by John Carpenter
In the endless expanse of the Antarctic landscape, a helicopter and its two occupants chase after a dog. The dog looks back at them as they unload bullets and grenades feebly; it seems to be knowingly outfoxing them. The dog makes it to United States National Science Institute Station 4 before the two men can do much damage. The pilot accidentally blows himself and the chopper up with a grenade and though the survivor tries to explain himself to the Americans at Station 4. The only problem is he’s Norwegian and they don't understand a word he says. They understand when they’re being shot at however. When the Norwegian misfires and hits Bennings the meteorologist in the leg while aiming for the dog, Garry, the camp's lone military man. The guys take the dog in and begin wondering what it is that would have caused two men to want to kill a dog so badly. The men, besides Garry and Bennings, are Norris the geologist, Childs the mechanic, helicopter pilots MacReady and Palmer, physicians and biologists Fuchs, Blair and Copper, radio operator Windows, Nauls the cook and Clark the veterinarian. After stitching up Bennings’ leg, Copper opts to go find the Norwegian camp and gets MacReady to take him there. What they find is chilling, in every sense of the word. Looks like the fellow with one of Garry’s bullets in his crown got off easy - one of the men has cut his own throat with a straight-razor (but seems to have frozen to death before he finished bleeding) and another looks to have been burnt alive, though he doesn’t look all human either. They also find a big block of ice that looks to have lately held something big. They bring back the burnt man-like mass to camp where Blair attempts to perform an autopsy. Everyone watches in shock and horror as new discoveries are made but no one is more shaken than the dog. It’s almost as if he recognizes that burnt-up mass of flesh. When Clark the vet puts him in with the camp's other sleigh dogs that night, something rather unexpected happens. The dog quickly sheds it’s skin and becomes something unspeakably hideous and gooey and starts wrapping tentacles around the other dogs. The men burn it before it can lift itself into the rafters with the giant fists it sprouted from its back.
It takes some imagination on Blair’s part to discern what went on but considering that every man in the camp saw the transformation with their own eyes they’re willing to buy just about anything. Blair pulls the creature apart and finds evidence of it trying to look like a dog, like it was in the middle of imitating the camp dogs when they killed it. After inspecting some tapes they collected from the Norwegian base, MacReady and Norris head to the spot where they pulled the block of ice from the snow. Not only do they find where it was pulled out, they find the charred remains of a gigantic spacecraft buried beneath a hundred thousand years worth of ice. MacReady draws a timeline which the guys take with a grain of salt. He’s no scientist after all. The Norwegians thaw the thing out, it gets to some of their bodies, they try to contain it by killing whomever it touches (and themselves to prevent being taken over), but it gets out in the body of one their dogs, which tries to occupy other dogs. Though that makes a kind of sense, it’s hardly a comfort to the men at Station 4. How long before the man-thing defrosts and decides it would prefer, as the film’s slogan promises, a nice warm-blooded body to inhabit? And if it can imitate any organism it wants to, how will anyone know who’s human and who’s not? It’s either going to be a very long or a very short winter.
The Thing is John Carpenter’s best film, it is one of the best remakes of all time, one of the best genre movies of all time, features some of the best special effects of all time and one of the most terrifying and interesting premises of all time. Not bad for a little sci-fi/horror movie with three locations, is it? It is superbly crafted to ensure that every scene shocks and surprises and to make sure you never feel at ease. It is only on second viewing do you understand how loaded every gesture is (even the simple act of a dog licking your face becomes foreshadowing in the take-no-prisoner’s world of Bill Lancaster’s script and John Carpenter's direction). Every element that would ordinarily damn a film like this (simple sets, the odd bout of pseudo-science, the lack of female characters, the no-nonsense direction, a seeming reliance on effects over characterization [though under scrutiny this turns out to be false]) becomes a strength. The film had few allies upon its first release. If the critics of 1982 could see just what’s happened to some of the classics since Carpenter’s film, they’d perhaps have kept their mouths shut instead of trashing a film they didn’t understand. The problem was they were not willing to play The Thing’s game. They wanted a film that showed respect to them and to Howard Hawks’ original; Carpenter’s film does neither on its face. The Thing’s atmosphere is built in to every frame, the performances are invisible, everyone taking a backseat to the crisis on their hands, and the effects are quite gruesome. Carpenter’s characters are not exactly charismatic (though most are likable) and it's only when he kills them off at times you least expect it that you realize how much you like and depend on them. In some regards it seems like we have the makings of an Italian horror film. The scenes at the Norwegian camp resemble some gory painting halfway between Fulci and Argento, the Ennio Morricone music beautifully underscoring the action (of all his film scores that simple ‘dun dun’ theme gets the most impact with the least movement), even the characters seem drawn from an Italian film (Windows looks a touch like some Italian character actor, Fuchs like Richard Dreyfuss by way of Al Cliver in The Beyond, Bobby Rhodes made his career pretending to be as naturally cool as Keith David is here and thanks to all that hair Kurt Russell looks like a cross between make-up man Rob Bottin and Ray Lovelock in Let Sleeping Corpses Lie). Carpenter had shown his affinity for Italianate visuals and atmosphere in his previous film, The Fog, but The Thing manages to synthesize the visuals of his and his crew’s inspiration (Argento, EC comics, Lovecraft, Hawks, I detect shades of Jaws, but that could be because Spielberg and Carpenter were both students of first generation of film schools) and craft a language all its own.
