Made in John Carpenter's golden directorial age of the late-1970s/early-'80s (following 1978's "Halloween
" and 1980's "The Fog
"), "The Thing" is one of the great monster moviesnot only of the era, but full stop. Notable for its unnerving layers of ambiguity and some of the most astonishing special effects ever committed to film, this adaptation of the short story "Who Goes There?" By John W. Campbell Jr. (previously inspiring 1951's "The Thing from Another World") methodically works itself into a lather of hair-raising paranoia. What the screenplay, penned by the late Bill Lancaster, lacks in character dimensionality, it largely makes up for with its teeth-chattering claustrophobia and stylistic artistry.
The isolating winter months have only just begun for an American research team stationed in Antarctica, but when their base is accosted by a group of gun-toting men on a Norwegian helicopter chasing after a dog, the ensuing confrontation ends abruptly following a showdown and explosion. Their investigation into this mysterious occurrence leads R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) to two alarming discoveries at the otherwise abandoned Norwegian research facility: the frozen corpse of a man who seems to have taken his own life, and the remains of a humanoid entity the likes of which they've never before seen. What the men do not realize is that something not of this world is already lurking at their U.S. basesomething that ruthlessly mimics the living beings to which it assimilates. If it is not stopped soon, it could very well reach civilization and overtake the entire planet.
"The Thing" gradually drops its narrative breadcrumbs, not immediately tipping its hat to exactly what is going on until the characters uncover the terrifying truth of their doomed situation. As the stakes grow ever more perilous, director John Carpenter sweeps his ensemble of men in a wave of fearful suspicion, the lot of them unsure who among them has been taken over. A semi-variation on Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians" with an extraterrestrial twist, the film not only proves masterfully foreboding, but orchestrates a plot trajectory that fast spins delectably out of control. A set-piece where each man's blood is tested, revealing in an instant whether it is human or something else, is the nail-biting centerpiece, escalating in intensity as it moves toward a maelstrom of a payoff. Meanwhile, the nightmarish imagery brought to life by Rob Bottin's creature designs and make-up effects is astonishing, holding up to the closest of modern-day scrutiny while making the case for why tangible practical effects continue to be preferable to a reliance on CGI (something 2011's otherwise successful prequel, also titled "The Thing
," fell victim to).
Like Ridley Scott's 1979 classic "Alien" before it, "The Thing" is science-fiction/horror with a visionary punch that continues to resonate and inspire filmmakers decades later. While the snowy exteriors were shot in remote locations in Alaska and British Columbia and the interiors were done at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, the seams do not show. Watching it, the spell is never broken; these look and sound like real people helplessly stranded on a frozen tundra alongside a powerful otherworldly force. John Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey find an elegant terror in their mise en scène, while performances (led by Kurt Russell, who had previously collaborated with Carpenter on 1979's "Elvis" and 1981's "Escape from New York") are believable in their lack of showiness. Little is learned about who these characters are and what their Antarctic research consists ofthis is its one lesser element, keeping them from being people for whom the viewer actively rootsbut it is a minor detail next to all the picture gets spine-tinglingly right. "The Thing" is not easily forgotten, a thrilling, chilling entertainment for the not easily rattledand then proceeds to rattle anyway.