Friday, April 27, 2012
The Thing (1982) *****
Based on a short story called “Who Goes There?” and an earlier movie called “The Thing From Another World,” “The Thing” is, like “Alien,” a satisfying blend of horror and sci-fi. The film starts with a couple of Norwegians in a helicopter pursuing and trying to kill a dog as it runs across the ice fields of Antarctica. The Norwegians wind up dead, and the dog finds refuge with a group of American scientists in a remote outpost. Curious as to what those crazy Norwegians were up to, the Americans, including helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell), go investigate their camp. There they find that the Norwegians discovered something in the ice. Something that left them all dead. Meanwhile, the guys learn to their horror that the refugee dog is not a dog at all, but an alien mutant that infects other life forms with a virus-like vector that takes over all their cells and allows the alien to imitate them. This is horrible enough, but the real terror begins when paranoia takes hold, as the men realize that at least one of them may have been taken over by the Thing.
Like the best horror films, “The Thing” uses a grotesque monster to explore the horrors that we all carry inside us. First, the gore and slime remind us that we and those we love are full of blood and guts on the inside: a disturbing concept. Then the film plays on the more subtle fear that those we know may not be who we think they are, that they may carry some terrible secret. As shocking as the Thing is when it is spewing slime everywhere, it is the growing distrust between the men that creates the real horror in “The Thing.” There is another element of horror in “The Thing,” perhaps unintentional. The movie is about a virus-like life form that fatally takes over someone’s body and can be passed to others, yet you can’t tell by looking who has it. Given that this came out in 1982, one can’t help but draw parallels to a real-life horror, the AIDS epidemic.
Many movies from the ‘80’s haven’t aged well, but “The Thing” seems timeless. It helps that the clothing is cold-weather gear rather than day-glow sweaters and polos. It helps that the cast is all men, so the plot isn’t weighed down by an obligatory love story. It helps that rather than a soundtrack of ‘80’s pop, the film has a beautiful, ominous score by Ennio Morricone. It helps that the characters in this horrifying situation mostly make decisions that make sense, separating this film from about 90% of horror movies. Finally, it helps that Carpenter played the story straight and didn’t try to cutesy it up with the catchy one-liners that were de rigueur in ‘80’s horror and action flicks. Carpenter had some help, of course, from a stellar cast, including Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, a whole crew of outstanding character actors, and one outrageous hat.
Some might disagree, but I even found the special effects to be good. I don’t think the creature would have been any more convincing or terrifying if it had been done with modern CGI. I think one reason I never saw the movie before was that I somehow got the impression it was a schlocky, low budget flick. It is neither. This was apparently Carpenter’s first studio film, and very professionally done. It’s ironic that the movie did not do well at the box office, possibly because it was released right after “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial,” and audiences weren’t up for a second, diametrically opposed, alien movie.
Fortunately, the film has been vindicated by history, and we can watch it now and feel smug about being smarter than those 1982 audiences that missed it. I suggest watching it on a cold night. I also recommend the commentary by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell.
5 stars out of 5
Addendum: I tried to watch the 1951 movie "The Thing from Another World," which is also based on John W. Campbell Jr's story "Who Goes There?", but I gave up after 20 minutes or so. It just isn't up to the standards of John Carpenter's "The Thing."