The Thing (1982)

the thing

“Trust is a tough thing to come by these days.”

The Scoop: 1982 R, directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, and T.K. Carter

Tagline: Man is The Warmest Place to Hide.

Summary Capsule: Portly men fend off an alien invasion in the deeeeeeeeep south


Justin’s rating: 10 out of 12 FL OZ (or 332 out of 355 mL)

Justin’s review: My dog Caesar (a snorting pug) is a constant hotbed of inactivity. Any given moment he’s either sleeping or looking at me with the look of desperate hope that I’ll turn into a large food source. I love him and trust him… for now. But after seeing The Thing, I’ll keep one eye on Caesar to make sure he doesn’t start acting suspiciously, such as moving from one spot to another.

The Thing opens with a cute husky dog being chased and shot at by a Norwegian helicopter in Antarctica. The husky isn’t to be trusted, as it manages to elude sniper fire and grenades to secure a place in an American camp. You’ll never see a shiftier dog, sulking around like a brooding high school junior. It might even be up to giving Cujo a run for its money. The Norwegians blow themselves up and the Americans are left with a stumper of a puzzler of a mystery.

Too late, these isolated scientists discover the deadly secret that the Norwegians were trying to stop: an alien species that takes over and mimics perfectly a host organism. It’s a lot of what you’ve seen in other movies — part Alien, part Invasion of the Body Snatchers — but The Thing has fun bringing a splatterpunk haunted house experience to an interesting locale.

The bad guy(s) of The Thing are identified early. These aliens digest and replicate their victims, hiding until discovered. Then, with an abundance of gory special effects, they transform into twisted versions of themselves, complete with claws, spider-like limbs, teeth and lots of flailing tentacles. After Halloween, director John Carpenter apparently decided to pull out the stops and flood theaters with plenty of blood and flying limbs.

The blood is practically Evil Deadlike in quantity (although in some places it looks kinda thick like fingerpaint). The effect will either have you snorting in contempt for our modern computer-generated intestines, or being reluctant to turn the lights off that night before going to sleep. I found everything delightfully creepy enough to say with pride that these sort of grisly horror cinema still holds up well today. People’s (and dog’s) heads splitting open to reveal nasty grossness are one of those things that is always somewhat unnerving.

The crux of The Thing is the blanket of paranoia that descends upon the American camp. Unable to call out for help or go for safety, these big hulking men (not an ovary to be seen in this movie) suspect each other at the same time as they are forced to rely on each other for help. The catch-22 of the horror world.

Our bearded hero, Kurt Russell, is certainly the only one the audience can trust (or can we?), and he straps on a flamethrower in an effort to wrest control of a drowning situation. Will they be able to root out and eliminate the alien threat before the whole camp is overrun? Is it okay for manly men with facial hair to scream like ninnies when their best friend’s head becomes a Spider Monster? You’re just not really rooting for any character, because they all look suspicious from the start (this is before various heads are possessed by tentacles) and no one really has those great quippy Aliens-style one-liners.

After all the flame throwing action that The Thing provides, it’s only natural to want to do barbecue afterward. Don’t forget to give your dog the scraps!

Kyle’s rating: One girl could have saved everyone!

Kyle’s review: The Thing, one of the most visually astounding films you can ever hope to see, suffers from an overload of testosterone. There isn’t a chick to be found, unless one of those Alaskan huskies is female. To some guys, a nice secluded outpost in Antarctica where it’s just guys, cards, and lots of booze sounds like the ideal vacation. But see, once the Thing (some sort of strange alien that impersonates and mutates human shapes in gooey, gory fashion) infiltrates the camp none of these macho men are able to tell who is who, without painful blood tests. But one chick would be able to tell in an instant who was a full-blooded male and who was the Thing. How do I know? Because I occasionally watch Sex in the City, and this theory seems sound. But who cares?

