John Carpenter’s impossibly bleak horror movie The Thing has the rare distinction of being both a remake – of the Howard Hawks produced The Thing From Another World (1951) – and having been remade itself as the unnecessary reboot/prequel The Thing (2011). Among the few movies that this is true of, it has the even rarer distinction of being the best version of the three.
After a brief prelude, the movie opens on the icy barrenness of Antartica as a Norwegian expedition crew is seen taking potshots at a husky from a helicopter. There is no dialogue or exposition to give us a clue as to why this is happening. Are they shooting the dog out of some sense of sadistic fun or madness? Or is there something more sinister afoot? Given that this movie is from the mind of John Carpenter and that this is a remake of the 1951 sci-fi horror movie we can easily surmise that it is probably the latter case but at this point in the movie itself nothing has been given away in terms of the plot.
Eventually the husky is rescued by the American expedition and the dog is taken into their camp, which is currently cut off from the outside world. The Americans send their helicopter pilot R. J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) and one of the doctors to the Norwegian camp to investigate what happened with their wayward pilots. They find the Norwegian camp basically destroyed with bodies aplenty and the hint of something diabolical having happened. They also discover the destroyed body of a strange creature with assimilated human organs and come to realize that they may have inadvertently invited the same terror on their own camp. And then the fun begins.
But even then the fun begins slowly. Carpenter takes a long and measured approach to the eventual horror in this movie. Before any outer threat takes place, he establishes that life as it currently is for these marooned Americans is not exactly pleasant either. The crew is bored out of their skulls, watching VHS tapes of game shows that they’ve already seen, wiling the dark hours with routine games of pool and cards, trying to find some way to pass the time. The location of Antartica is genius because although it gives the illusion of being more hospitable than the vacuum of outer space, it is still as deadly, imposing, and isolating for the crew. The growing cabin fever gives the impression that the whole camp is already a boiler room of tension, with there needing to be nothing more than the slightest nudge to cause it to explode.
Unfortunately for all involved the alien monster that shows up to terrorize and destroy them is a bit more than a little nudge and predictably things go to hell from that point on. The moment of the monster’s appearance is also when we get to see what is undoubtedly the best part of the movie which is the fantastic and grotesque special effects by Rob Bottin. The monster takes many different forms throughout the movie due to its ability to shapeshift, but what is consistent is that it takes these forms in as horrific a way as possible.
What is most remarkable about this monster, which is one of the greatest film monsters ever made, is that though it moves somewhat mechanically due to the limitations of animatronics, it has the look and feel of something that could be horrifyingly real. The creature (or “Thing” if you like) has a visceral and realistic texture that makes it all the more grotesque. Surprisingly, though the eventual ubiquity of CGI use has phased out the use of practical effects such as these, nothing has come close to the awesome horror that is the monster in The Thing.
After the truly shocking emergence of the monster and first attack, the movie does a very wise thing and simply makes the monster disappear for the movie’s middle. Because of the shapeshifting nature of the monster, the crew immediately realize that any of them could in fact have been replaced by the monster. And as they are slowly picked off one by one offscreen by the monster they slowly but surely begin to tear into one another. Alliances are swiftly made and then broken just as swiftly. Kurt Russell as MacReady is superb as both the emergent leader of the group who struggles to keep them together but also the catalyst for division and strife. The movie quickly becomes not a horror movie about an imminent alien invasion but rather about the frailty of humanity and the depravity of living out of desperate fear as the humans’ lives dwindle in line with their ability to trust, wisely borrowing from the very playbook that made Alien an all-time great. It is this dynamic that makes The Thing a superior horror movie and more than just a mere creature feature.
There is however one small but significant mistake that Carpenter makes that keeps the movie from being perfect and unfortunately it happens right off the gate in an ill-advised prelude. For some inexplicable reason, his movie opens with a laughably bad shot of a completely stereotypical alien ship landing in Antartica eons before the events of the film. Beyond the cheesiness and datedness of the visuals, this opening prelude also has the damaging effect of completely and unnecessarily giving the game away right from the beginning that this movie involves aliens and that probably the dog in the very beginning is itself the alien in question. Without this prelude, the first third of the movie is easily viewed as a slow and steady descent into horror as a seemingly innocent rescue becomes the catalyst for death and destruction.
Still, lack of surprise or not, The Thing ranks among the all-time great sci-fi horror movies that has grown in acclaim in the decades since its release. Famously it was reviled by audiences and critics when it first came out, probably because its bleak and nihilistic spirit seemed unnecessarily cruel in the decadent decade of Reaganomics. But in our current political and social climate the story of a group of men increasingly distrusting each other to the point of mutual destruction because of some unknown and outside threat rings terrifyingly true today, making it perhaps the perfect horror movie for our increasingly nihilistic age.