasn’t floating around in my head somewhere. I do, however, remember renting it on VHS so many times from the local video store that my mom finally broke down and bought me my own copy to save money. (Thanks Mom!) I should also confess that the John Carpenter/Kurt Russell pairing is one of my all time favorites and I will forgive the duo almost anything, including Escape From L.A..
All that being said, I am prepared to put my money where my mouth is and tell you why this film succeeds beyond mere nostalgia.
The Thing is one of the horror films of the eighties that holds up well enough, both thematically and visually, that new viewers can still be transported to its world without the constant nagging in the back of their mind that it is “outdated”. Yes, the Chess Wizard game that we see MacReady playing when he is first introduced is archaic. Yes, we all remember Wilford Brimley from the Quaker Oats commercials and that is more than a little funny. But these details are easily forgotten as the viewer becomes engaged in the film experience.
Director John Carpenter grew up in the era of the monster matinee and so a remake of sorts of the Howard Hawks film The Thing From Another World (1951) was a perfect choice for him. Carpenter takes a closer look, though, at the original source material: the novella Who Goes There? (1938) by John W. Campbell and creates a film steeped more in slow building tension and paranoia than Hawks’. While the premise is the same in both films- something comes to Earth and hides in plain sight amongst the inhabitants of a remote research station- Carpenter takes the idea further to create a much more invasive and terrifying experience for the viewer. Unlike The Thing From Another World, there are no women in The Thing. While not including any female characters or hints of physical intimacy between the men can be met with criticism, I find that it heightens the isolation and the inevitable mindset of every man for himself as they begin to question who among them is still human.
The film begins with a widescreen shot of a spacecraft of some kind careening towards earth, no specified date. From this expansive beginning, the world of the film becomes increasingly smaller as the viewer is taken to the barren scenery of Antarctica, next to a scientific research station, then to the tight corridors and rooms within and finally to the men themselves whose bodies will truly be where the action takes place. These twelve men are faced with an occurrence they don’t expect or understand and they respond to it in the most human of ways: with curiosity and compassion. Unfortunately, these very human reactions will inevitably be their saving grace as well as their undoing and as the camera tracks through the station and later pans to circle among the men when they are arguing how to logically face this illogical problem, the viewer continues to be placed on the outside looking in. The characters are so alone that even we are not allowed to feel truly connected to them.
From the first notes of Ennio Morricone’s slowly rhythmic score, the pacing of the film is set and the soundtrack becomes the heartbeat of the film, ringing in the viewer’s ears as the tension and paranoia build. This is film/storytelling pared down to the basic elements. It is precise editing, deliberate pacing, economy of spoken words, incredible set design, intelligent cinematography and not least of all amazing practical effects that I would easily put up against most of the CGI being churned out today. Interesting to note is that, while the creature and mutation effects are scary in all their bloody glory, especially as it contrasts to the stark and somber monochrome palette of the film, it is what we don’t see that is truly frightening.
You might be surprised to hear that the film also addresses many classic themes, not just gorey effects and fear. The question of what exactly humanity is, nature v. science, body horror, paranoia and even Reagan Era politics are all touched on. While the film was seen by many as too bleak for the gung-ho movie trend of the time, it is the anti-authoritarian suggestion that humanity can’t be taken at face value and taking control into one’s own hands that elevates the growing tension and leaves the viewer with a sense of foreboding long after the credits roll. The ending is unsure and bleak, especially when you think back to one of the first scenes of the film in which the Norwegian camp is explored and realize that what was seen there can now be explained. What is happening now has happened before and will likely happen again.
As the camera pans out and our “survivors” settle in, too exhausted to think of a next move, it becomes apparent that our hero MacReady has been engaged in another game of chess this whole time, one with much higher stakes. He has no more moves planned and resigns himself to a fate unknown:
“Why don’t we just…wait here for a little while. See what happens?”