The Thing was initially misunderstood by both audiences and critics, who saw it as nothing more than an excuse for needless gore and violence. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert, at the time, even went as far to call it “a great barf bag movie” and to say that “...this material has been done before, and better…” Thus, it went on to be a failure, both financially and critically.
Despite that initial failure, public perception has reversed almost entirely since its release, as it is now seen as not just one of the best horror films of all time, but one of the best films of all time, period. It is the genre at its finest, both effective in its suspense and its message.
The film is adapted from the 1938 novella Who Goes There? and is also a remake of The Thing from Another World, released in 1951. It follows a group of men working at a research center in Antarctica who are unknowingly infiltrated by a shape-shifting alien creature posing as a sled dog.
The creature slowly starts to kill and take the place of the crew members, one by one, causing paranoia and nihilism to take over in their place. It’s up to the survivors to kill the titular thing before it can reach a greater population and, most importantly, stay human.
John Carpenter, a living legend of the horror genre, created the Halloween franchise as well as many cult classics like Escape From New York and They Live. Both of those films star actors from The Thing, Kurt Russell and Keith David, respectively. These three people are some of the main factors that make this film stick out so much among the vast sea that is the 80s horror scene.
Without Carpenter, The Thing, as it was released, wouldn’t exist; he’s both the main piece and the glue holding everything else together. Typically, he composed the scores for his films on his own; instead, he turned to famed composer Ennio Morricone for a more synth-laced score. Morricone, in turn, created an iconic horror score and theme for the film. Carpenter’s role here was that of a leader and delegator, rather than that of a pure auteur.
He didn’t write the film, that honor goes to Bill Lancaster, though the film’s script was put in many different people’s hands. He wasn’t his own cinematographer, instead, duties were handed to frequent collaborator and legend, Dean Cundey, who’s most known for shooting Jurassic Park, the first two Halloween films, the Back to the Future trilogy, Hook and many other John Carpenter films. And, as mentioned previously, he didn’t compose the score.
Russell’s performance is what truly pushes the film over the top, playing the lead, R.J. MacReady, who isn’t the leader of the outpost from the outset but gains command through action and leadership. The rest of the cast is fantastic as well, with Keith David, Wilford Brimley and Donald Moffat standing out above the rest with Russell. He’s a grounding force in a film with many outlandish and extreme elements, most of which relate to the titular creature.
The practical creature effects are another reason the film is so fondly remembered and also why it aged fantastically. The special effects and makeup were done by Rob Bottin and his team, who created some of the best-looking creature effects I’ve ever seen. They’re gross, bloody, gory and don’t hold anything back; it seems the majority of the budget went towards the effects, which was money well-spent.
The film’s effects are truly a landmark in practical effects and part of the reason why Bottin received a Special Achievement Academy Award in 1991. The team went on to work on other 80s and 90s classics like RoboCop and Total Recall, to name a few.
This film’s legacy has been cemented due to its ability to create tension and paranoia within the confines of the base on film as well as with the audience watching all these horrific events play out. This sense of paranoia is created due to the contributions of the men above to the film’s atmosphere as well as the characters not knowing who’s been taken over and could attack them at any moment.
It’s one of those films that has become more and more relevant with age, especially as people have become more divided despite communication being as free and easy as ever.
Carpenter unknowingly created a microcosm of what social media has turned our society into in recent years; with people turning on each other, forming uneasy cliques and then killing people in the end (literally in the film and metaphorically in reality). This makes a viewing of the film uncomfortable for more reasons than Carpenter’s originally intended.
I wish I could say that the world will improve past where The Thing is relevant in this way, instead of just in pop culture or horror spheres, but I fear that won’t be the case any time soon.
In the film, the characters accept their situation, knowing that they won’t make it home, but that they must kill this creature before it can freeze again and infiltrate society when rescue crews eventually come for them. My outlook here is as nihilistic as the film’s, nothing will change because this culture is so ingrained in society; things won’t change until there’s no one left standing to hold up the incoming change.