“It appears to be normal,” intones Wilford Brimley gravely, as he dissects the hideously twisted and monstrous corpse of an unidentified creature, observing it has a complete set of internal organs. As if on cue, we cut to the cadaver’s face: a horrific tableau of pain, horror and terror. The fact that it seems to be fusing with an additional head next to it should alert those nearby to the imminent threat.
Welcome to John Carpenter’s The Thing, arguably the most skin-crawling, claustrophobic and terrifying picture in the celebrated horror auteur’s oeuvre. A remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World, which in turn was inspired by John W Campbell Jr’s short story Who Goes There? Carpenter’s effort is now heralded both as a more faithful adaptation of Campbell’s story and a product way ahead of its time.
In forgoing the monster movie mechanics of Hawks’ film and the slasher movie tropes of his groundbreaking Halloween, Carpenter crafts a picture altogether more chilly and ambiguous. As chilly, in fact, as the Antarctic climes in which it’s set. Perhaps this is why The Thing was largely vilified and ignored by audiences and critics on release. Few horror films are so relentlessly cryptic -and relentlessly bleak. In an almost complete about-face from Hawks’ picture, Carpenter’s is a monster movie with a monster we can’t see, one that only takes on an identity after it has assimilated and absorbed someone else’s.
It’s an especially horrifying notion, very much clued into 80s movie developments regarding body horror (David Cronenberg was surely watching with fascination). Unfortunate timing saw The Thing sink without a trace against the optimistic might of ET in 1982, and Rob Bottin’s wonderfully revolting make-up effects only served to alienate many. But it offers immense replay value due to Carpenter’s accomplished mood-building, a solid ensemble cast, and of course those wonderful gross-out moments that were a jaw-dropping eye-opener to 80s audiences.
Famously, of course, there’s only one female speaking part -and that goes to helicopter pilot MacReady’s (Kurt Russell) chess computer. When he tips whisky into her electrics, however, and steps outside, it’s all about the boys. Not long after, a couple of deranged Norwegian helicopter pilots burst into the Antarctic research station where his team are based, frantically shooting at a dog (this of course has been built up in wonderfully ominous fashion in the classic opening scene, accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s prickly, creepy score).
With the pilots dead, it only takes the discovery of the mangled corpse at the Norwegian outpost for things to start going horribly wrong, culminating in the dog transforming into a ghastly spider/flower hybrid inside a kennel, assimilating the other unfortunate animals.
The men -including Keith David’s brash Childs, David Clennon’s stoner Palmer and Charles Hallahan’s amenable Norris -realise to their horror that an alien life form has infiltrated the base and is attempting to bury its personality inside one of the crew. With no way of knowing who is infected, they rapidly and inevitably start turning on each other.
Carpenter, working from Bill Lancaster’s economical screenplay, hits on a brilliantly insidious notion -what greater enemy than one we can’t see until it’s too late? Consequently, it’s a scarier film than his more celebrated Halloween because of that focus at its centre. Far from a masked, stalk n’slash bogeyman, Carpenter’s villain is far more open to troubling philosophical interpretations, clouding our notions of humanity and identity. The apocalyptic implications of what will happen should the thing reach wider civilization are heart-stopping: Wilford Brimley’s Blair speculates all human society will be assimilated within three years.
Aided and abetted by nicely understated performances, Carpenter’s main human focus lies with his Escape from New York star Russell, who projects a quietly riveting sense of desperation as events get worse. Truthfully, the entire production brims with the same sense of fraught conviction, Carpenter’s camera prowling the cramped corridors of John J Lloyd’s sets, within which any of the ensemble cast may be keeping secrets. The director’s decision to subject his cast to freezing sound-stages in the middle of sweltering Los Angeles lends the film an air of verisimilitude, giving it a palpably claustrophobic quality entirely appropriate for the story. Dean Cundey’s windswept cinematography also proves invaluable.
And when the monstrous beast finally does manifest itself, we understand all too well why the characters are frightened for their lives. Effects whiz kid Rob Bottin drove himself to exhaustion on the film, crafting spectacularly unsettling and stomach-churning images of physical distortion, most notoriously in the scene where Norris’ stomach opens up to tear the arms off Dr Copper (Richard Dysart), only for his head to pop off, sprout legs and scuttle across the floor. As memorable as the gore is, few scenes rival the sheer hellish terror of the blood-test sequence, where MacReady attempts to lure the creature out of hiding. It’s one of the most brilliant examples of sustained tension in horror cinema.
Not that The Thing’s many accomplishments guaranteed it a warm welcome on release. Just like its central monster, the film has revealed itself gradually to audiences in intervening years, developing much deserved cult status. Maybe the upcoming prequel will draw its twisted beauty fully into the open. Any additional recognition will be much deserved; for while the level of intensity and gore may not have appeared normal back in 1982, The Thing now stands as one of the greatest horror films ever made.