“That’s going to win someone the Nobel Prize”
It may not be the first adaptation of John W. Campbell Jr.‘s novella Who Goes There?, but John Carpenter‘s The Thing is definitely hailed as the most definitive. Unlike The Thing from Another World‘s humanoid adversary, Bill Lancaster (who took over screenwriting duties from an uncredited Tobe Hooper) writes the alien force wreaking havoc on his Antarctic research team as originally envisioned. The terror therefore isn’t conjured as a result of what it is as much as what it can do. An extra-terrestrial enigma without its own true form, this creature has the ability of imitating whatever living host it consumes—memories, mannerisms, and looks. This means that the threat could be the person sitting next to you. This means the “thing” could even be you.
The premise is pure gold and made better by its containment within a single location. There’s nowhere for anyone to go in the sub-zero temperatures of Antarctica as radio man Windows (Thomas G. Waites) so colorfully expresses by deeming his own communications job futile. All mankind has to stave off an apocalypse hundreds of thousands of years in the making are twelve Americans way past boredom. They didn’t ask for the heroic job; it found them courtesy of two Norwegians hunting down a Siberian Huskie. It doesn’t take long to realize the danger they’re in once the first hybridized monstrosity is revealed, though. And each time they stop short of charring the enemy to a crisp means another opportunity to render the threat more anonymous and more lethal.
An eclectic bunch of characters adds intrigue as paranoia sets in and survival instincts take over. The assumption is that at least one of them is no longer human. Group leader Garry (Donald Moffat), physician Copper (Richard Dysart), and dog wrangler Clark (Richard Masur) are the likely candidates. Windows is the coward, Palmer (David Clennon) the stoner, Childs (Keith David) the hothead, Bennings (Peter Maloney) the opportunist, Fuchs (Joel Polis) the pragmatist, Norris (Charles Hallahan) the pushover, Nauls (T.K. Carter) the comic relief, Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) the brains, and MacReady (Kurt Russell) the brawn. Some go crazy, others grow scared, and the lot of them ceases trusting anyone else. You watch them and they’ll watch you. One instance of aberrant behavior means a bullet to the head.
Speaking beyond this generalized plot risks exposing too much. Just know this alien cannot be allowed to leave. The idea may not sit well with many, but MacReady and Blair know the truth: their own safety isn’t worth the demise of humanity. So we watch as they take control for better or worse. We watch as others try to wrestle it away. And we watch as they come up with ways to test whether the men staring back with rage-fueled fear are already lost. Carpenter has fun with our expectations by including multiple visual red herrings to go along with Lancaster’s written deflections and oftentimes the truth is purposefully unexpected. So much is left unsaid or unexplained with time purposefully unmeasured. The unknown is the film’s greatest asset.
In the end The Thing is a character piece of deception and maneuvers towards self-preservation. People die from alien attacks and human panic as the plot is shown to be an every man for himself scenario—antagonist included. Fatigue is setting in as selfishness renders decisions binary as a result. It’s too cold to run outside and too cramped to stay in. Mystery and uncertainty rule the day as machismo plays second fiddle to cunning until any hope of standing at the end relies upon accepting your own fate. You must be willing to kill yourself to prevent the others from killing you because they will not hesitate. It only takes one drop of blood to keep terror alive. Any infected organic material can destroy everything.
Rob Bottin‘s creature effects are a big draw with some grotesquely stunning dual faced cadavers and canine-snouted beasts opening up to show even scarier monsters within. Tentacles fly, stomachs become animal traps, and heads grow spider legs to attempt hasty escapes. Alien blood has the consistency of translucent jelly and the fire of flamethrowers lick at every foreign bit of biological material to eradicate it without pause. Jump scares are plenty and yet their failure to shock often proves more successful than not because you’re afforded time to soak in the special effects and make-up’s immense detail. Carpenter lets suspense keep you on the edge of your seat while also knowing audiences came to risk searing these nightmarish entities into their slumber. And the payoff is worth it.
Expect explosions, viscera, and screams of terror as these twelve souls become hunted more than hunters. This was Carpenter’s first major studio film and it shows in the production with elaborate arctic soundstages, pyrotechnics, creature effects, and computer technology that appears more advanced than my family’s first unit almost fifteen years later. The cast consists of many familiar faces but it’s Russell leading the way as the put-out, de facto leader willing to make sure this “thing” never leaves the ice again. No matter how hard we try, though, sometimes salvation simply reveals itself to be out of reach. What this alien does therefore can’t help but play second fiddle on the horror scale to how little we can do to stop it. Our demise may prove inevitable.
Watched in conjunction with Season One of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo/illustration by Josh Flanigan.