Imagine that you’re in a remote Antarctic outpost, locked in eternal icy winter, with little to do and only a few people to spend time with. Now imagine that a screaming, fleshy alien horror infiltrates your base, turning everyone it touches into extensions of itself – and if you don’t stop it, the entire planet will be destroyed.
That’s the premise behind “The Thing,” a haunting 1982 horror movie by masterful director John Carpenter. And this classic cult film is a prime example of science fiction at its most terrifying – it’s a slow-burning, claustrophobic film filled with psychological dread that periodically erupts into tentacular, flame-filled warfare. This is no jump-scare-filled schlock movie, but a finely-crafted nightmare.
A seemingly ordinary sled dog runs into an American station in the Antarctic, pursued by a crazed screaming Norwegian with a gun, who is quickly shot dead in self-defense. Helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) venture to the Norwegian base, and find that someone has burned it down. Everyone is dead and burned, frozen or both… and they find the remains of a horribly malformed, inhuman creature.
Well, they find out what happened when the Norwegian dog is kenneled with the other sled dogs: it starts absorbing them into one grotesque tentacled mass. Only fire kills it. The Americans soon realize that it’s an alien organism from a nearby crash site, which can perfectly mimic other organisms – so perfectly that no one can be sure who is really human, and who is part of The Thing. Even worse, it could assimilate all life on Earth in a relative short time, if it ever got out of the frozen wasteland of Antarctica.
So, unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of paranoia and suspicion among the Americans, especially after Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) sabotages their vehicles and destroys their communications equipment. Deprived of sleep and not knowing who to trust, MacReady and the others must discover who is a Thing before it’s too late.
John Carpenter produced a number of outstanding classic films like “Halloween,” “The Fog,” “They Live,” “Big Trouble in Little China,” “Escape From New York,” and so on. But “The Thing” may be Carpenter’s finest hour – it’s one of those carefully-cultivated, intricately intelligent movies that has pretty much no flaws. The acting, the writing, the atmosphere, and the feeling of all-consuming, gnawing paranoia right to the very final seconds of the film.
Carpenter’s direction here is mostly a slow-burn, building up a tripwire tension that permeates every scene… until, without warning, flesh starts stretching, tentacles whip out, and strange fluids pour out. The nightmarishness of the whole claustrophobic experience is only heightened by the way the movie makes you feel for the characters. You feel the horror of being surrounded by people who might not even be human, of being too afraid to sleep, of being surrounded by a wasteland of snow and burned remains.
And a lot of the movie’s effectiveness comes from its special effects. These are some of the most convincing practical effects ever captured on film – they’re fleshy, dripping with fluid, twisting and gnarling into something bloated and grotesque. And yet, for all the giant grainy teeth, oozing fluids and spider-legs, the most horrifying moments of The Thing’s presence are when it looks just a little too much like something ordinary and living, such as the giant screaming snarling dog-Thing. There’s almost a sense of cathartic relief when the humans fry one of the Things, just because something so profoundly wrong and horrifying is now dead.
The acting is also absolutely top-notch here, with Russell taking center stage as MacReady. The character isn’t really a hero – he’s just a guy who flies helicopters, who finds himself in the unenviable position of saving the world by whatever means necessary. He may be less educated than many of the other people in the outpost, but he’s undeniably intelligent, cunning and resourceful. But Russell is bolstered by some excellent supporting actors, including Brimley, Dysart, Keith David, and… well, pretty much everyone. The dog isn’t a bad actor either – its unnatural silence and calm is an early clue to what it truly is.
It may not have gotten the love it deserved when it was first released, but “The Thing” has proven over time that it is a true horror/sci-fi classic. Absolutely masterful.