Halloween Throwback: John Carpenter’s The Thing

“We’re gonna draw a little bit of everybody’s blood… ’cause we’re gonna find out who’s The Thing. Watchin’ Norris in there gave me the idea that… maybe every part of him was a whole, every little piece was an individual animal with a built-in desire to protect its own life. Ya see, when a man bleeds, it’s just tissue, but blood from one of you Things won’t obey when it’s attacked. It’ll try and survive… crawl away from a hot needle, say.”— MacReady (Kurt Russell)

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) — which was initially considered “instant junk” by critics from across the spectrum in the 1980s— continues to stand the test of time as a gem among horror films. Its audacious courtship with a psychologically dark narration, coupled with Carpenter’s cleverly subtle execution and Rob Bottin’s unmatched practical effects sets this science-fiction horror on a 35-year-old pedestal as the classic among classics.

Based on John W. Campbell, Jr.’s novella Who Goes There? and a remake of the classic The Thing from Another World (1951), The Thing centers on said “thing” — a parasitic extraterrestrial lifeform that assimilates other organisms and, in turn, imitates them. When The Thing infiltrates the base camp of a group of American research scientists in remote Antarctica, the crew is thrown into a gory and paranoia-induced fight for survival as the vicious creature picks them off one by one.

Unlike most horror films — notably cash-grabs— this film promises more to horror fans than just a conventional monster, slap-worthy characters, and a predictable storyline.

The Thing’s premise in itself is a monster — exposing old and new eyes to an intriguingly nihilistic direction of narration. From the start, the film drags the audience into a wasteland of mystery, helplessness, and rising levels of mistrustfulness — only enhancing The Thing’s authenticity as one of the best, choosing not go for the tiresome “good-guy-survives” happy ending. While some might be disappointed with the end result, many horror fans (and film fans in general) appreciate the film for its realistic approach to such a despairing situation and for its bold embrace with psychologically hard-to-swallow topics of discussion like suicide, emotional instability, and sacrifice for the greater good.

The skepticism of the characters and the worsening circumstances that the characters find themselves in works entertainingly-well in creating a symbiotic terror of originality not shared by many horror films today. Carpenter’s careful development of characters is done with an intentional subtlety — a brief line here, a peculiar expression there — gradually weaving characters like MacReady, Dr. Blair (played by Wilford Brimley), and Childs (Keith David) into anything but cannon fodder who are ready to be “be hacked, slashed, disemboweled and decapitated.”

While the parasitic creature is responsible for most of the film’s terrifying moments, The Thing’s effortless manipulations of the audiences’ expectations is the mastermind behind its success in the psychological department of horror. The film’s success in constantly changing the audiences’ suspicions towards a specific character, all the while questioning the film’s main character, evokes an ongoing feeling of vulnerability. Despite the fact that we are not in the film, our uncertainty about the humanity of each character invites an anxious attentiveness that is not replicated in most horror films.

Russell’s engrossingly grounded portrayal of a man holding on to his sanity in the face of madness and unstoppable paranoia carries a surprising amount of the film’s unpredictability. As MacReady slowly and reluctantly emerges as the crew’s leader in this fight for survival, his charisma and shrewdness not shared by other members of the crew entices both characters and audiences to gravitate to him for guidance. However, what The Thing does well is place a noticeable amount of distrust in MacReady, making the audience juggle (even after the movie ends) the possibility that the main character that they were rooting for the whole time could be a parasitic monster.

Combined with the crafty cues of mistrust and suspicion —tense standoffs and frosty dialogues — The Thing becomes more than just a monster movie set in Antarctica; it becomes a cold war horror about human despair and distrust and the inhuman outcomes that can occur when influenced by said emotions. The Thing slowly picks at the darkness in the hearts of us all, making everyone question the physiological and psychological humanity in each other. Bottin’s horrific mutations are practical effects at its finest, and to this very day, a big influence in independent horror films like The Void and film appreciators around the world.

If you are in wanting for a film with quirky characters, questionable dynamics, and a realistically dark storyline this Halloween, then check out John Carpenter’s masterpiece The Thing on Hulu.

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