I’m not sure why I seem to be onboard the horror movie train right now, but I’m enjoying the ride! This 1982 sci-fi horror classic from director John Carpenter takes the old “scariest thing is what you don’t see” wisdom and rubs its face in blood and guts.
Set in Antarctica, it doesn’t take long for the story to kick right into action. The movie begins with a sled dog being chased across the icy wasteland by a couple of Norwegians in a helicopter, who try in vain to shoot it down. This bizarre pursuit ends at the American research station with the death of the two men, and the dog taken in by the staff. When the Americans try to figure out what’s up with those wacky Norwegians, they discover the charred ruins of the Norwegian base, a partially excavated alien spacecraft, and disturbing remains of a malformed creature that resembles something from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Meanwhile, the movie lets you know in no uncertain terms that something is not quite right with the adorable sled dog adopted by the crew.
The monster of The Thing is easily one of the nastiest creations I’ve seen in a movie – a parasitic extraterrestrial critter that can assimilate and imitate other living organisms. Once it assumes its victim’s form it’s a perfect replica, but the transitional process is a nauseating bloody contortion of twisted body parts, slime, tentacles and sharp teeth. It’s all so fantastically horrifying, imaginative and grotesque that, dated special effects or not, I found myself squirming in revulsion on numerous occasions. There’s an indisputable tactile quality to those old-school practical effects that makes them effective even when you know they’re fake.
The isolated location, dark polar nights and a creature that can take on the shape of your friends and colleagues is a perfect recipe for paranoia and tense atmosphere, as the men frantically try to figure out who they can still trust and who should be instantly burned to a crisp by a flamethrower. There are many brilliantly executed scares and set pieces, and the hypnotic minimalist score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone instantly sets the mood.
With the focus on the monster and relentless suspense, characterisation takes a back seat, but the cast of character actors do their best to elevate the thin writing. The acting by the film’s canine cast also deserves praise, especially in the tense-as-hell kennel scene where the monster reveals itself. Kurt Russell meanwhile is cool and charismatic as cowboy-hatted pilot RJ MacReady (and his glorious beard is almost a character of its own). I also appreciated the ambiguous ending; I figured that the film with this kind of tone can only end grimly one way or another, and while that’s the case there’s also an intriguing lack of full closure.