My housemate is currently in the middle of writing a distressing amount essays, one of which happens to about John Carpenter. An upside of this is that we recently spent an enjoyable evening re-watching and analysing a bunch of his films, starting with my personal favourite, The Thing. This made me realise that I have yet to cover John Carpenter in this blog and that is a tragic mistake. Allow me to immediately rectify this by looking at The Thing right now.
For those who don’t know, The Thing is a 1982 remake of the 1951 film The Thing from Another World which in turn was based on the book Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. It cleaves more closely to the original novel than the ‘51 film and achieves a lot more in terms of creature design by virtue of having decades worth more developed practical effects. The film is a great watch and a very tense one at that. The story revolves around an Antarctic research base, which is invaded by an alien who can take the form of any living thing it kills. This leads to rising tensions and paranoia amongst the team as they try desperately to route out the creature and prevent it from reaching civilisation. Careful, some minor spoilers ahead.
Re-watching it, even knowing the plot in advance it is still stomach wrenching trying to keep track of who has been assimilated by the creature at what point. The film is very well acted by all the cast, particularly Kurt Russell as MacReady, who plays a tough no-nonsense helicopter pilot. A man who doesn’t normally lead, but naturally takes charge and keeps his head in a crisis. Russell was born to play tough rugged characters like this, and MacReady is a fun character to root for. He is resourceful and intelligent, yet fallible. Another standout is Keith David as Childs, who simultaneously provides a good sceptical foil to MacReady, and also brings some moments of levity, such as when he explodes after being tied to a chair for so long. His confrontational relationship with MacReady is contrasted well with his methodical and careful nature. He doesn’t want to take anything for granted.
It is immensely refreshing to come back to a Horror film where the characters act logically and make smart decisions. The threat is immediately taken seriously and studied. Once the crew learn of the alien after seeing it assimilate a dog, they take many measures to try and wipe it out, even torching every creature they come across. The script allows for them to make mistakes of course, but they are much more capable than your average horror protagonist, and this makes their inevitable deaths much more impactful. We want to see these characters survive. The blood test scene is a perfect example of logical characters. After seeing different parts of the thing react with self-preservation MacReady devises a heated blood test, to see if the creature’s blood will react to defend itself. This creates intense tension and helps drive the plot forward, weeding out members of the group one by one.
Speaking of the creature, the makeup and practical effects in this film are outstanding. They were incredible at the time and they still hold up really well today. While I think CGI is often unfairly maligned in cinema, there is something to be said for trying to make things for real first, especially because there is always a visceral reaction to seeing something physical happen in a movie, even if you know it isn’t real. The grotesque models and animatronics used to create the various phases of the thing as it assimilates the crew are obscenely fantastic! All the credit in the world needs to go to Rob Bottin, who was only 22 at the time. He dedicated so much time and effort to getting these effects made, that he was ordered to hospital by Carpenter after shooting wrapped. The fact that he received not a single award for this movie is nothing short of criminal.
In terms of direction, Carpenter employs a lot of the same techniques he used in his earlier horror, Halloween. The camera is almost always moving, creeping around the characters and often lingering on empty environments, giving the disturbing impression that the creature is always watching these people, waiting for the right moment. The shots of the base without people in view shape the idea that the building is almost a character on its own, hiding the creature with its small rooms and long corridors. I love the way that Carpenter turns the bright comfortable building, full of beds and TVs into the more inhospitable environment; a place of endless fear where the thing could be hiding in plain sight at any moment. Contrast that to the dark, freezing cold outside, which feels oddly safer at times, forcing the creature to be out in the open and vulnerable, nowhere to corner one of the men to assimilate him. The film also makes great use of reincorporation, bringing things that have been casually set up back later in the film. My favourite example is the idea of using blood to test the men, which initially fails because the samples are ruined, only for MacReady to improvise a simpler, more intuitive version later on. The fact that the crew keep finding torn garments in the trash is another little detail that I picked up on the repeat viewing. Later in the film we find out the creature tears the clothes of it’s victims, and so needs to rip the name label to avoid giving the game away.
This film is an iconic achievement, and it has influenced a lot of media over the years. The creature effects are now legendary and its atmosphere of paranoia inspired directors like Quentin Tarantino, when making the Hateful Eight. John Carpenter is a fantastic cult director, who’s varied body of work is quite an experience to watch. I would strongly recommend seeing this movie, although be warned, it’s not for the squeamish.