John Carpenter’s The Thing

Thus was the movie billed in theatres, such was the name of Carpenter as the king of the scary movie at the time.  The basic concept for The Thing came of course from the original 1950s sci-fi B-movie The Thing From Another World, which by comparison was very tame (such that the little kids in Halloween are watching it!)   Both were inspired by a novella called Who Goes There?  

What distinguished the Carpenter version was special effects that for 1982 were way ahead of the competition.  I saw the movie twice when it came out, precisely because the first time I saw it the special effects were so truly mind-blowing that I lost track of much of the movie.  The second time I focused largely on the plot, but you don’t really watch a movie like this for the plot, do you?  It’s about the action and the horror, and that’s what found it a ready audience.

Granted there have been plenty more movies with amazing special effects, even at the same period (the lycanthropic transformation in American Werewolf in London and, obviously, Giger’s alien in Alien springs to mind), but few have been so hugely influential both in concept and design. And they didn’t just stand there looking astonishing, they did things too, stuff you could barely imagine!

For the record, the plot is as follows, though this barely does justice to the tension created:

Norwegian helicopter pursues an Alaskan malamute to an American Antarctic research station. As the Americans run out, the helicopter lands. One Norwegian accidentally drops a thermite charge, destroying the helicopter and pilot. A rifleman pursues the dog, firing, until he is killed by Garry, the station commander. The team decides to send helicopter pilot MacReady and Copper to the Norwegian camp for answers, but find only a charred ruin, with the body of a man who committed suicide and a large block of ice with a hollowed cavity. Outside they discover the burned remains of a humanoid corpse with two faces. MacReady and Copper return with the humanoid corpse, where their biologist, Blair, performs an autopsy, finding a normal set of human internal organs.

Clark kennels the Malamute with the station’s sled dogs where it begins to metamorphose and attacks them. MacReady pulls the fire alarm when he hears the commotion, and calls for a flamethrower. Childs incinerates the creature, and Blair does another autopsy, which leads him to believe the creature is capable of perfectly imitating other life forms. The Norwegians’ records lead the team to a crater containing a flying saucer and a hole left by the block of ice they suspect the creature came from. The station’s geologist, Norris, hypothesizes that the crater is likely over 100,000 years old. Blair becomes suspicious of the others and withdraws, calculating that if the alien escapes to a civilized area, all life on Earth will be assimilated in a few years. Fuchs secretly tells MacReady that he is worried about Blair, and that according to Blair’s journal, the creature’s “dead” remains are still active on a cellular level. They warn everyone not to share food or drink, and to avoid being alone with the creature, which has been brought into a storeroom.

Bennings is assimilated by the creature but he is caught outside by the team before his metamorphosis is complete, and MacReady burns him before he can escape. They realize Blair is conspicuously absent, just before MacReady sees him running inside. They discover he has wrecked all the transports and killed the remaining sled dogs. The team corners him as he is destroying the radio, and then locks him in the tool shed. Determined to learn who is infected, they discover the blood stores have been sabotaged before they can perform a blood-serum test Copper recommends, and the paranoid men begin to turn on each other.

MacReady takes charge and orders Fuchs to continue Blair’s work, but Fuchs disappears when the power goes out. As a storm closes in, MacReady, Windows, and Nauls continue the search for Fuchs outside where they eventually find his burned body. Windows goes back to tell the others, and MacReady takes Nauls to check out his shack, where the lights have mysteriously come on. On the way back, Nauls cuts MacReady loose from the tow line, assuming he has been assimilated when he finds a torn shirt with MacReady’s name on it. As the team debates MacReady’s fate, he breaks in and threatens to destroy the station with a bundle of dynamite if they attack him, causing Norris an apparent heart attack.

When Copper attempts to revive Norris by defibrillation, his chest gapes open and closes like a giant mouth full of teeth, biting off Copper’s arms and killing him. MacReady incinerates the creature and orders Windows to tie up everyone for a new test, killing Clark when he tries to resist. MacReady explains his theory that every piece of the alien is an individual organism with its own survival instinct that will react defensively when threatened. One by one he tests everyone’s blood with a heated piece of copper wire. They are all still human except Palmer, who begins to metamorphose and attacks Windows, forcing MacReady to burn them both.

Leaving Childs on guard, the others head out to test Blair, only to find that he has tunneled under the tool shed. They realize that Blair is now the Thing and has been scavenging the equipment he appeared to destroy in order to build a small escape craft. MacReady speculates that the Thing now intends to freeze itself until a rescue team arrives in the spring. They decide to dynamite the complex hoping to destroy the Thing, but Garry is killed while Nauls disappears. Blair transforms into a much larger monster and attacks, destroying the detonator, but MacReady triggers the blast with a stick of dynamite and the base explodes.

Stumbling through the burning ruins, MacReady finds Childs, who claims he got lost in the storm while pursuing Blair. Exhausted and with virtually no hope of survival, they acknowledge the futility of their distrust, sharing a bottle of scotch as the camp burns.

Considering the all-male cast (the only female voice is the chess computer, played by Carpenter’s wife), this works well in the claustrophobic Antarctic setting.  Lead is the hirsute action hero Kurt Russell, a regular member of the Carpenter repertory company.  He is backed up by some fine character actors such as Wilford Brimley, Donald Moffat and Richard Dysart.  Good to see some real acting talent used in what was by Carpenter’s standards a big budget movie ($15m compared to $325k for Halloween and $60k for Dark Star!)

Perhaps the ultimate credit to Carpenter is that the cult following gained by the movie warranted a sequel in 2002, and later a 2011 prequel, focusing on events in the Norwegian station which are discovered by the crew in the 1982 version.  But then it doesn’t need all that hype or milking.  The Carpenter version stands a second viewing, and that is all you really need to know.

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