By Matthew Nygren
CALGARY – If you were to ask any film aficionado to list some of the best remakes ever made, I’m willing to bet that John Carpenter’s 1982 science fiction horror classic, The Thing, would soon be mentioned. The original 1951 movie, The Thing from Another World, is not without its own merits, but Carpenter expanded on the premise to such a degree that he created a uniquely riveting experience that has come to be regarded as the one of the finest of its genre.
The film opens as all good mysteries should, with a question. The question here is presented as a curious dog that enters the lives of a dozen men stationed at an Antarctic research outpost. The dog came from a nearby camp that was destroyed by terrible violence, but the men don’t sense anything wrong with the animal and so they allow it into their outpost, and it settles itself into the background of their daily activities.
Living beyond the fringe of civilization, the men here have all become frustrated, fatigued and stressed, trapped together in claustrophobic rooms that offer little comfort from the harsh and bleak environment that surrounds them. The horror begins when the dog is revealed to be an agent of something almost too bizarre for the men to comprehend; a deadly alien lifeform that assimilates and replicates its victims, able to copy them with perfect mimicry. Suspicion and distrust quickly arises, as the group of men realize that not everyone may truly be as human as they appear.
The main protagonist is MacReady (Kurt Russell) a no-nonsense helicopter pilot who tries to rally his colleagues to remain sensible as they struggle to comprehend what they are up against. The supporting cast consists of talented and recognizable character actors, most notable are Keith David, Richard Masur, and a surprisingly intense Wilford Brimley.
What might come as a surprise to anyone unfamiliar with the film is how the events unfold once the alien presence is revealed. Unlike the standard method of movie monsters, the Thing rarely operates by simply attacking the characters. Since it can literally hide among them in plain sight, it relies on panic and paranoia to intensify the primal tensions of the men. And instead of the threat compelling the group to cooperate against their common enemy, it tears apart their trust and rationality as they try to expose those who can no longer be trusted.
All of this emotional pressure allows John Carpenter to perfectly build a steady rhythm of tension, making the human drama the main focus instead of mindless action. There is gruesome body horror and frenzied violence, as to be expected of the genre, but great care also went into establishing an atmosphere of dread, which is emphasized by a chilling musical score from Ennio Morricone.
The most visible attribute of the film is the outstanding special effects used to create the Thing when we see its natural form. Conceived entirely with practical methods, the effects are a technical marvel of prosthetics and animatronics which breathe vivid life into the delightfully horrific creature with gnashing teeth and slimy tentacles.
The effects are only a part of the movie’s legacy because every aspect of The Thing has stood the test of time, and it remains a benchmark for other movies of the genre to be tested against.
While the men in the film may struggle with the issue of having their identities overtaken by an alien, The Thing is secure with its identity as an essential horror film.
John Carpenter’s The Thing plays at The Globe Cinema in Calgary, December 29th.John Carpenter, The Globe Cinema, The Thing