Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Bill Lancaster
There’s a primal fear in isolation. We seem to know, instinctively, that we rely on other people for survival, and that there is safety in numbers. Many horror films play on this fear of being alone to great effect, situating characters in a cabin in the woods, a farmhouse just beyond the reach of cell phone service, or some other remote location where no one can hear them scream. The knowledge that no one is coming to save you makes the horror of your fate somehow crueler to comprehend.
John Carpenter’s masterful film The Thing plays on this fear, but it also turns it on its ear. Where most horror films leave us longing for more people to surround the hero, The Thing turns even the other people against him. It’s a film about the terror of isolation that is equally aware of how horrifying other people can be. Were it not for its opening shot of a flying saucer entering the Earth’s atmosphere, it wouldn’t be clear for quite some time that this is an alien invasion film. The first apparent threat we see is man. Shortly after we are introduced to MacReady (Kurt Russell) and the other denizens of an Antarctic Research Center, a low-flying helicopter approaches, chasing a dog. Its pilots fire wildly in the animal’s direction, and in a fit of madness, their helicopter is destroyed. Though the villain, even then, is alien (as we will soon learn, the dog, not its pursuers, presents the real threat), to our eyes, the madness in man is the true threat.
A palpable sense of dread develops almost immediately, with help from an excellent, droning score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone. Something has gone very wrong, and our heroes know quite quickly they are far from any hope of salvation. When the creature reveals itself, the conflict becomes even starker, the dread more weighty: the alien can mimic other creatures and disguise itself among them, with such a high success rate it would likely wipe out all life on planet earth within less than four years. Almost as soon as we discover our heroes have something dangerous to escape from, we learn that escape presents its own, even bleaker risk. There’s something in the midst of these men. It’s coming for them, and they can’t escape.
Where many horror films succeed through misdirection, using the occasional black cat for a jump scare and quick editing to obscure the contours of the actual threat, The Thing revels in the creature it has created, and it’s right to: the alien is a marvel, at once shocking and fascinating, and constantly original. This is a gory film, with a threat downright Cronenbergian in its visceral shape-shifting. There’s a biology to the creature that is incredibly compelling to watch, even as it disturbs deeply. It’s not that the puppetry and makeup are so realistic. In fact, its their unrealism that contributes to the film’s scares. They look just viable enough as slowly forming imitations of humanity, and yet off in a way that lets us know they are something altogether new, something alien. Any time the seams show, as the monster tries to make the face of a man that looks more like rubber than flesh, it adds to the sense that this is a thing learning to look like us, and once it has finished, we will never be able to tell it wasn’t human. It’s a feat of movie magic many films have tried to mimic, and one few have succeeded at replicating.
John Carpenter always makes films with incredibly deliberate pacing, but rarely has it worked as well as it does here. The longer the film sets up the situation these characters find themselves in, the larger the knot in the audience’s stomach grows. The more times the men encounter the creature, the more we learn about what they are facing, and the longer the spaces between attacks, the greater our feeling that something lurks among them.
As the film goes on, the dread becomes so tangible, even the characters’ attitudes shift. This is no longer an attempt to survive the invasion. This is just a desperate rush to live long enough to stop the creature from overtaking them, to stop the infection from spreading at all costs. There’s a grim fatalism to the film’s final third; Macready and company know they won’t survive, they just need to make sure it doesn’t either. In the film’s closing moments, it reiterates the dual fears it has been exploring throughout, as MacReady and Childs (Keith David) settle down in the wreckage of the camp, uneasy in their togetherness, yet isolated from any hope of rescue. In The Thing, we are not alone, though maybe we’d rather be.
– Jordan Ferguson