Happy Halloween! This is the time of year when people celebrate the supernatural and ghoulish aspects of popular culture and national myths. I do my part by highlighting horror movies on Halloween night. So far I have reviewed Nightmare Detective, Strange Circus, Shokuzai, POV: A Cursed Film Charisma, Don’t Look Up, Snow Woman (2017) Snow Woman (1968) Fate/Stay Night Heaven’s Feel, and Gemini. I’ll be departing from Japan and heading to Antarctica for the next Halloween Review!
Release Date: June 25th, 1982
Duration: 109 mins.
Director: John Carpenter
Writer: Bill Lancaster (Screenplay), John W. Campbell Jr. (Who Goes There?)
Starring: Kurt Russell (R.J. MacReady), A. Wilford Brimley (Blair), T.K. Carter (Nauls), David Clennon (Palmer), Keith David (Childs), Richard Dysart (Dr. Copper), Charles Hallahan (Norris), Peter Maloney (George Bennings), Richard Masur (Clark), Donald Moffat (Garry), Joel Polis (Fuchs), Thomas Waites (Windows),
Given the cold shoulder by some big name critics and receiving a lukewarm box-office return from the general public, it is fair to say that John Carpenter’s arctic-set paranoia-fuelled alien killer chiller THE THING was misunderstood at its time of release. Now widely considered a classic, Carpenter’s cold vision of a film has become a sci-fi horror ur-text that has inspired countless filmmakers, creatives, and fans through its adaptation of an influential short story with genre-defining prosthetics, special effects, and great acting for the maximum of horror atmospherics.
The story takes place in the winter of 1982 where a 12-man expedition at a remote research base in Antarctica encounter a shape-shifting alien that has lain frozen in the snowy wastes for over 100,000 years. Thawed out, this parasitic creature proceeds to assimilate and imitate members of the group which causes paranoia and fear to mount as nobody is sure who has been consumed and is now imitated by… the Thing. Bloody body-horror ensues as the men try to isolate and destroy it.
Carpenter’s film is an adaptation of the John W. Campbell novella, Who Goes There? which was published in 1938. The novella, a horror story that ends with a celebration of science overcoming alien threats, was first adapted for the screen by Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks in their 1951 adaptation, The Thing from Another World. The Nyby/Hawks Cold War era creature feature came complete with a man in a rubber suit and features a certain degree of jingoistic chest thumping with its pro-military approach that makes it an entertaining watch very much of its time. When the 1982 film’s producers wanted to update the original novella, they brought Carpenter on board following him making serious money with indie horror hit Halloween knowing that he was a fan of the first film. His strategy for retelling the story was essentially to do it more faithfully than the previous film adaptation and focus more on the paranoia and the sight of a shape-shifting alien, something that the special effect teams in Hollywood of the 80s could do much better than the 50s. Thus, Carpenter transposed many of the characters and most of the story of the novella to the present day.
It takes a while for the alien to go full gore as there is a build up of the atmosphere of the location. You wouldn’t know it from watching but the film was shot in three places. The opening scenes were done on the Taku Glacier in Alaska, many of the interior scenes were shot on refrigerated sets in Los Angeles on the Universal Studios lot, and many exterior scenes (and some interiors) were shot in Stewart, British Columbia. The whole thing is seamless and the environments portrayed in the film feel believably isolated and harsh, the arctic base is a lonely bit of civilisation in a primordial place where some creature from thousands of years ago has been found and unleashed (see H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness for an early forerunner to this story).
The atmosphere is truly sub-zero as breath clouds, icicles, and endless amounts of snow and wind coat the characters and sets. We can almost feel the cold and know that the characters cannot just leave because there is nowhere to go and if they did flee, the cold will kill them. The atmosphere of the set is further amped up by the spooky cinematography from Carpenter’s regular collaborator Dean Cundey (Halloween, Jurassic Park, Back to the Future II & III) and gorgeous matte-painted backdrops from Albert Whitlock (Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds) who make the arctic setting even more alien and uninviting. The location leads us to understand the characters are isolated, exposed, and vulnerable, dependant upon each other to survive and, as a result thus weak to paranoia as it begins to infect each of the group with each assimilation and killing that the alien performs.