Although The Thing does suffer from a distinct lack of females, which is okay because any girls hanging with this crew of ruffians would probably look just like them: clad in shapeless flannel and sporting a beard. I’m sexually confused enough without having to deal with that, so it’s for the best. Horribly gory and impressively unique special effects more than make up for the lack of any love story anyway. John Carpenter (firmly in his stride) knew the dangers of the emotional roller coaster we’d be on if we were rooting for a couple to survive one second, and vomiting up lunch the next as we watch a big Thing worm stalk with a human face burst out of someone’s stomach. I like the head that tears itself free of a burning body, then drips down to the floor and sprouts spider legs, myself. What if you were in a morgue and saw that really happen? That’d be so sweet!

So, yeah. Alien creature found in the ice wreaks havoc by impersonating humans, and starts pouring blood out of every orifice when its decoys are discovered. The story is secondary to the incredible Thing effects, and you should only have yogurt in your stomach if you’re seeing this for the first time. Wow! The worst part is, a lot of the Thing mutations that are seen, especially in the dog scene, look a lot like the food my college serves in the cafeteria. I think I better cancel my meal plan! Blargh!

Shalen’s rating: Six out of ten mysteriously generated sets of abdominal dentition.

Shalen’s review: I’m going to hazard a guess, based on my reading of the previous reviews of this film, that it holds a fairly significant spot in the history of the horror genre, or at least in the goopy exposed hearts of horror fans. So I confess I went into it with some fairly high expectations. Perhaps this is why I was a little disappointed in the film.

In brief, The Thing is about an alien body-snatcher which can appear human, but which, when threatened, transforms into a hideously expensive special effect. It got off to a tremendously promising start. The use of the square frame of the screen to make us wonder what we’re not seeing (not dissimilar to that in The Others, an otherwise very dissimilar film) is truly lovely. The canine actor which portrays the first “host” manages to convey an air of eerie patience that adds tremendously to the building atmosphere. And the occasional gentle fade to black is also very useful in terms of getting the feel of the film just right. The acting isn’t fantastic, but it’s certainly not bad, nowhere near what we’ve seen in some recent entries in the genre.

Much has been said about the gore effects, and they do hold up very well. I’d have to say there’s really nothing here to alarm or disgust anyone who regularly watches this sort of film. If you sat through the new Dawn of the Dead, you’ll get through this one just fine. Unfortunately, the reason for that is what is wrong with the film. The trouble is that once we start to actually see the “thing,” it quickly subsumes every other element. There is little more suspense, no character development, and hardly any subtlety from that point on. We don’t know these men, or where they came from, or what they want out of life. We’re left only with mild curiosity over who is going to make it and who is going to have their arms bitten off by a giant mouth that suddenly appears in the middle of someone’s abdomen*. As Kyle pointed out**, we’re basically then left with a slasher film with less attractive characters.

At this point I’d like to take time out and complain about one or two things that bothered me more personally. First of all, Freddy Krueger is a character of Shakespearean complexity compared to the Thing. Why did it land on Earth? Does it think of humans as subsentient, or does it just want to survive and doesn’t care how? If escape was its real priority, and it’s capable of understanding English and Norwegian – which it must be on some level, or its imitations would fail – why doesn’t it just stay a dog until spring? For that matter, there’s no logical reason for the first scene in which the creature is revealed. Why should it want to imitate the other dogs when it already looks exactly like one? Its entire motivations are murky and its apparent reasoning is meaningless. One could argue that this is because it’s an alien, but then one would have to ask oneself how it could ever manage to pass for human (and there is never any apparent flaw in its imitations once they are complete). The Faculty gave us a few moments of exposition indicating that its body snatchers were parasites borrowing the host’s abilities and personality, that they came from a water planet and were thus slimy, and so on. Nothing like that happens here. There’s not even the implication of origin as in the Predator movies.

Second, the creatures from the Aliens franchise belong in National Geographic when measured against this level of biological realism. What was the original creature? Why does it try to revert back to some kind of toothy tentacled thing when threatened, and how the heck is it maintaining that kind of energy expenditure when we never really see it eat? Except when people put their hands right on it, none of its forms are very efficient for attack or defense. Tentacles are darn hard to walk on***. Why doesn’t it just remain humanoid-looking except for one startling thing – like, say, the belly-mouth – and grab the nearest flame thrower and shoot everyone instead of waving its tentacles and going “Blaargh wargh argh?” Oh, silly me. That must be alien for “boo.”

