When it was released, John Carpenter’s remake of Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World (1951), simply titled The Thing (1982), received lukewarm reviews. Most critics, shocked by Carpenter’s use of gruesome special effects, wrote the film off as spectacle over story. Roger Ebert, in a two and a half star review, wrote that the film “depends on its special effects, which are the most elaborate, nauseating, and horrifying sights yet achieved by Hollywood’s new generation of visual magicians….[it] is a great barf-bag movie.” Many other reviews followed suit and the $15 million dollar budgeted film went on to make a disappointing $19 million domestically. As Carpenter later stated, “I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit … The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane. Even the original movie’s director, Christian Nyby, was dissing me.”
Despite the film’s initial lukewarm reception, the cultural status of the Kurt Russell creature feature, like the alien of the title, has evolved immensely over the past 30 years. It has since been ranked amongst the scariest movies ever by Bravo and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Moreover, Empire magazine named the film as one of the 500 greatest films ever made. In Antarctica, the setting of the film, the U.S. South Pole station watches the film on an annual basis. I hadn’t seen the film in close to a decade. I remember watching it at a Halloween party in high school and freaking out during the infamous dog kennel scene. So, I was curious to see how the film would replay after a long wait.
For those unfamiliar with the film, The Thing focuses on a team of Americans stationed at the South Pole including a helicopter pilot (Kurt Russell), a doctor (Richard Dysart), and various other teammates (including Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Richard Masur, and others) under the supervision of the station commander (Donald Moffat). The team is shaken up when a Norwegian helicopter arrives while pursuing a dog across the ice. The dog flees into the U.S. base, dodging gunfire from the helicopter. The Norwegians, unable to express themselves to the Americans, come off as crazed maniacs and are quickly killed. The team decides to investigate the base of the Norwegians, finding that they had dug a creature out of the ice that has grotesque human features.
When the team arrives back, it turns out that the dog is essentially an alien host. The creature, able to mimic any assimilated life form, quickly begins “assimilating” the humans and, unable to determine who is infected and who isn’t, paranoia breaks out across the station. For instance, when Wilford Brimley’s doctor discovers that the probability of the creature taking over both the camp and, eventually, the world is extremely high, he locks himself in his room with a pistol. The crew decides to set up a blood test that will determine who has been infected by the thing, but it quickly becomes sabotaged by the creature. As more and more of the team becomes assimilated, tensions run higher as Russell’s helicopter pilot slowly begins to realize the creature’s ultimate plan.
Re-watching the film, I found roughly 2/3rds of a great horror movie in the tradition of Alien (1979). Carpenter’s use of Ennio Morricone’s foreboding score and the disgusting creature effects makes the film a solid creeper. Moreover, Russell’s trademark tough guy appeals to the 80s nostalgia of relatively blandly defined heroes with kickass one-liners, general badassery, and killer facial hair. Where the film loses out, however, is in two key areas. First, given that Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster are more interested in the mystery and paranoia that is inspired by the creature’s abilities, we lack the “killshot” scenes. Now, I don’t miss these scenes because of the spectacle, I miss them because of the nature of suspense. Essentially, by keeping us in the dark, we get blindsided by the revelations of who has been infected. This is fun for a while, especially in a blood test scene which I had separate issues with, but real suspense, as Alfred Hitchcock noted, comes from the audience knowing something that the characters have yet to determine. Essentially, I wish the film and Carpenter had played a melody that was functioning on all registers of the sci-fi/horror genre.
Secondly, Russell’s improvised blood test completely pulled me out of the film. The idea that the creature’s blood would react defensively towards a flaming wire was something I had a hard time accepting. It’s just blood! Moreover, having the blood “defend” itself by literally JUMPING OUT OF A PETRI DISH was more hilarious than horrifying. I love the idea of the scene: the pacing draws out the tension; Carpenter’s cutting accentuates the suspense. Yet, the endgame is so incredibly goofy that it almost cancels out the whole concept. Essentially, I wish they had just run the normal blood test or found away the creature’s sabotage of the test. It’s the concept, not the execution that bugs me. Yet, despite these two very significant issues, the film is a lot of fun. The gore, Carpenter’s choreography of the violence, and the nihilistic tone make The Thing a remarkable horror film.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.