40 for 40 – #15. The Thing

#15 is nothing short of a masterpiece.
An incredible mix of terrifying horror and thought-provoking sci-fi, blended together by a legendary actor/director collaboration.
With amazing special effects, unbeatable tension and an ending that is STILL debated to this day, it’s not just a movie – it’s the perfect… Thing…

 #15. The Thing (1982) Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley. Directed by John Carpenter.

I’m not really a horror movie guy.

Sure, I don’t mind a good one if it happens to come along. I certainly appreciate the game-changers like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, and as we all know, I’ve got a huge soft spot for the Evil Dead series.

But beyond that, I find most out-and-out horror films to be a bit… meh.

The Thing is different. I love this movie. In my opinion, it is easily one of the best horror movies of all time. It’s a unique take on the classic ‘whodunnit’ tale. An Agatha Christie-style mystery, with Hitchcock-like tension, all based around a frightening, sci-fi premise.

Paranoia. Mistrust. Fear.

These are the building blocks with which director, John Carpenter crafts his incredible film, perhaps his greatest ever.

The all-male cast evokes feelings of classics like The Enemy Below, The Great Escape or 12 Angry Men. And by straight up announcing its time and setting (Antarctica, 1982), decades later, it has almost becomes a retroactive period film.

Like all good mysteries, we’re dropped into a story that has started without us, leaving us to try and piece together the clues, as a Norwegian helicopter is seemingly hell-bent on killing a fleeing dog. The calamity and desperation building outside by the Norwegians contrasts the sleepy boredom inside of the nearby U.S. camp.

But things are about to change. In more ways than one.

We instantly realise there’s something odd about this dog, but we don’t get to learn exactly what, as the crazed Norwegians are killed before they can properly explain.

I love this opening scene. It sets up everything we need to kick off the mystery, and on repeat viewings, I still watch with dread as the dog immediately endears itself to the stoic canine handler, Clarke (Richard Masur).

When we visit the demolished Norwegian camp, it is its own horror story. We are only given hints as to the chaos that must have unfolded there. A frozen corpse with slit wrists and throat, blood-spattered axes and all-round destruction inhabit every inch of the Norwegian camp, a grim foreshadowing of things to come for the Americans.

The two biggest discoveries though, are the slab of ice and the disfigured, singed remains of some… Thing.

Animated GIF

The Norwegian video tapes lead helicopter pilot, MacReady (Kurt Russell) and the others to discover the biggest piece of the puzzle: what looks like a crashed flying saucer, estimated to have been under the ice for more than 100,000 years, and a hole in the snow that matches the block of partially-melted ice from the Norwegian camp.

Animated GIF

Of course, we soon learn that some kind of extra-terrestrial, parasitic intruder has infiltrated the camp, one capable of absorbing and imitating any organism it comes in contact with. But thanks to these early and mysterious scenes, Carpenter builds the tension and perfectly sets up an uneasiness that remains with us for the rest of the film.

Carpenter’s talented eye for shot composition and depth of field are expertly on display in The Thing, possibly more than any other of his movies. He also employs quiet establishing shots, almost-still imagery and long corridor pans reminiscent of Alien or Psycho to build the tension. These skills help prove just how great a filmmaker he was/is, and not just a schlock-horror or ‘cult film’ guy.

The score by musical genius, Ennio Morricone is as much a character in the film as any other. Its themes are spooky and innocuous, just like the movie, adding yet another layer of restlessness to the film.

As far as the titular shape-shifting Thing is concerned, I rank it somewhere near the top when it comes to cinematic creature threats from outer space. However, I particularly like that despite its obvious power and formidability, the Thing is occasionally shown to be vulnerable, such as when it is discovered mid-imitation of Bennings (Peter Maloney). It flees and even seems afraid at this point, before it is subsequently burned alive by Mac and the others.

When it is caught unaware, the Thing’s reaction is often one of instant aggression, combined with a terrifying and unsettling ability to change into the stuff of nightmares.

