John Carpenter is one of the great genre filmmakers of all time with The Thing (1982) sitting alongside Halloween (1978), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Escape from New York (1981) and a bunch of others in his filmography. It is such a shame that he is not really working and as someone called for on Twitter we need a studio to give him a fat wad of money so he can pull a George Miller for us.
The set-up for The Thing is close to classic sci-fi 101, but in no bad way. Kurt Russel with one of cinema’s all time great beards and some other dudes are working in the harsh brutal isolation of the Arctic. Some ancient aliens get dug out of the ice and before you know it people are turning into slathering sorta alien things. But in the Animorphs/Body Snatcher style way where, at least initially, they look totally human. The plot is the classic sci-fi ‘aliens walk among us’ filtered through a proto-slasher structure. It trades nicely in that classical paranoia of who is human, and who is compromised. The lack of trust just totally eats away at people, all the while the audience is straining to guess who will be the next to die or to turn into some slathering bloody semi-human contraption. The opening shots, panning across the ice, establish the dual isolation and claustrophobia of the Arctic setting. As does a humourous early interaction between Russel’s R.J. Macready and a chess computer he derides as a “cheating bitch”. It’s a light and funny moment but it also captures the mental strain of where these men are working. The film does have some issues story-wise. The big bad is never established as well as it should have been and at one point the story seems to devolve into blokes just blowing shit up. However despite not possessing anything approaching the best horror narrative or even delivering the best horror ‘experience’, the film is still deserving of classic status, because the bits that are good are just so damn good.
Two technical aspects of the film elevate The Thing from assured genre film into the realm of classic – the practical effects by and Ennio Morricone’s work on the soundtrack. My notes for the film summed up this shift, with this extract capturing it: “oh yeah, once those effects started flying about, this got kinda awesome”. It did and it pretty much continues for the rest of the film. Indeed prior to the effects work raising up the film, it had been struggling to totally enrapture me. I was being kept at arm’s length by the assured, cool scientific feel to the story and script. The effects here are probably the best practical effects ever onscreen. But if not, then they are certainly the grossest, and yep I’m including The Fly (1986) in that discussion. My mouth literally dropped on a number of occasions, with moments like the autopsy scene or the dog metamorphosis being totally repulsive artistry. The effects are legitimately terrifying, even to this day. This is both on a visceral, gross level but also on an existential, body snatchin’, being absorbed level. As for the soundtrack, as great as Morricone is, I was a little bummed initially when I saw that he, and not Carpenter, was on scoring duties. I needn’t have worried though, because just as with the effects, Morricone’s work is quite simply about as good as it gets. From the very get-go the iconic composer brings gnarly atmospherics, plunging you into the isolated arctic freeze. The result of his score is that everything onscreen is amplified, the isolation or the visual beastly horror for example, without unnecessarily diverting the attention from the imagery at hand.
Verdict: At times The Thing plays like an effects highlight reel scored by Ennio Morricone. Even just by itself that is no bad thing whatsoever, but throw in a little of Carpenter’s expert genre chops and Kurt Russel action leading man presence and beard, and you can easily see why this film is one of the 80s most beloved. A really fun genre experience. Pint of Kilkenny
Related beermovie.net articles for you to check out: Halloween Special: Halloween and A Fortnight of Terror Guest Post: The Evil Dead vs. The Thing.