Who Do You Trust?
The Thing (1982)
In the world of horror and sci-fi movies, there are few names as beloved by fans as John Carpenter. The writer/director/producer/musician is associated with a number of famous (and famously great) films, including Halloween, Escape from New York, and The Thing. Although not all of his movies have been financial successes (The Thing for instance, only made $19 Mil against a $15 Mil budget), many of his works have gone on to become cult-classic darlings.
Such is the case of The Thing, a deeply disturbing sci-fi/horror hybrid that piles on the creature effects, gore, and bleak intensity, never letting up throughout its runtime. There's no wonder why the film became a classic, although, really, there are reasons it wasn't a huge success, too.
The film opens at an Antarctic research station. Very efficiently we're introduced to the base, Kurt Russell's enjoyably gruff and sarcastic lead character MacReady, and then the rest of the crew a they deal with an out-of-control shooter riding in on a Norwegian helicopter. The copter is going after a dog, shooting wildly at it for reasons that, as of it, are unclear. It's a very effective opening as it quickly establishes team dynamics, that our bunch of guys are the heroic sort (they're trying to save a dog, a clear shorthand in Hollywood films), and that there's something weird going on in the land of snow and ice.
Soon after, Mac and a team of guys fly over to the Norwegian base only to find it blown out from a fire, with anyone still inside either horribly mangled or having killed themselves before whatever could happen happened. Watching some tapes left at the base, the guys find out that the Norwegians had discovered a old spacecraft under the ice, one that had been there for thousands of years. And then something caused all the Norwegians to turn.
Later, all hell breaks loose at the American research base when the dog the guys saved splits apart into a hell-beast, all gnashing teeth, whirling tentacles, and weird growths. Soon the guys realize that whatever alien the Norwegians dug up must still have been alive somehow. Not only that, but it has the ability to copy living organisms, making duplicates of them for the beast to hide in. Even just a single cell of the alien can infect and spread. With an organism like that in the base, any one of the team could be "The Thing". Who can they trust? Who's been turned?
The brilliance of The Thing is really two-fold. The movie quickly gets to the good stuff, showing us the screwed up monsters the alien can make itself into when attacked. These creature effects are quite effective (and very gross), all done with practical effects as CGI wasn't really a thing back in 1982. The effects work so well because they're practical, having a tactile feel to them that the actors can easily react to (and be grossed out by).
With the monster(s) revealed, and the danger clearly illustrated, the film can get down to the business of building its mounting dread, making you doubt who's a good guy and who's an alien. While the creature effects are effective, the constant, oppressive dread is the real horror of the movie. It gets to the point where we, the viewers, never know who's a good guy or not, but since certain people are acting like the heroes, we try to bond with them. Nothing ever really works out well, and the movie starts bleak and ends even more so. It's a dark movie, but satisfyingly so.
Of course, a movie this dark would have a hard time in theaters. While it's a great horror film, it's not exactly crowd-pleasing. There's no "final girl" who saves the day, no easy out for the heroes to have a happy ending. Hell, there's no happy ending, really, just more bleak reality of just how bad the situation is for the heroes. Horror fans eat this kind of thing up, but your average audience member in a theater probably would have been turned off by the oppressive terror of the Story, and would have out-right hated the ending.
But then it's so rare to find a film that really commits to its own concept and doesn't waver from tell its story, no matter how bleak it might get. The Thing is a creature feature with, in the end, the darkest of settings, and the film works because it doesn't once sell it out for a Hollywood ending. Maybe audiences didn't like it at the time, but that commitment is what makes The Thing an absolute classic.