Director: John Carpenter
If you went to the movies in 1982, you probably heard of a little flick called E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. But around that same time, you might have overlooked another movie featuring an alien that's gone on to become a cult classic: John Carpenter's The Thing. A remake of the 1951 sci-fi movie The Thing From Another World (which itself was based on John W. Campbell's short story "Who Goes There?"), the movie was a box office failure, thanks to both the E.T. phenomenon and a series of unfortunately bad reviews. However, time has been kind to The Thing, as it has been hailed by fans of both the sci-fi and horror genres as an underrated classic.
Our film begins in the winter of 1982, in the middle of the frozen wasteland of Antarctica. Alone and cut off from the rest of the world, the lives of an American science expedition are interrupted by gunfire, coming from a group of Norwegians with cabin fever shooting at a dog. Unfortunately, none of the Americans have any idea what's going on, as the Norwegians accidentally blow up their helicopter and are shot dead by Garry (Donald Moffat), the station commander. The dog becomes friendly with Clark (Richard Masur), the group's animal handler, but strange things are afoot at the Circle K. (Hooray for Bill & Ted references!)
Confused, helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Dr. Copper (Richard A. Sysart) decide to check out the Norwegian camp. With a snowstorm beginning to close in, MacReady and Cooper find the camp defastated, everything apparently dead. They gather anything they can salvage, and head back to their home base. As the temperature begins to fall, the team is surprised by an unwanted visitor, as the Norwegians dog begins to mutate before finally being killed. A second expedition to the Norwegian camp reveals something similar to a flying saucer, buried under the ice for an estimated 100,000 years. The group determines that the dog was not of this world, and that their shape-shifting visitor has the ability to infect any living thing it comes into contact with. Paranoia rips through the station, as each man questions the actions of those around him. Who is human, and who is The Thing? And just who will survive?
The Thing is great, no bones about it. The first installment in what director Carpenter calls his "Apocalypse Trilogy" (the other two installments being 1987's Prince of Darkness and 1995's In the Mouth of Madness), The Thing is a study in contrasts. Long periods of unnerving silence are punctuated by brief flashes of grotesque horror. Personally, I found The Thing be just as good as its closest contemporary, the original Alien. (Your mileage may vary, of course.) Bill Lancaster's great screenplay is brilliantly humorless, making itself seem like the darkest dark humor ever, with the unexpected moments of violence, and the bickering scientists never managing to actually accomplish anything. The large ensemble cast are all great, with notable highlights coming from Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley (yes, that Wilford Brimley), and Keith David, and Ennio Morricone's minimalist score is reminiscent of many of John Carpenter's scores in being bizarre, creepy, and very understated.
Rob Bottin's special effects also stand up and demand to be noticed. Simultaneously mesmerizing and disgusting, the practical effects hold up quite well in today's CGI-dependent Hollywood. They only appear a few times, but his gory creations are some of the film's most memorable moments. From a body opening up and biting off a doctor's arms, to a head ripping itself from its body before growing spider-like legs and running away, the gruesome effects are still repulsive and shocking, even by today's standards.
Even if the movie doesn't have much in the department of social commentary like other Carpenter movies (They Live, for example), it still works as an effectively scary movie. Great special effects, good actors, and several memorable moments abound, so I'll give The Thing a much-deserved four stars. If you get in the mood for an alien splatter movie or a great cult classic, I recommend The Thing; I think you'll enjoy it.
Final Rating: ****