Why I Love… #15: The Thing

Year: 1982

Director: John Carpenter

Stars: Kurt Russell (R.J. MacReady), Wilford Brimley (Blair), Keith David (Childs), Donald Moffat (Garry), T.K. Carter (Nauls), Peter Maloney (Bennings)

Genre: Science Fiction / Horror

Seeing as in my convalescence I’ve developed for myself a MacReady-style level of beard growth, I thought it an appropriate time to cast an eye over one of my most-watched favourites; John Carpenter’s masterpiece of both tension and gore, The Thing. Not to be confused, of course, with the recent prequel starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead which, through someone’s glorious lack of inspiration, was also called The Thing.*

Of course, Carpenter’s movie itself is a remake of Christian Nyby’s movie The Thing From Another World, or more precisely, a further adaptation of John W Campbell Jr.’s short story Who Goes There? Now The Thing From Another World is a good movie; one of the better examples of the 1950s B-picture, not least because of Howard Hawks’ attachment as producer. Yet as good as that film is, Carpenter here eclipsed it with what is, to my mind, one of the most gripping and memorable 110 minutes of Hollywood entertainment you can find.

Carpenter was on a solid roll at this point. Assault On Precinct 13 had garnered him a reputation, Halloween had made him a household name, and with The Fog and Escape From New York he had shown himself capable of consistently good quality product. And like all of these pictures, The Thing was an opportunity for Carpenter to do what he does best; assemble a small group of characters in a particularly strained situation and watch the sparks fly.

And is there a more strained situation than the one conjured in The Thing? A group of research scientists stranded in the Antarctic facing off against a vicious alien being that insidiously moves amongst them disguised as one of their own, until it mutates and attacks?. Not only was this a monster movie, but the monster was probably one of the good-guys. Probably. Carpenter plays to the inherent paranoia with fierce determination. There is nothing like the suspense you feel the first time you watch The Thing.

In the central role is Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady, whose steadfast instincts, not just to survive but to win, power the movie along. He is ruthless, sometimes quite heartless, but damn, you’d want him in your corner. Russell is, for me, an eminently watchable leading man. He may not be the greatest actor in the world, but he has an undeniable screen charisma. It is evident here as much as it ever has been. MacReady is, really, quite an arsehole. But you want him to survive. You want him to win. It’s too much fun watching a man being that pissed off. Hell, at the start of the picture he’s even pissed off at the computer, cheating bitch.

For The Thing, Carpenter handed over the score element – which he usually handles himself to often brilliant minimalistic effect – to the legendary Ennio Morricone. What Morricone came up with is just as sparse as any Carpenter score, but it is also one of the most remarkably effective soundtracks in cinema. A simple forlorn fugue and a relentlessly pulsating heartbeat. Knife-edge strings. It compliments Carpenter’s ratcheting of the tension on screen perfectly, until the viewer feels positively trapped. You aren’t just watching these men going out of their minds with fear, you’re right there with them.

And all of this so far is without a single word mentioned about the effects. Oh, the effects! Albert Whitlock’s physical effects still beat any CG monstrosity you can throw at me. A computer image can be as detailed as anything, yet the brain still reads it as false. Whitlock’s animatronic creatures may read as complex puppets to the human eye, but their physicality makes them real in the scenes. They’re actually there. And they still look incredible today. Much of the film’s continued notoriety comes down to just how much work went into the physical realisation of these alien monsters, and they make for landmark moments. Remember the head that sprouts legs like a spider? Remember the defibrillation scene?

But hopefully what I’ve managed to get across is that there is more at work here than impressive puppets. The film’s greatest scene takes place largely without monstrous machinations. When MacReady goes through the survivors one by one using the blood test as elimination, the suspense is terrific. Kudos to the recent prequel for attempting to recreate this with the tooth-inspection scene. And whilst the effects and some of the paraphernalia may fix the film firmly in the 1980s, The Thing feels timeless, the true mark of a classic.

It wasn’t an immediate success. It opened around the same time as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, a far more, ahem, digestible alien outing for the whole family, and as such was not a box office success. Also that ending (which I think is brilliant) was decidedly downbeat and outright unsatisfying for some. No, The Thing had to earn its place as a classic. But it did. You can’t keep a good dog down. Unless you assimilate it, of course.

*which, for the record, was not that bad a movie, all things considered (a review of which can be found buried further down in here)

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