Director John Carpenter’s 1982 horror film The Thing is an unquestionable masterpiece of the genre, not just because of its superior execution, but because of its deeply resonant themes of paranoia and fear in the modern world.
Written by Bill Lancaster and based on the 1938 science fiction novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr., this tense, terrifying piece of sci-fi horror was originally lambasted by many critics at the time of its release as being little more than gross-out schlock. Beyond its critical putdowns, The Thing was a box office failure, being just one of the many sci-fi films of 1982 to be washed away in the tide of E.T.’s massive success at the theater. But in the more than three decades since, The Thing has been reappraised in both the horror community and the mainstream.
That’s not just because of Carpenter’s stellar direction (this is easily the director at the height of his game), or the awesomely gruesome special effects done by Rob Bottin (with an assist on the dog creature by Stan Winston). It’s because The Thing crafts an inescapable sense of paranoia in its audience to match the same feeling in its protagonists, ratcheting up the tension to a nearly unbearable degree, which is bolstered by the horrifying nature of the alien menace at the center of the story. Combined with its desolate Antarctic setting, The Thing is at once both jarringly horrifying and utterly engrossing.
Set in a remote U.S. outpost in the Antartic, The Thing sees a group of researchers infiltrated by an alien lifeform that assimilates and imitates other species. The parasitic organism can look like any living creature it consumes and only reveals itself when there is no other choice, bursting into terrifying displays of body horror at its finest. As the men begin to realize the incredible amount of danger that they, and the world at large, are in, distrust and discord are sown amongst them while escalating encounters with the unspeakable horror at hand slowly pick them off one by one.
Caught in the Grips of Alien Fear
What makes the narrative of The Thing work so incredibly well is that it is constantly challenging the audience, forcing them to engage with the clues given and second guessing the true identity of each person. Like the protagonists of the film, the audience is forced to constantly unravel the hints of who could be the alien at any given moment, as Carpenter wisely keeps the audience in the dark, much like its hero R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell). Yet even then, Carpenter plants enough seeds for audiences to sometimes question the integrity of their own hero. As more and more victims are overcome by the parasitic lifeform, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of who may or may not be assimilated.
And just when you’ve pinned down who and who isn’t The Thing, the film wriggles out from under you, surprising you with reveals that never break the rules or what was shown before while still upending expectations. At the same time, the biology and behavior of the mysterious alien is never completely understood, as what the audience gleans never really exceeds what the characters themselves know. Discoveries like the alien’s sensitivity to heat, how its parts act independently of the whole, and its general motivations are only minor glimpses of the creature that lead to more questions. Questions like, do you know you are a Thing when one takes you over? Or how much contact do you need in order to be infected? The ungraspable nature of the creature makes it all the more terrifying for the heroes and audience alike.
The fact that The Thing hit theaters at the heights of The Cold War and on the cusp of the AIDS crisis doesn’t seem like mere coincidence. This was a time when fear of the other was at a fever pitch in the United States, with looming threats of both foreign hostilities and unexplained sexually transmitted disease made people feel unsafe on all sides. These fears that come from within and without make up the inescapable terror of the alien parasite at the center of The Thing. Carpenter keeps them front and center throughout the film, embodied in The Thing, the distrust of each character, the initially unexplained actions of the Norwegian team at the film’s beginning, and the film’s refusal to provide solid answers at its end.
As MacReady, Russell puts in one of the great performances of his career. While his character is a pilot and not the designated leader of the group, his wits and tenacity quickly turn him into one of the few characters mentally and physically prepared to meet the alien onslaught head-on. But he’s not perfect, making human mistakes and acting suspicious enough to keep others from completely trusting him. However, his charisma and plan of action help keep The Thing feeling exciting and compelling, even amidst the nihilistic chaos. While some like Blair (Wilford Brimley) descend into complete nihilism from understanding the true danger of the situation and others like Windows (Thomas Waites) become weaker from the overwhelming nature of the threat, MacReady acts heroically while still remaining fallible. Yet even MacReady is affected by the overwhelming paranoia caused by the situation.
Terror From Within, Terror From Without
The idea that seemingly normal flesh and bone could hide such a ghoulish, unknowable creature is what makes the body horror found here in Carpenter’s seminal work so nightmarish. Normal men overtaken by The Thing explode into whirling tornadoes of flesh and tentacles, splitting apart and violating all known rules of how the human body should work. The fact that anyone around you could morph into an inescapable fever dream of death, one that gets inside you and expels you from your own body, leads to immediate and understandable distrust of all others. Perhaps that is why the monster at the film’s climax doesn’t quite work as well as the rest of the film, as it is The Thing unleashed in full, primordial beastly fury. The image of man is completely gone in favor of something massive and abominably huge, thereby turning it into something far less existentially horrifying. But it’s only on screen for a few minutes, with the final conversation between MacReady and Childs diving deep into the film’s final statements of paranoia and sacrifice, which ends the film on a haunting note that is hard to shake.
While it’s true that there is a nihilistic streak to Carpenter’s film, there’s still hope to be found in the way its characters fight against unyielding horror. Likewise, The Thing can simultaneously drip with dread and also be filled with great thrills. Moments like the fear-drenched blood test scene both terrify and exhilarate, with a great punchline at the scene’s end for good measure. That balance keeps The Thing working on multiple levels at once for viewers who are looking to be entertained, challenged, or both.
The best offerings in the horror genre force the audience to confront fear, indulge in it, and conquer it, even if they are not completely aware of the process at the time. From primordial terrors to modern anxieties, Carpenter’s The Thing taps into these various levels of horror, making it both a timeless story that can have many meanings applied to it while also being the byproduct of a very modern form of horror. The result is one of the genre’s most potent and endlessly rewatchable cornerstone films.