The Thing (1982)
What more can be said about this now-much praised film than has already been said? Very few films have gone through such a drastic critical and popular reappraisal as John Carpenter’s The Thing. Mainstream and genre film critics severely criticized the film when released on
What more can be said about this now-much praised film than has already been said? Very few films have gone through such a drastic critical and popular reappraisal as John Carpenter’s The Thing. Mainstream and genre film critics severely criticized the film when released on June 25, 1982. Most audiences apparently listened to them, causing the film to underperform in comparison with John Carpenter’s previous films. For those who have not seen this science fiction horror film, what features would entice those to embrace the paranoia of the Antarctic terror?
The Thing is an alien invasion film. There are many of those from which to choose. In fact, The Thing is both a remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World and a more faithful adaptation of the source novella, Who Goes There? But what makes the conflict between the Antarctic researchers and the creature terrifying is that not only is the creature a shape-shifter, but every cell of the creature is its own living organism, which can infect and absorb other creatures, whether they are plant, animal, or human. As the researchers realize that their fellows might no longer be human, this is when the paranoia, augmented by the barren icy landscape, truly takes hold.
The principal character is R.J. MacReady, played by the everyman action star Kurt Russell. He’s the reluctant hero, who, due to circumstances and the failings of his crew members, must take leadership to counter the alien threat. There are many fine performances by the supporting cast. The angry skepticism of Childs (Keith David) and the mental descent of Blair (Wilford Brimley) stand out though. The critics initially said that there was poor characterization. It’s true that there’s a large cast for this type of film. Some characters are given more attention than others. Paying close attention to the quirks of the characters, though, it shouldn’t be difficult to realize each’s individuality.
I focus on the characterization and the suspense of the scenes. One shouldn’t overlook Rob Bottin’s practical effects. There, however, can’t be much more said about the practical effects than were said at the initial release. Even the harshest critics knew that these were top-notch. They, however, felt that John Carpenter focused too much on them, at the expense of other aspects of The Thing. I disagree. The viewer doesn’t see the first active transformation until around the 30-minute mark. And each eventual transformation, while detailed and graphic, is not wanton and exploitative. It serves the progression of the plot. To some modern viewers, the creature effects in some scenes may seem rubbery or comic-book like. I’ll, however, take it over the majority of CGI effects that are produced now. It’s tangible, and that helps you feel the fear that the characters do.
The score or soundtrack can make or break a film. Fortunately, John Carpenter reached out to renowned traditional composer Ennio Morricone to provide most of the score. He, along with collaborator Alan Howarth, added his usual synthesized touches for further cues. It’s very shocking that The Thing‘s score received a Razzie nomination the following year. The music is not overbearing; it fits the despairing atmosphere. Moreover, it showed American audiences, who likely knew Morricone for spaghetti western and giallo scores, that he could score for any genre of film. Besides the slow, brooding march of the main theme, I recommend paying attention to the aptly named tracks “Despair” and “Humanity I.” The frigid atmosphere of the Antarctic saturates throughout, but the human element, represented by the various instrumental sections, underlies, lamenting the situation.
Once dismissed, now praised—that could be the short quote that encapsulates the reception that The Thing received. However, the film has gone beyond even this in comparison with other film reevaluations. Without a devoted fanbase, there wouldn’t have been a prequel, video game sequel and comic book sequels, or board game adaptations. Even the winter skeleton crew at the South Pole hosts viewings of not only the 1982 film, but of the 1951 film and the 2011 prequel as well.
Other body-horror films will likely never top The Thing, though a number of films in the wake of the film’s release have tried in imitation. It’s a shame that John Carpenter received such a critical drubbing back in 1982. There’s no doubt that it affected his career. Though he received praise for the later critical hit Starman, Hollywood no longer considered him B-movie royalty. At least he and the fans see what was once trashed raised high as a genre classic.