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When The Thing was released in 1982, director John Carpenter had already established himself as a master of horror that could do little wrong. Coming off the quadruple punch of Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog and Escape from New York, Carpenter’s skill was in taking the ordinary, the suburban and the concept of the “other”, and blending them together in a terrifying pot pourri of mayhem, music and madness. Based on the science-fiction story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr, already adapted by Howard Hawks in 1951 as The Thing From Another World, Carpenter’s version not only completely captured the spirit of the 1980s, but would eventually be considered a timeless classic.
A group of Americans exploring the remote regions of Antarctica are interrupted when a seemingly mad group of Norwegians flies over the camp in a helicopter, shooting at a dog. When the Norwegians die through either accident or shooting, no explanation is given for their pursuit of the dog, who is locked in with the other dogs at the base. When the station’s dogs are violently killed, it is soon discovered that a creature of alien origin has been hiding inside it, and can take the form and characteristics of anything or anyone it comes into contact with. The crew grows increasingly paranoid at the possibility that the thing could be any one of them, and it falls to pilot J.R. MacReady (Kurt Russell) to hunt it down and destroy it before it is too late.
1982 may as well be re-dubbed the Year of Science Fiction, as a two-week period saw the release of not only The Thing, but Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Indeed, the latter debuted on the same day as The Thing, which did not originally fare well at the box office, and the success of E.T. (and mixed reviews) perhaps led to The Thing‘s critical and box-office bashing. Carpenter notes in retrospect that “The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane”. Yet time has healed all wounds in a film that is now rightly considered to be one of the finest in the genre, and can proudly list the likes of Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) amongst its most ardent supporters.
The Thing taps into the twin themes of isolation and bodily invasion, two elements that may explain why the audiences’ first instinct was to recoil in horror from what they were seeing. The effects, created by Rob Bottin and Stan Winston (in the case of the dog creature), mirror the grotesque subversion of the human form typically found in a David Cronenberg film. Yet it is the isolation of the setting that results in the most chilling (so to speak) aspects of the film, much like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining used place two year before. Here Carpenter is on familiar turf, having previously cut his heroes off from the outside world in Assault From Precinct 13 or using natural barriers (The Fog) to create confusion and alienation. That Carpenter is able to pull off what is often Dali-esque surrealism in the midst of a horror film is a testament to his craft. That spooky score by Ennio Morricone doesn’t hurt either.
Having already converted Kurt Russell, a Disney familiar of the 1970s, into badass leading man Snake Plissken in Escape from New York, Russell is the consummate anti-hero, the loveable scoundrel that was all the vogue thanks to Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars, the latter’s role of Han Solo being one that Russell had actually auditioned for. Whether it is a horror film, a splatter fest or just a tense psychological thriller that you are after, The Thing provides them all in spades. The recent prequel, also called The Thing, borrows so much from this original, but only emphasises just how much this seminal film got write almost thirty years ago.