The Thing is such a well fleshed-out creature (no pun intended) that Carpenter makes sure we also understand just how intelligent it is. It seems capable of reading into social hierarchies, since it waits until Gary (Donald Moffat), Copper (Richard Dysart) and Mac leave in the chopper before undertaking its first clandestine attack on an unknown, silhouetted victim.

It’s almost as though it knows that Gary the commander, Copper the medic and Mac the pilot (and natural leader) are the three most important members of the team, and therefore, the most dangerous foes.

The sounds of the Thing are almost as uncomfortable to listen to as watching its hideous metamorphoses. Its awful moaning, hissing screams, and highly-hostile nature contradict its obvious heightened intellect. But in my opinion, that only adds to the brilliance of its concept. We don’t altogether understand it, because it’s altogether alien, in every sense of the word.

It truly is just some… Thing.

I also like that the Thing’s greatest asset can be a detriment. It later replicates Norris (Charles Hallahan) so perfectly; it also seems to duplicate his heart condition, an ailment that triggers (along with the ‘attack’ by Copper’s electronic defibrillator paddles) what could be an involuntary defence mechanism when its ‘stomach’ bites off the medic’s hands.

The Norris transformation scene is a definite highlight. The initial jump-scare of the ‘bite’, the explosion of a second Thing from the ‘stomach’ that clings to the ceiling like a demonic house centipede, and of course, the break-away head that morphs into a disgusting spider-crab monstrosity.

And it’s all done ‘for real’, with the very best practical horror effects (by pioneer, Rob Bottin) ever seen in Hollywood, far superior to today’s often-lazy and fake-looking CGI.

These ‘monster’ scenes are few-and-far-between when the film is viewed as a whole, but it is certainly a case of ‘less is more’. Having the Thing literally hiding within or as one (or more) of the men also creates a feeling of mistrust among them, as it surreptitiously targets certain characters.

But there’s one character it underestimates. At least, at first.

Little-by-little, biologist, Blair (Wilford Brimley) is the first to realise the truly-global, apocalyptic nature of the situation, thanks in part to his computer simulation.

It’s an unusually-effective expository scene. Most of their kind are based around dialogue-heavy conversations between two-or-more characters to explain necessary plot details to the audience. In The Thing, Carpenter achieves the same result with only one actor, and zero words spoken aloud.

But then things go bad.

We later learn that Blair has been infected, but when did it happen? During the first autopsy on the two-faced-Thing? Or the second on the dog-kennel-Thing? Or another time, off-screen? One of the film’s many unanswered questions that has lingered for years, is at what point in the story does Blair become a Thing?

When Mac later visits him in his makeshift cell, we see the obvious noose he’s made. Blair also confesses that he’s been ‘hearing funny things’. Is he already a Thing in this scene? Is the noose a legit threat of suicide, or is it to garner sympathy from Mac? And the ‘funny things’ he’s heard, are they his cells being taken over and his sense of identity betraying him?

We don’t know. We’ll never know.

And that’s part of the beauty of this film. It’s not some Damon Lindelof mystery-for-the-sake-of-mystery nonsense. It’s a genuinely-thought-provoking (and in some cases, polarizing) story.

Thanks to Blair’s breakdown, blame and suspicion is thrown at every character during the film – even Mac – until even we, the audience don’t know who to trust. At one point, it seems as though the men might even kill each other without the help of their monstrous intruder.

The Thing really does showcase one of Kurt Russell’s best performances. He evokes the spirit of classic-era thespians such as Robert Mitchum or Burt Lancaster.

His MacReady is already an outsider to the group, even before the Thing arrives. He’s also shown to be a bad loser, by his reaction when he is defeated at chess by his computer. This is a nice moment of foreshadowing that will come back into play later. We see right away how Mac would much rather end it all than accept defeat graciously; a microcosm of the whole film.

