I can’t remember the first time that I saw it, but 1982 was a strange year for me, and I suspect it was sometime later that I finally got to see John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Having already seen Dark Star, Halloween, The Fog, and Escape from New York, I was pretty sure I knew what to expect – a cool and ominous soundtrack, suspense, a few jump scares, Kurt Russell, science fiction – and having survived everything that Carpenter had thrown at me thus far, I reckoned I could deal; however, there were a few things I hadn’t considered which together, and for me, cranked this film into what is now considered a terrifying, body-horror classic.
First of all, the setting. I confess to having a thing about the Earth’s poles, and if Antarctica was a god, he’d be a particularly cruel one. Beautiful and chock full of cute penguins, sure, but it’s also where Robert Falcon Scott and his men died returning from their disastrous expedition to the South Pole, while Roald Amundsen’s team, who beat Scott to the punch, had to eat their dogs in order to get out of there alive. As for the exploratory ships, the Terror and the Erebus, who impudently donated their names to two of Antarctica’s volcanoes, they were later trapped and sunk by the continent’s cold, conniving cousin at the opposite pole while their crews slowly starved to death. One doesn’t mess with Antarctica (or his conniving cousin), especially in winter.
Still, after a benign spaceship-crashing-on-Earth preamble, it all looks crisp and beautiful at the beginning of The Thing as we see a Norwegian helicopter chasing a dog toward the men of U.S. Outpost 31 - MacCready, Dr. Blair, Nauls, Palmer, Childs, Dr. Copper, Norris, Clark, Bennings, Garry, Windows, and Fuchs - to the tune of a haunting Ennio Morricone soundtrack overlaid with Carpenter’s signature beat. So far, so good.
Until, “Maybe we’re at war with Norway?” Nauls asks as things start to go horribly awry. And yet, the mood is still reasonably light as Dr. Copper and MacCready investigate the Norwegian base. “Hey, Sweden!” MacReady shouts as they burst into a burned-out station, where they encounter a dead man and a particularly revolting object outside on the ice.
“What is that, a man… or something?”
One look at the barbequed, but still glistening, tangle of body parts, and you and I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole, let alone take it back to the outpost. Alas, this being a horror film, back to the outpost it goes.
There’s an autopsy of the "tangle." It’s revolting but it’s inert, or so we’re led to believe. Wait a minute, though, because our attention is now on the rescued dog – a creepy looking husky that’s residing in the kennel, and after an awful rip-your-teddy-bear’s-head-off sound, the dog’s muzzle flies apart, Twizzlers explode from its torso, and we’re off to the races.
“I don’t know what’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off!”
At this point, we need to talk about Rob Bottin’s team’s special effects which are both horrifying and spectacular. A quick look at the shopping list of ingredients used – creamed corn, jello, fiberglass, latex foam, gelatin, strawberry jam – and it might elicit a giggle, but they’re put to good use and the results are visceral and, more to the point, entirely believable. A head extending its eyes on stalks and sprouting legs, endless Twizzlers and tentacles, chests sporting giant teeth, distorted limbs and faces, occasionally human but with one hell of a twist.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding,” Palmer announces as the aforementioned head makes a dash for freedom.
At this point, the men of Outpost 31 are now stuck firmly in a web of terror and mistrust, facing a flame-throwing, bullet-to-the-head fight for survival. We’ve already followed them to the spaceship crash site, and they’re now learning what they’re up against – a dead thing that isn’t dead yet, a creature that rips you apart, absorbs and imitates, and on discovering victims with opposable thumbs, it’s now gathering parts and building another ship.
Dr. Blair’s solution is to take an axe to everything, having surmised that whatever this thing is, it mustn’t be allowed to escape and no one can go home. Meanwhile, the men are picked off in horribly inventive ways before morphing into identical copies of themselves. The repulsiveness of their transformation is hard to bear, and after a blood test to determine his humanity, Garry’s somewhat terse delivery is entirely understandable when he screams, “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!”
Escape seems mandatory, but there’s nowhere to go. A stand-off arrives during the film’s final moments, between Childs and MacCready, and although we’ve been following MacCready and think he might be okay, we’re still not sure, and ultimately is it worth the risk? Maybe it’s better if everyone dies. It’s a desperate ending, and MacCready’s face says it all.