John Carpenter very well may be one of the beloved genre filmmakers walking this earth and after a quick glance at his filmography (especially during the 70’s and 80’s) it’s painfully easy to see why.
Veering between urbanised neo-westerns, genuine masterpieces of horror cinema and biting, cynical satire, the famously straight-talking auteur has many classics under his belt and whichever one happens to be your absolute favorite probably says alot about the kind of person you are.
Some prefer the laser-focused elegance of Halloween where others lean towards the grungy future of Escape From New York; a fair few pick the colourful fantasy of Big Trouble In Little China while still more find that the throwback chills of The Fog are more their thing. There really is no “correct” answer (unless you picked his Children Of The Dammed remake) but if you were to ask me – which I guess you technically have as you’re reading this review – then my answer would be a resounding “THING”.
Based both on Howard Hawk’s The Thing From Another World and source novella John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”, The Thing was unleashed upon a woefully under prepared audience who vehemently snubbed it in favour of another, far more benevolent, visitor from space known as E.T.. Freaked and repulsed by the surrealistic, multiple forms of it’s title creature, cinema goers cleared out of theaters in droves, no way ready to deal with some of the most extreme examples of cinematic body horror ever seen before or since. But even without the lashing of famously goopy transformations, Carpenter’s sci-fi horror opus is one of the fantastic examples of unbearable tension I’ve ever witnessed.
Welcome to Outpost 31, a remote american research post located in Antarctica which is staffed by a various assortment of misfits. Into their frozen, moribund lives flies a Norwegian helicopter whose passengers seem to be shooting wildly at a lone huskie fleeing through the snow. Before anyone has the idea to see if PETA can make house calls to such a remote location, both Norwegians and their transport are obliterated in an explosive freak accident which is written off as extreme cabin fever by the Americans who mostly attempt to get back to being cold, bored and griping about basic shit. The resident doctor ropes their deeply cynical pilot MacReady to fly them out to the Norwegian camp in order to get some sort of idea as to what happened only to find the place utterly wrecked and a burned, horrifically malformed body lying outside. Bringing back for study they find out that this twisted, deformed creature is actually somehow human and that they’ve just stepped into a large, steaming pile of extra terrestrial crap. You see, the dog the Norwegians was chasing isn’t really a dog at all but is in fact an alien life form that absorbs it’s victims an duplicates them perfectly at a cellular level and it’s had a whole day to roam around camp and duplicate any poor unsuspecting fucker who wanders over to pet it. After showing it’s hand while transforming into a writhing pile of snarling flesh in order to copy more dogs, it soon dawns on the twelve Americans that there’s a VERY good chance that one or more of their number now may not be who they claim to be. As paranoia sweeps through the outpost like a dose of the runs, trust runs thin and the alpha dog aspect of an all male staff starts to rear it’s ugly head. Who can be counted on in this nightmare senario: the insular MacReady, the volatile Childs, the secretive Blair, the placid Norris? Everyone has the potential to burst into a Lovecraftian mass of teeth and tendrils at any minute in order to protect itself and so the question goes out: who is still human and who is The Thing?
I won’t waste column space banging on about how virtually flawless The Thing as the fact that it was eventually rediscovered on VHS to great acclaim says more than I ever could, but I will endlessly bring up the points that I’ve adored since I first watched the film at twelve years of age in the most un-scary environment possible (the kitchen of a friend’s house at 9am on a sunny Saturday morning) and yet was utterly terrified out of my mind.
Firstly (and most obviously) is the peerless work of special effects messiah Rob Bottin who created the various, phenomenal transformation scenes that rank as easily some of the greatest physical effects work ever put on film. Be it a squealing mount of canine flesh sprouting a flowery maw made upsettingly of doggy tongues or the show stopping, legendary scene involving the results of a cardiac arrest having spectacular, skin-splitting ramifications that cumulates in a severed head sprouting spider legs and scuttling off across the floor; The Thing positively revels in it’s excitable and extreme ruination of the human form.
Another perfect aspect of the movie is the use of it’s all male ensemble to bring out the worst of masculine behaviour in a crisis. If the film had a mixed cast (as the 2011 prequel did) it wouldn’t be as nearly as excruciatingly tense and effective as it is, with Keith David’s quick tempered Childs butting heads with virtually everyone around him and everyone seemly immediately falling in line behind Kurt Russell’s world weary MacReady simply because he’s really fucking cool.
Ah, Kurt Russell… the lynchpin of a cast crammed with character actors that includes Wilford (“diabetes”) Brimley and Richard Dysart; Carpenter’s reoccurring leading man is truly resplendent whether pouring Jack Daniel’s into the port of a chess computer for having the temerity to beat him fair and square or sporting the greatest hair and beard combo in the history of the human race.
In fact it’s fair to say that Russell may put in a career best performance, as does his faithful buddy and director Carpenter who utter mastery of the medium provides a tooth gnawing oppressive sense of dread made all the more suffocating thanks to a location that could only be more inaccessible if they were at the bottom of the ocean or on the fucking moon. Ennio Morricone’s droning score perfectly adds to the choking nihilism that virtually seeps out of every frame and it’s impending sence of doom marked The Thing out as the first episode of Carpenter’s unofficial and cheery sounding Apocalypse Trilogy alongside Prince Of Darkness and In The Mouth Of Madness – all of which predictably dealt with humans struggling with otherworldly forces trying trying to aggressively flatline our species like a greedy relative standing next to the off switch on grandma’s life support machine.
Punctuating the unease with some superlative scares (the blood test scene is a masterclass in urine spraying bait and switch) and possibly his finest ever work he’s done with actors, Carpenter’s never been better, which makes the failure of its original theatre run so hurtful for something that is now rightly regarded truly as one of the greatest sci-fi/horrors ever made.
Make no mistake, this movie is some Thing special.