Mac and his whiskey bottle is also a recurring motif. Besides the chess scene, he is seen drinking from similar bottles throughout the film, a hint at a Vietnam-influenced PTSD alcoholism. And in his final scene, the movie’s most ambiguous; he is again seen brandishing a whiskey bottle.

But no scene highlights Russell’s on-screen talent more than the famous blood-test. This is another seminal, multi-layered scene in the film. There are subtle hints of an allegorical nature if anyone is looking for them, such as a potential metaphor for the communism or ‘red-scare’ of the fifties, or even the paranoia surrounding the AIDS epidemic of the eighties.

Personally, I love that Childs is the main suspect, due to the nature of Keith David’s antagonist performance and constant confrontations with Mac. The movie also wants us to think it could be any one or all of Garry, Copper or Clarke… especially Clarke, only to pull the rug out from under us when the Bruce Dern-like Palmer (David Clennon) turns and gruesomely despatches poor Windows (Thomas G. Waites).

And yes, computer nerds, this movie has characters named both ‘Mac’ and ‘Windows’.

By the end if this intense scene, we do at least learn that the survivors are all human. Mac, Childs, Nauls (T.K. Carter) and Garry have passed the test. Only Blair remains.

The final act ramps up the stakes of an already intense film. Knowing they won’t survive, when Mac and the others blow up the camp to try and prevent the Thing from freezing and lying dormant once again (to be found at a later date), it really drops the mood from sombre to downright dire. Just like the chess game from the beginning, when faced with defeat, Mac ensures he’ll at least take his enemy down with him.

He and the others descend beneath the base as though entering Hell, itself, ready to face the proverbial Devil and all the ‘souls’ it has collected along the way.

This finale is fantastic. The way Garry is savagely set upon and horrifically consumed by the Blair-Thing is downright nightmare-fuel. Scarier still, is that Nauls just disappears. We never know what happens to him. He’s just… gone.

In these final moments, Carpenter again proves he’s a master of suspense, but still finds the entertainment value as Mac manages to destroy the Blair-Thing with a defiant howl, delivered as only Russell could…

Then there’s that ending…

Ever since 1982, the ending of The Thing has been a subject of rampant curiosity. Many fans have staunch opinions. Others are just happy to take it on face value or accept its ambiguity.

As Mac and Childs sit awaiting their eventually frozen demise, I can’t help but wonder…

Is Childs a Thing? He did disappear during the final confrontation, only to reappear once Mac emerges from the debris. But what if the Mac we see isn’t Mac? Are they both Things? Or are they both human?

Mac’s whiskey comes into play once again. He drinks from his bottle as he collapses with exhaustion. Is this to show us Mac is human, since we’ve already established his drinking habits?

He clearly smiles after Childs accepts a swig from the bottle. Is this because it has revealed Childs is human by not reacting to the ‘poisonous’ alcohol? Or is it something other than booze in the bottle, perhaps gasoline like the other Molotov Cocktails Mac was hurling around? If Childs has drunk gasoline, yet reacted as though it is whiskey… then Mac knows Childs is a Thing.

Personally, I think they’re both human, but either way, it doesn’t matter. It’s over for them no matter how you look at it.

What does matter is the brilliance of this film. It holds up today as well as it did upon its release, and perhaps even more so when viewed against today’s plethora of so-called ‘scary movies’.

A wonderful script, given life by a great filmmaker and wonderful cast, with a malevolent movie-monster that stands head-and-shoulders (and-tentacles) with the best of them. It’s also infinitely re-watchable, due to the mysterious nature of its plot.

So that’s my final recommendation for The Thing. Even if you’ve watched it before, even if you’ve watched it a dozen times… Watch it again.

And let’s just see what happens…

Rating: 5 out of 5 spider-crab heads.

Favourite Moment: The blood test.

Honourable Mention: All-or-nothing MacReady.

Next week: #14 – “What have they got in there, King Kong?”

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