Bottin’s visual effects are unrivaled, even today. He and Carpenter were both wary of staying away from H.R. Giger’s designs for Alien, still fresh in their minds when they began planning the film in 1981. I think it speaks volumes about their various successes that not only does The Thing not resemble Alien in anyway, it completely avoids seeming like a sci-fi movie. I for one have never really thought of it as anything in the universe of Alien as it speaks a different language (though check out the extra appendages on the queen at the end of James Camerson’s sequel; they’ve got Bottin’s signature writ large. That Stan Winston worked on the scenes with the dog thing I think could be seen as pre-proudction on Aliens). The stories have a lot in common, though Campbell covered the ground in Who Goes There? before Ridley Scott had ever read Dan O’Bannon’s script. First of all, Dean Cundey’s widescreen cinematography is half-business, half-mood, all great. The gorgeous snowy landscapes and the scenes of the camp at night have a kind of blue-collar poetry about them; this is truly the end of the world. And what was Ridley Scott trying to achieve with his space ship if not the kind of broken down and hopelessly average interiors that Carpenter’s characters dwell in? Also I think that Bottin’s creatures avoid looking earthly in a way no one’s ever seconded. For all the genius behind the design of Giger's titular Alien (of which there was plenty), it does retain a humanoid shape. The only thing human about Bottin’s creations is in their feeble attempt at looking human. The rest is so far from normal, so freakish and distorted that they become works of art in their own right. Everyone from Stuart Gordon to James Gunn has tried their hand at copying Carpenter’s work with Bottin but no one’s come close. The Thing was by Carpenter’s own admission all about the monsters. If they weren’t the most fucking awesome monsters you’d ever seen, the film wouldn’t have worked.
The reason I think that The Thing manages to be unnerving when we aren’t staring down the snout of some hoary beast, is because for the first and last time Carpenter and co. had total control over the look of the film; he had it once again on Ghosts of Mars but that film wound up a pale imitation in this and every other regard. Your average cinemagoer in the early 80s had no clue what an Antartic research station looked like so both the drab interiors (with their indefinably spooky corridors and maw-like doors) and the frozen exteriors all set the viewer on edge. The outside looks like a jagged and macabre ice castle in the thick of the weather conditions and the effective but natural lighting design is all manufactured blues and oranges. The frame jumps with strange colours once the action picks up and never rests. The film’s final location, the generator room is a special creation, the camp’s own inferno where the final and most terrible monster of all dwells. It is here that Carpenter and Botton hark back to Harryhausen as well as every creature we’ve seen thus far. The lighting, all hellish chiaroscuro, compliments the final clash with the unknown perfectly just in time for Russell’s final put-down. The blue-collar angle I mentioned before is most evident in the dialogue. When not in Hawksian rapid-fire-yet-lackadaisacal conversation, the men sound conspicuously like a couple of bored, stir-crazy working stiffs. How often do people attempt and fail at that sort of thing? I think Lancaster understood that when ordinary people take on something, their fight becomes your fight in a way it doesn’t if you’re watching he-men or detectives or gladiators taking on something supernatural. Those characters are more likely to rise to the occasion because they've been written to do so. Carpenter’s guys don’t want the beast to win but mostly they don’t want to get killed. An impulse I think we can all understand. Even as paranoia mounts and no one’s sure about anything, their dialogue remains refreshingly human. The film’s best lines are gut reactions to some pretty horrifying images; I don’t know whether Keith David's Childs, Richard Masur’s Clark or David Clennon’s Palmer has the film’s best line, but almost everyone gets an instantly quotable zinger that would just be so much swearing in any other film. What’s more, upon further inspection, you realize that no line gets wasted. Take the petty argument about who’s going to search for Fuchs with whom. Knowing what we do about everyone involved and who turns out to be a thing, it makes perfect sense. The dialogue and Carpenter’s camera miss nothing. In other words the film wastes no time, no words, no glances and no energy. Everything helps the action along, everything contributes to the miasma of mistrust and the end soon comes hurdling at us at lightspeed. It is efficient, grisly and creepy, like the organism at the core of the story. And just like the thing of the title it gets under your skin. In other words, it is a horror film par excellence, full of writhing shocks and spider-legged creatures from another world. Like the best of Lovecraft it knows no master, plays by no rules and scares you to death, but in the end I keep coming back for more.