Posted March 28, 2011 by editor in Retrospectives

John Carpenter’s The Thing

The fact that a poster of a unidentified human being with ominous light shining from a faceless parka can produce such uncontrollable shivers and goosebumps is a testament to John Carpenter’s The Thing. If there’s only one film that can still provide equal quantities of paranoia, foreboding, elation, chills and a genuine feeling of vomit-inducing terror, then it can only be this one.

This seminal body-horror classic still resonates deeply for many a horror fan even after countless viewings. It’s a film which truly gets better with age and – even though it has its fair share of faults – quickly becomes something which stays forever lodged within the subconscious.

In the late 70s and early 80s Carpenter would forever frighten a generation of young cinema audiences with his inventive filmmaking and attention grabbing scripts. The Thing, released in the summer of 82, is a long way from the usual Hollywood crowd pleaser. With its frozen Antarctic location and overwhelming sense of dread, this is very much to do with fear of the unknown and terror from within, both metaphorically and psychologically.

The Thing is based on John W. Campbell’s 1938 short story ‘Who goes there?’ (which had previously been made into a 1951 sci-fi horror entitled The Thing from Another World). It’s very much a product of its time, with its visually iconic poster (from legendary film artist Drew Struzan) through to the visceral latex make-up effects which have become a much loved trademark of 80s horror. It contains all of the elements to cement itself within horror film history including an intense sense of paranoia, genuine heart-pounding lump-in-the-throat terror as well as an ambiguous ending – one which has long since been debated among fans, both old and new alike.

The use of advanced make-up effects and animatronics coupled with nail biting suspense make it unparalleled and revered within its genre. Containing outstanding effects from effects wizard Rob Bottin, the physicality of the thing’s various forms are stomach churning and without doubt nauseatingly visceral in their realisation. Barring one or two moments where the effects detract somewhat – the head split and death of Windows are the main culprits – they have far from dated. There is almost an element of magician’s trickery during the standout effects moments; the need to know is outweighed by amazement at the grandiose spectacle you’ve just witnessed.

Atmospherically The Thing is utterly chilling both in terms of the claustrophobic locations and in its paranoia-drenched sense of cabin fever. Coupled with the slow burning feelings of fear and hostility that the men gradually face up to, it manages to imprint itself further on to the viewer’s psyche.

It’s rare that a film such as this can contain so many worthwhile elements, all of which stick in the mind and are expertly overseen by master craftsman Carpenter.

One of the main reasons this film succeeds even now is the rapport the motley band of researchers have. Their performances feel natural and you buy that these guys have been living together for a long time. They aren’t action heroes or muscular supermen, just average-Joes. All of which draws you further into their plight, getting you emotionally involved with their survival.

The minimalistic score by an almost unrecognisable Ennio Morricone, is uncompromising, downbeat and unchanging. It’s the only thing to remain constant during the evolution of the characters and their plight, with the same droning synthesised sound seemingly ever present, much like the thing itself. It’s clear the score represents both the location and the antagonist in its unrelenting nature and the feelings of fear and paranoia it invokes.

Standout moments (although there are so many it’s hard to know where to start) include the first monster, which, contrary to popular belief was made by Stan Winston, not Rob Bottin; it’s both creepy and skin crawling. There’s the now legendary set of jaws which appear in a man’s chest and rip the doctor’s arms off as he administers a defibrillator (which gives a whole new meaning to heart-stopping terror). This is then quickly followed by a cavalcade of moments centred round unrelenting, visual weirdness.

Amidst the grotesque and graphic bodily metamorphosis, there’s an underlying current of darkly comic humour which injects an extra layer of depth to this band of dysfunctional survivors. The moment where they see the walking ‘Spider-head’ (accompanied by the great line “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding”), you know that Carpenter is having immense fun by playing with audience expectations. There’s also the moment where Garry (Donald Moffat) has an impromptu outburst after the blood test sequence; it’s perfectly timed and performed without any camp or clichés. The inclusion of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition – heard from a small kitchen radio – after the runaway husky intruder has entered the group’s compound, is a knowing and pitch black comic wink to the more attuned viewer.

If a film can have this type of resonance with audiences and critics – its influence can be felt in the films of Neil Marshall for instance – surely this means this is a master-class in how to evoke a genuine sense of terror. As it stands, this is a taut, gruesome and at times, darkly comic tale of survival and fear. And one which continues to get better after each and every viewing. The Thing can certainly be considered John Carpenter’s magnum opus.

Dominic O’Brien