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Empire List #289: John Carpenter's The Thing

For my personal taste, most horror movies today have a lot of gore, but little suspense. In 1982, horror master John Carpenter made “The Thing,” a frightening story that had a lot of gore, very suspenseful scenes, a scary setting and memorable characters.

This being October and the weekend when the prequel to Carpenter’s version is released, it seems like an ideal time to revisit the 1982 version. The first time I saw this movie was in a basement, by myself, during one of those horror marathons they have on the Space channel during Halloween. The only thing missing was a rainstorm outside and scratching sound on my bedroom windows.  It’s one of those movies that are scary to watch by yourself, but of you watch with other people it’s kind of funny. When I watched it as part of a double bill at the film club at my university (with David Cronenberg’s “The Fly”) we would laugh at some of the film’s more shocking moments, and also at the somewhat dated special effects. My ideal scenario: seeing this at a midnight screening followed by “Evil Dead II.” That’ll keep you up at night.

The film opens in Antarctica, where a Norwegian helicopter is chasing a dog across the snowy white plains. For some reason, the passenger is trying to kill that innocent-looking dog with a rifle and grenades. The chase leads to an American camp where the helicopter lands and the passenger blows up the helicopter by dropping a grenade in the snow. He then aims for the dog again but hits one of the Americans, prompting Gary (Donald Moffat) the station commander to shoot him dead with his revolver.

The members of the station are baffled by this behavior and assume that the people at the Norwegian camp have gone insane. Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) and R.J MacReady (Kurt Russell) a helicopter pilot, fly to the camp only to find it burned to the ground. One member has killed himself, while others are horribly disfigured. MacReady finds a room that contains what seems to be a giant empty coffin made of ice. VHS tapes later reveal that this coffin was found buried under the ice, along with is clearly a flying saucer.

The extent of the threat is discovered when the dog that was being chased by the Norwegians reveals itself to be a hideous beast and tries to take over the dogs’ bodies. An autopsy performed by Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) informs all members of the station that the thing in question can imitate other life forms. Before long every man is suspecting each other. To top it all off, a storm is coming.

One of the reasons why this movie works is the atmosphere. These men are all trapped in a building made of silent corridors and dark rooms. A great travelling shot is used when the camera is moving along one of those corridors and you see a blurred reflection on a metal surface. Obviously it's the cameraman's reflection, but in terms of the story, you have no idea which character is walking down that corridor or if he is human. When the characters walk outside there is only snow and a howling wind. Anybody who has ever been in a blizzard can attest that it can be a creepy sight, especially at night. The wind is blowing in the darkness, there are dunes of snow everywhere and you can barely see two feet in front of you. Not a good time to run into a friend who might be an alien intent on taking over your body like a parasite.

The fact that the monster could be anyone is a masterstroke. It takes the movie from “Alien” territory into “Ten Little Indians” by Agatha Christie. Eventually MacReady becomes the de facto leader as the chain of command breaks down. He decides to tie everybody down and perform a blood test to see who is human by touching the blood with a hot needle. Of course once he finds out who isn't human, the thing is not going to just stand still and surrender.

When the thing does reveal itself, a lot of old school special effects are involved. This was before computer generated images, so all of the monster make-up and effects were hand-made. The half-transformed corpses look like grotesque statues from a horror museum. When a character gets both of his hands chopped off, a body double with no arms was used. Stop motion is used when the monster spews blood and separates itself from its human body. It may look amateurish to some, but at least you are looking at an actual object, not a computer image.

Even though this is clearly a B movie, the actors pull their weight. Kurt Russell's MacReady eventually clashes with the more temperamental Childs (Keith David) over who should be in charge since Gary no longer feels up to it. Wilford Brimley's Dr. Blair suffers a mental breakdown after discovering the power of the thing and attacks his fellow team members. Distrust and paranoia spreads amongst all the characters who live in fear of each other. "Trust is hard thing to come by these days" says MacReady to Blair, possibly echoing Cold War paranoia, which was most likely still very high back in the 80s.

The paranoia, the (old-school) special effects, strong characters, and suspenseful setting make John Carpenter's The Thing a classic of the genre. It wasn't a success in when it was first released, but thanks to VHS and DVD it has found a new and loyal audience. I try to watch my copy every Halloween. I am reminded of that station in Antarctica whenever I am walking outside during a blizzard and can hear the howling wind. Watch your back.


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