The Thing — John Carpenter
Credit: Universal
by Selina Lee Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

The Thing — John Carpenter

June 27, 2022

Taking place entirely in the frigid confines of an Antarctic research lab, John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi horror masterpiece The Thing makes for exceptionally chilling post-pandemic viewing, given its storyline of a near-unstoppable and rapidly transmissible invisible parasite. Carpenter lays the groundwork by opening with an alien ship crash-landing on Earth, then cuts to the inexplicable sight of a man in a Norwegian military helicopter frantically shooting at a husky bounding through the snow. Before he can make his intentions known, he strays onto the American compound and is shot dead himself. As for the dog? Let’s just say animal lovers won’t be pleased with the phantasmagorical nightmare cooked up by special effects impresario Rob Bottin, who gave himself an ulcer at age 22 working on the film.  

For the Thing, an otherwise unnamed alien creature that has the ability to shapeshift and perfectly imitate its hosts’ biological form, the dozen-odd lab crew is all that stands between it and global assimilation. Rugged, hard-drinking helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell in all his bearded, long-haired glory, fresh off ‘81’s Escape from New York) rises to the occasion as the group’s de facto leader, but by then the infected dog is merely an amuse-bouche for the human buffet that awaits. And MacReady, with his trusty bottle of J&B scotch and sullen manner, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence: in an early scene, he summarily destroys the chess machine that beats him. 

One notable feature of the film is its complete lack of female characters: far from having a sexy (or even just sexily badass) female presence on screen, not a single crew member ever mentions a girlfriend or wife. Nor are they furnished with individual backstories, much less a discernible reason for being in Antarctica; they weren’t even aware of the Norwegian base. Since the film’s release, critics have commented unfavorably on this lack of characterization, but it does serve to highlight the groups’ extreme isolation: they seem to have no ties to the outside world at all. They’re simply dropped into the lab, their existence not so very different from the alien ship that crash-landed nearby a hundred thousand years ago. In fact, their seclusion is so complete that when Blair (Wilford Brimley), the authoritative but mild-mannered biologist, manically destroys their radio and helicopter to force the men into quarantine, this act of violence is less a shock than a grim confirmation. He is making painfully clear what everyone already knew but didn’t want to believe: there is nowhere for these men to go, yet also nowhere for them to hide. 

Cabin fever is unpleasant enough without a malevolent extraterrestrial presence stalking the hallways, and the suffocating paranoia that quickly sets in is terrifying in its own right. As MacReady wearily intones into his tape recorder, “Nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired.” But Carpenter walks the knife’s edge of narrative restraint and balls-to-the-wall gore with shivery glee, making for a truly unique viewing experience that’s seriously scary, maybe a tad silly, but never campy, as with his 1980 feature The Fog. What’s held back from audiences — whose room the infected dog enters, for example — is all the more haunting given what we’re then shown: the grisly aftermath of even momentary contact with the Thing.  

To achieve the film’s mid-assimilation monsters, a 35-person visual effects team employed all manner of substances — not limited to chewing gum, mayonnaise, Jell-O, and lube — as well as a double-amputee stunt double for one particularly memorable scene. The result is so visually repulsive, anatomically anarchic, and flat-out weird that it’s both body and bawdy horror, with audiences forced to stomach both a disembodied head that sprouts spider legs and a torso that munches on arms like french fries. Given the horror genre’s recent mania for grandiose torture porn, as embodied by the Saw and Hostel franchises (and even Midsommar’s Instagram-worthy blood eagle), it’s almost a relief to behold such a freakishly exuberant, near-slapstick take on human organs and entrails.

Lest the special effects distract from the film’s core themes, with its shades of nuclear-era witch hunts and mutual assured destruction, its ending should leave audiences as helpless as MacReady and the lab’s mechanic, Childs (Keith David). With the compound smoldering behind them and no confirmation that the Thing has been eradicated, the one-time foes can do nothing but share a bottle of scotch and wait for certain death. What will kill them first, the Thing or the cold? What difference does it make? 

After the heart-in-mouth tension of the preceding hour and a half, Carpenter’s subdued finale upends expectations by trading family-friendly resolution for bitter resignation. This unflinching nihilism worked perfectly for the story but sat terribly with squeamish critics and audiences, who derided the now-classic as overly disgusting and intellectually lacking (this isn’t surprising, given that the year’s big box office winner was another alien — a cuddly goober known as E.T.)  Perhaps the Thing’s gloomy portrayal of human weakness tapped into something we simply weren’t ready to acknowledge, much less interrogate. To quote the film’s original (sadly unused) tagline, “Man is the warmest place to hide.” This holds all the more true in the coldest place on Earth.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.