John Carpenter in Review: The Thing (1982)
Plot: An Antarctic research team faces off against a shape-shifting organism that was discovered by a Russian operation.
The Thing is technically a remake of Howard Hawke’s sci-fi, The Thing From Another World, but really a retelling of the even older story, Who Goes There?, a novella by a John W. Campbell Jr. It is also considered part of Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy (which includes Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness). They are not directly connected by anything other than their depiction of apocalypse scenarios.
A helicopter from a nearby Norwegian facility lands at an isolated American Antarctic research center. The pilot jumps out and continues chasing a malamute. When he accidentally grazes one of the Americans in the crossfire, he is taken out by the station commander. In order to get answers, a pair of them goes to the Norwegian facility only to find the facility burned to the ground as well as a large hole in the ice with what looks like a flying saucer. Meanwhile, the Americans take care of the runaway dog which is revealed to be a shape-shifting alien looking to take over the world.
The entire purpose of the horror genre is to take real life fears and twist them into something that seems much more immediate and trick us into believing that the irrational is rational. This is The Thing’s greatest strength. It is a throwback to Cold War paranoia. The Cold War is long gone, but that feeling has never really gone away. Exaggerating it to such a degree as to suspect that someone is a ferocious alien beast in disguise seems completely irrational, but through John Carpenter’s deft hand at directing he is able to scare the bejesus out of us. The Thing is a special effects milestone. It uses the concept of shape-shifting human and canine biology in inventive and clever ways making it resemble something closer to your nightmares than anything found in nature. Its literal other-worldliness invokes a sense of global panic. If this is what it does to a small group of researchers what will it do to the masses?
Of course, what really makes the terror work is the instant magnetism of the cast: a group of blue collar roughnecks. Carpenter has proved this is one of his best strengths, not just playing on our own fears, but giving us protagonists to actually feel for instead of rooting for gratuitous kill scenes. At the head of the cast is Kurt Russell as main roughneck, RJ MacReady. He’s a very different kind of badass than Snake Plissken. He is more of an every man than a quiet killer with larger-than-life mystique.
The Thing is one of the most atmospheric movies I have ever seen. It is a textbook example of how to invoke fear in your audience.