In 1982 Vincent Canby had this to say on John Carpenter’s The Thing: “Sometimes it looks as if it aspired to be the quintessential moron movie of the '80s.” In tandem, The Thing was a box-office flop, earning only a little over its budget. Contemporary films like Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street outperformed their measly budgets and have formed lasting film legacies.
While the Razzie Nomination for Worst Original Score by Ennio Morricone cemented critical reception. In most cases films with this should dwell in the B-movie, schlock pit. Instead, it has turned the table and is now considered one of the best horror films ever made. The question is how?
In the aftermath of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead which established a new level of violence on screen, The Thing marks the next notch. Coming out only a few years after the critically panned, but commercially successful Friday the 13th, The Thing promised a greater horror than most audiences were expecting. Instead, the outward gore and mayhem was universally panned.
The root of this reaction is in part due to two factors: the economy and films. The year 1982 marked a recession for the U.S. In light of difficult times, audiences sought out media that promoted positive messages or mood.
Audiences sought out films with hopeful endings compared to Carpenter’s Nihilistic film. This took form in the box office with E.T. being the highest grossing film of the year. Following a similar story of an Alien coming to Earth, though love, not fear, wins in the end.
The Thing became one of the most hated films of the year, some remarking of “all time.” However, this quickly changed with home media sales and “TV airings.” The film was re-evaluated by fans as being an atmospheric horror predicated on the inability to identify or escape a killer.
The Thing has been re-evaluated since it’s release with characters, music, creature design and establishment of tension being hallmarks of a perfect horror film.
How it perfected the genre is simply establishing and defying expectation. Take the “title” sequence, where the title doesn’t appear but slowly burns its way onto the screen. The crackling sound-effects foretelling some horror. It’s unconventional and comes as a surprise on a first viewing.
The setting reflects this, in that the characters are secluded to the arctic. Traveling outside is not an option, and as snow storms set in, the base becomes a petri dish. Carpenter uses clever camera work to establish a rough layout of the building. Through these one-shots the base’s claustrophobic nature is telegraphed, in a similar device to films like Alien or The Shining.
These elements work together to form the perfect creature, the Thing. An organism capable of imitating any organism to exact detail, The Thing is untraceable and hides in plain sight. Moments of solitude or long absences of characters heighten this sense of horror. The movie becomes a mystery of who is the Thing.
Rob Bottin makes the audience believe the creature’s physicality is capable of imitating anyone to perfect detail. The creature transformations are some of the industry's best. Separating heads, exploding cavities and skin tearing gore. Though, the violence is restrained to the monster’s appearances, it’s graphically unnerving. The body becomes a subject and vessel for horror.
What The Thing does, that most horror fails at, is create a lasting fear. It instills a sense of insecurity around the characters. The film pushes audiences to question each character's motive, their stories and makes us believe we are ahead, before pulling out the rug. So, when someone is revealed to be a the Thing, it’s never who you suspect, especially on a second viewing.
Benjamin Ervin is a senior studying English literature and writing at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Benjamin know by emailing him firstname.lastname@example.org.