Archive Review: The Thing (1982) – 4/5 Stars

If 1979’s “Alien” was the original hypothesis that the best science-fiction thrillers are psychological, then John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is the study that proves it true. A remake of John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1951 classic “The Thing from Another World,” Carpenter’s re- imagining is another brilliant execution of quiet suspense that gets quickly into your head and hooks into your brain.

Kurt Russell, Carpenter’s star from “Escape from New York,” takes the driver’s seat again as one of a team of scientists living in Antarctica when a helicopter with two Norwegian scientists arrives at their facility trying to shoot down a husky. The Norwegians are killed and the husky lives, only the husky is actually an alien from another planet that survives by taking the identical appearance of the organisms it kills. Having had the dog in their possession for 48 hours, the men realize that any one of them could be a thing, causing a huge build-up of distrust and tension.

The key part that makes “The Thing” stand above most other alien/creature/monster kills off a group of people one-by-one movies is that last bit about distrust. In other films, the creature is identifiable — a shark, an alien, etc., but in “The Thing,” it could be any of the characters — now that’s both terrifying and awesome. Instead of a thriller where we’re just curious about the gruesome way in which the creature will kill the next random dude, we get the simultaneous thrill of wondering which person the creature is. It’s like rolling a mystery into a sci-fi horror film.

The nice part about that dual entertainment is they feed off each other. While we’re busy wondering who isn’t human, Carpenter can fully utilize shock and awe when the thing actually does attack and boy, does he ever. The amount of prosthetics and mechanical devices used to create the constantly moving spool of guts mixed with slimy Venus fly traps that is the thing and the people its imitating are incredible. More than 25 years later you almost wish more films stopped pushing computer-generated images so hard and stayed devoted to developing better and better prosthetics.

But can shear paranoia and suspense along with the fulfilled promise of excellent visual effects drive a science-fiction story? Apparently so. Russell is the only known actor and there’s not a whole lot to the characters other than the way they deal with their fear and paranoia.

Another less obvious reason “The Thing” works so well is the parameters the story sets up for itself. Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster establish a very specific set of rules for what the thing is and isn’t capable of, even going so far as to show us the science of how cells from the thing devour other living cells. We know that the thing only reveals itself when its alone with its victim and that it is driven primarily by a survival instinct. These rules lend legitimacy to the story and make it much more interesting for the viewer trying to stay a step ahead of the plot.

When it comes down to it, “The Thing” is just smart formula film-making, even though the formula arguably came after this film. It has a director with impressive horror and suspense credentials in Carpenter, who directed “Halloween,” one of the greatest film composers ever in Ennio Morricone to do the suspenseful, haunting score and a creature with more than meets the eye who wreaks psychological havoc on the characters and consequently, us.

4/5 Stars

Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: John W. Campbell Jr. (story), Bill Lancaster (screenplay)
Starring: Kurt Russell

1 Comment

  1. Elijah Ginns says:

    A thoughtful insight and ideas I will use on my blog. You’ve obviously spent some time on this. Well done!

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