The film’s many headlines surround the monster magic and prosthetics from Rob Bottin (The Howling) and his team, with an assist from Stan Winston (Aliens, Predator) and his team for the dog transformation sequence. While we never get to see the original form of the creature at work, the gloopy disfigured variations of the Earth-bound cast and creatures are really nausea-inducing as their horrific visions are brought to life through practical effects that are truly stunning.
The creature moments are truly, truly horrific thanks to the insane amount of detail as there are many hand-operated and animatronic parts like tentacles and limbs that stretch out, puppets like the sled dogs that are assimilated and reformulated into a towering heap of bodies, and prosthetics attached to actors like outsized and stretched torsos that open up into maws etc. Parts whip around, fluids spray, and faces contort painfully thanks to Bottin and co’s eye-poppingly fantastic physical effects that are made out of rubber, fur, and metal, and made icky with goo that is really disgusting-looking. Immolation (because fire is the best killer), disembowelments, and grisly transformation really do come thick and fast and, towards the end, even stop-motion is used but, thankfully, Carpenter took most of that out due to his judgement that it would break immersion and make the audience laugh. What he leaves in is a testament to top-line special effects of the 80s and the insane imagination of the creatives and the diversity of effects leads to the fact that we never get used to one vision of the monster and are instead treated to many different variations based on who and what it has assimilated which means that it is always a surprise when the Thing pops up. I love this approach as it leaves viewers further on the edge of their seats but the foundation behind making all of this work is that Carpenter is also wise enough so that the camerawork, lighting, and editing is used mask any fakeness that rubbery effects might elicit in more audiences. This is grotesqueness part of what some critics at the time reviled as it was felt to be too much.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times labelled The Thing as a “barf-bag” and a “geek show, a gross-out movie” (source) and Vincent Canby of the New York Times graded it as “a foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is fun as neither one thing or the other” (source). It is surprising to read this so many years after release when the film has secured its place as a horror classic. Reading the reviews and listening to Carpenter talk about the film’s reception, it seems as if the people were going in with the expectation that it would share a similar tone to the more upbeat Nyby/Hawks sci-fi actioner but what they got was a stripped-down narrative with one plot thread about paranoia coupled with visceral body horror done with those convincingly gory special effects. There is also the feeling that its release came at the wrong time is underlined by the fact that it came out in the summer and two weeks prior to that, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was released. Maybe The Thing, a fairly nihilistic and downbeat movie, was just a non-starter at a time when America was meant to be about optimism?
Further criticisms came with the idea that the characters are fairly two-dimensional, something that is really unfair as they come across as very relatable, largely thanks to the acting which is, even in the moments of horror, understated. They work as an ensemble based around a leading performance from Kurt Russell, another Carpenter collaborator having worked on the TV movie Elvis, and indie flick Escape from New York and, later, the wonderful Big Trouble in Little China. For a few weeks prior to the shoot, the cast spent time rehearsing and workshopping their characters to give them background that would explain their behaviour and it works as we get scenes of people being grouchy at being cooped up together in the middle of nowhere, irritated at dogs and noise, and deeper things such as possibly nursing some trauma from conflicts like Vietnam. Character building moments may be spare on the surface but there are lots of details in the acting and use of props and so forth. In the same way that the interactions between the characters in Alien had that feeling of being real, so too did they in The Thing and that boosts the believability of the film and that emphasises the tragedy of what happens to each member of the team as they each succumb to the alien-wrought paranoia and the attacks from the Thing!
I’m not sure when the re-appraisal for the film began but, ultimately, this is a film that has stood the test of time far better than many other titles that were released in 1982. The things that put off some critics, its focus on depicting paranoia and the special effects, have made it an experience of pure moods and an easy-to-access story full of horror thrills that can be watched far into the future. This is one of my all-time favourite movies and perfect for Halloween as you can enjoy a variety of horror scares, from the creeping dread of the atmosphere to the gross-out gore!
You can hear talk about THE THING on the Heroic Purgatory podcast!