Upon its arrival, 1982’s “The Thing” was written off as a disgusting gorefest built around an all too slim premise which relied more on special effects than tension. Yet, like many of Carpenter’s movies, what was ultimately misunderstood at the time has become touted as not only a great movie of the genre but arguably the man’s best film to date. Certainly I’d have to agree with that assessment in the outright horror department, although “Big Trouble in Little China” will always remain my fave and I hold great soft spots for “Escape from NY” and “The Fog”.
More than ever though, and certainly more than practically every other horror movie of that decade (including even the great “Nightmare on Elm Street”), “The Thing” holds up wonderfully today thanks to its combination of a high-concept premise with a stark and almost tragic sense of beauty. What was gross and all too much at the time today still looks astonishing from a technical perspective, but the sheer gore quotient is tame compared to most young ‘uns slasher movies of recent times. Thus it’s left up to the central premise to stand on its own and here is where “The Thing” makes its true mark.
So much horror of that decade revolved around slasher films or demons in our own backyard. “The Thing” on the otherhand had the beauty of being in the Antarctic and using a monster that could take on the shape of any creature, person or persons. Thus this not only was a great gore feature, but also one of the great paranoia thriller setups of all time. Cut off from the world in a harsh environment that would kill any who tried to leave, the men (all, including Russell, beautifully playing everything serious and down) soon turn on each other and treat every little act each other does with suspicion.
The monster itself also appeared in creative ways because of its very nature – it could turn a severed head into a multi-armed creature, make one man’s body into a giant mouth, and what it does with a couple of dogs early on in the film has to be seen to be believed. It’s not one corporeal beast but comes across like a relentless plague that could exist anywhere in the encampment waiting to strike and can only be seemingly defeated by fire.
Carpenter directs the movie with style and pace, sequences flow logically and progressively and never get dull. Simple scenes such as a ‘blood screening’ test have become a memorable piece of cinema. There’s also his usual techno beat dark score and simple credits which have become so much his signature. Then finally comes the almost poetically tragic end which some say is downer but today it’s almost impossible to see it end any other way. Still frightening and gross over twenty years on, “The Thing” remains one of the greatest pieces of 80’s cinema.