Finally, since this is the “gender stereotype wars” week entry, I’ll make a note on the use of gender in this film: there isn’t any. All the characters are male. I suppose it’s technically possible that the alien could be female, which would make it an intergalactic transvestite, but that’s beside the point. Speaking as a woman, a critic, and a horror fan, it made more sense to me for all the researchers to be male than for one obvious love interest or female protagonist to be inserted. This being the eighties, there probably would not have been women present on an Antarctic research base just yet. (It’s quite common now.) Besides, there’s nowhere for people to sneak off and make out and get killed, since we’re in Antarctica****. They’ve made the base more spacious than it would actually be as it is.

I’d call this a film worth seeing, for those interested in the genre and in Mr. Carpenter’s work. It’s not for the weak of stomach, but it’s certainly an amusing way to kill and horribly disembowel a couple of hours. Be sure and have a dry snack. I recommend popcorn.

*Making the only time in a film I’ve ever seen someone actually bleed to death from a severed limb. Not that you really see enough blood for that to happen. There’s less arterial spray and more alien goop in this film than you’d expect.
**More or less.
***Especially your own. Trust me on this.
****Though the filmmakers do seem to forget this. You do NOT walk outside in winter in Antarctica while still zipping up your ONE layer of protection. If you do, you will at best lose body parts to frostbite and at worst you will become a researcher popsicle. We also see people outside without their polarized goggles, but no one goes blind.

It’s Harry from accounting! Hi, Harry!

Intermission!

  • Some really bad computer graphics (for both chess and the cell-takeover demonstration)
  • The chess moves spoken by the computer don’t match the the ones on the screen; also screens are shown from different games.
  • The Norwegians in the beginning of the movie don’t speak Norwegian.
  • You might recognize Wilford Brimley as the Quaker Oatmeal guy (without his trademark mustache)
  • There are 52 gunshots fired in this film
  • The OogieBoogieMan submits: At the beginning of the film, the Thing attacks the dogs in the pen by shooting some sort of corrosive fluid at them. This attack mechanism, oddly enough, is never used against the humans.
    In the theatrical version the cook is listening to Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious”. Because Universal did not secure rights for the home video release, the song was replaced. However, for the recent special edition release on LD & DVD, Universal was able to use “Superstitious” because they relicensed the song.
  • The Thing is a remake of 1951’s The Thing From Another World, directed by Christian Nyby. This movie was in turn loosely based on John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Who Goes There? This version followed the same plot of an alien being dug up from the Arctic ice and defrosted, wreaking havoc at a small isolated station. Originally filmed in black and white, there was a colorized version released. It’s one of those movies that geek snobs like to refer to as “better than the remake”, but who are we kidding? Nobody’s head explodes in this one!
  • A sort-of “sequel” can be found in the 2002 video game version (PC, PS2, XBox) called, simply, The Thing.
  • Stewart was chosen as a great filming location as it is the snowfall capital of North America. The camp was built in July 1981 and filming commenced in December. The temperature ranged between 0 F and -15 F during shooting and it cost $75 000 alone to wardrobe the cast and crew with winter gear.

Groovy Quotes

Clark: I dunno what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off whatever it is.

Childs: How will we make it?
MacReady: Maybe we shouldn’t.

MacReady: Why don’t we just wait here for a while… see what happens.

MacReady: I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.

MacReady: Trust is a tough thing to come by these days.

Norwegian: [translated] “Get the hell away from it! It’s not a dog, it’s some kind of thing! It’s imitating a dog, it’s not real! Get away from it, you idiot!”

Mac: That was one of those Things out there, trying to imitate him Garry.
Garry: MacReady, I’ve known Bennings, I’ve known him for ten years. He’s my friend.
Mac: We’ve gotta burn the rest of them.

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6 comments

  1. Trust me, a woman wouldn’t have been better. Women + Body Horror on that level tends to get nasty fast: the anime Wicked City has a good example, and chances are Carpenter would have predated its infamous “Transform into a spider-influenced horror while having sex” scene.

    Good film for all it’s weaknesses though.

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