Written by author, James Willetts
Between 1980 and 1982 John Carpenter made three films which have stood apart as his greatest. ‘The Fog’, ‘Escape From New York’, and ‘The Thing’ are a perfect run of films, perhaps equalled only by the infamous McTiernan run of ‘Predator’, ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Hunt for Red October’.
‘The Thing’ is itself considered to be the first in an unconnected apocalypse trilogy, along with ‘Prince of Darkness’ and ‘In the Mouth of Madness’.
A remake of the 1951 film, ‘The Thing from Another World’, and influenced by equal parts Alien and Lovecraft’s ‘At The Mountains of Madness’ Carpenter used the snowbound setting and unusual enemy to create one of the greatest base under siege scenarios in movie history.
The plot is engagingly simple. A group of researchers in the Antarctic are confronted by an alien creature which takes on the form of those it kills. Introduced into the camp through the body of a dog it swiftly begins to replace them. With communication and transport gone the rapidly dwindling survivors have to work out how to stop an enemy who could be any one of them.
The best horror films all have simple themes; there’s something out there that isn’t like us and it’s coming to get you. From ‘Alien’, to Zombie films the set up of something outside that wants in works every time. ‘The Thing’ is no different, existing as a near perfect example of this trope.
That in itself is a pretty common theme in alien films. Just think of all those other classic invasion movies; ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, ‘Village of the Damned’ and even ‘They Live’ all have an undercurrent of suspicion and paranoia that comes not just from the fact that an invasion is underway but that it is so covert.*
Many of these films hold themes of Communist designs on America, the fear of Fifth Columnists and enemies within. The idea that your neighbour might not be who you think he is, that the monsters outside may already be in the home adds a layer of real world paranoia.
But ‘The Thing’ is not your typical alien invasion movie. ‘The Thing’ has no long term plot to rule the world, no doomsday weapons or space fleet. There are no humanly obvious reasons for it. It is an alien in the truest sense of the word; a virus or a parasite, infiltrating and replacing those around it until it takes control.
But for all that, it’s still a remake by the guy who gave us ‘Ghosts of Mars’ and ‘Vampires’ – why should you care about this film?
Well, firstly, it’s got a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. Yes, that Ennio Morricone. It’s not as flashy as some of his other work, but it’s pretty good, and it works for the suspenseful, paranoid workings of a movie about a shape shifting alien.
Then there’s a central performance by Kurt Russell, in a role previously turned down by Jeff Bridges. From an introduction that sees him pour his drink into the computer he’s playing chess against, to the moment when he picks up a flamethrower and starts to try and burn back the monstrous abomination in their midst he brings life to a character who carries the movie.
It’s famous for the panning it got on release – two weeks after ‘E.T’, the same week as ‘Blade Runner’, both of which it suffered in comparison to.
However ‘The Thing’ is probably most well known for its ground-breaking special effects, in particular the incredible prosthetic and model work from Rob Bottin, who also worked on ‘Se7en’, ‘Fight Club’ and ‘Total Recall’. The various transformations that the alien goes through were all designed to keep the audience guessing. In fact it was deemed so shocking that distributors were advised to only play it in screens near the toilets – just in case viewers needed to flee the cinema.**
In fact, much like ‘The Fly’, this is a film which is best viewed to marvel at just what could be done with prosthetics, models and a lot of imagination. The plot is fairly basic, and the real meat of the story comes from working out just who is still alive and human.
The common complaint about ‘The Thing’ is how slow it is, and it’s a fair comment. Whilst not overly long it doesn’t exactly fly by, being more concerned with a slow build up of tension followed by a shock, a reveal and another build up. It’s not as though the outcome is unexpected; the few survivors clinging on as the alien attempts to oust them. The very end, leaving questions unanswered is neither the happy ending that most cinema goers crave, nor the out and out failure that might warrant a sequel.
But perhaps the real reason to watch ‘The Thing’ is this; for all its flaws it still stand as one of the most inventive, original and disturbing films about those things outside the door, and what to do when they replace your neighbours.
*More recent examples of alien infiltration can be seen in ‘The Invasion’ and ‘The Faculty’. A subversion can be found in ‘V’, where everyone is aware that ‘aliens walk amongst us’ but not that they are hostile, and ‘District 9’ where the aliens are amongst us but apart from us, thanks to their obviously inhuman look.
**This is in all probability an urban myth – but it’s a good one!