Halloween is this Saturday! October is many people’s favorite months of the year and I always enjoy partaking in the festivities myself! This week, Cultural Revue will be building up to Halloween with a series of horror movie reviews and random opinion pieces from guest editors. Each day, I will review one of my favorite horror films!
What better place to start than with my favorite horror film of all time: The Thing!
The Thing is one of the most well regarded horror films of all time and is widely considered one of the legendary John Carpenter’s greatest films. That’s no small feat for a director who also made Halloween, Prince of Darkness, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live and Escape from New York.
The film was released at his height of talent in the 1980s when he was producing his most creative and prolific slate of horror and action films. Sadly, it was not well regarded at the time of release. Coming out in a time of recent optimistic science fiction films like E.T, Star Wars, Star Trek and Tron, The Thing just didn’t have the appeal to make a market for itself unlike Ridley Scott’s original Alien a few years prior. The movie only made $19 million on a budget of $15 million.
Critics didn’t treat the film much better. Most critics dismissed it at it’s face as a nihilistic, gruesome film with too much gore and meaningless death. The immediate effect was ruinous for Carpenter who was fired had his contract bought out from under him at Universal Pictures.
The movie wouldn’t start gaining some notoriety until it started making the rounds on home video. It’s likely that the end of the cold war played a part in the marketplace opening up to the film given just how dark the film’s content is. Film goers in the 1980s didn’t need a movie that reminded them of how fragile life was and how paranoid people can be under pressure when nuclear bombs could go off at any second.
With it’s reevaluation in the decades since, The Thing finally started to become appreciated for what it was. Carpenter had taken the framework of the 1951 horror film The Thing From Another World and expanded it into a modern story about the depths of human fear and the lengths people will go to protect themselves. He filled this simple premise with the paranoia and cosmic horror of an H.P. Lovecraft story.
The story starts innocently enough. The initial scenes come off at first as rather odd and cryptic. A group of American scientists in Antarctica find one day that a Norwegian helicopter and two scientists are trying desperately to kill a husky that’s running toward their camp. When the Norwegians are killed in an ensuing firefight, the Americans take the dog inside and begin investigating why these armed scientists showed up at their facility looking for a fight.
To their surprise, they discover the Norwegian’s research base deserted and filled with dead bodies and evidence of horrific dealings. Bodies litter the facility and are warped, twisted and contorted in strange horrific ways despite the organs in each body being intact.
It doesn’t take long for the Americans to realize that the dog they brought in was some sort of shape shifting space alien. Without realizing it, the dog has had access to the entire American research facility for the better part of an evening and it’s likely that at least one or more of the humans in the crew has been consumed by the alien and replaced by another alien shapeshifter. With precious time and resources dwindling, the surviving Americans are left to figure out which of the members of their crew are human and which aren’t.
The core of The Thing’s story is dread. You know from the outset of the film that the situation is bad. The film doesn’t play coy with it’s reveals and makes it clear from the film’s first act that they’re dealing with something beyond they’re comprehension. While it’s not clear which of the humans has actually been integrated into the titular monster, the movie jumps into it’s premise right away and doesn’t hide the creature.
The reveal scene of the monster happens quite early and it goes hard on the body horror and gore from the outset. The monster’s first victims are a pack of huskies who are all consumed by the creature, integrated into it’s biomass or killed by the creature’s acidic blood. While the humans are able to kill the creature with a flame thrower, it becomes clear rapidly that it’s too late and any of them could’ve been exposed.
“The Thing’s” unique biology sets it apart from other contemporary slasher villains and monsters of it’s decade. The monster is actually quite fragile compared to normal slasher villains or monsters like the Xenomorph. It doesn’t take much to fry the creature once it’s been found. The problem of course is that the creature is so good at imitating humans that it can mimic their personalities and hide in plain sight.
From this point onward, the film becomes something of a mystery film as the characters we see struggle to figure out a method by which they can investigate which of their former friends are human or not. The investigation moves forward from here with boughts of extreme gore thrown in as different characters are revealed to secretly have been one of the monsters.
The grotesque nature of the proceedings adds to the air of tension. This is a movie where people get torn apart at the seems and die brutal deaths at the hands of the monster. The monster itself seems to feel no pain and can warp it’s body into horrific webs of viscera which it can use as teeth or weapons to defend itself. The special effects for the monster are staggering. It transform in hideous and disgusting ways that are still unsettling to watch to this day.
The Thing is a movie where there’s nothing to fall back on. The characters can’t trust each other and they can’t trust their own bodies. They can’t tell who amongst them are friend or foe. It’s a movie that keeps you on your feet because the cost of not being vigilant is evisceration. In many ways, the movie improves upon the great horror films of it’s time and manages to be smart enough to not have to rely on easy points for tension.
The Thing is John Carpenter at his very best. He’s most in control of this film than anything else he’s even made. The atmosphere is pungent and the filmmaking is beautiful and horrific all at once. Of all his work, it’s easily the film that most fully delivers on it’s premise and manages to communicate the most powerful and carnal themes of his entire body of work.
This is horror filmmaking at it’s very best and only improves the more times you watch it!