John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ sits atop of lists promoting it, not just as the directors best, but one of the best horror movies period, and for good reason.
Achieving that (most coveted) zen like balance between quality characterisation, an organic feeling atmosphere, tension and dread and deliciously gory practical effects ‘The Thing’ really cements itself as one of the key benchmark films which showcase just how good genre films can be.
The plot follows a group of American researchers trapped in their isolated Antarctic base along with a parasitic organism, able to imitate other humans, who was released from its icy grave by a neighbouring group of Norwegian scientists. After witnessing their peers succumb to the organism’s chameleonic infiltration, it’s now down to the researchers to fight their own survival instincts and tackle the creature head on in order to prevent it from escaping the sparsely populated continent and infecting the rest of the world.
However, as the creature can look, sound and act like anyone, who amongst the survivors are still men and who is The Thing?
The simplicity of the plot, I’m convinced, is why films like this, and to an extent Ridley Scott’s Alien (which to be fair this film is quite similar to in a number of ways) work as well as they do. Without worrying about exposition of a contrived and convoluted story, there’s more time dedicated to the details through which the story is bought to life.
The plot is solid, and the smart choices in both location and antagonist allow the intrinsic ingredients for effective horror to occur so naturally that you just get sucked into the plight. The remote Antarctic research station puts the would-be victims in a place where they are already battling for survival, it also adds the isolation element which is pretty much a prerequisite for horror films to work at all. Then there is the antagonist, double layered to build tension. First off, the intrigue over what ‘The Thing’ is, and more crucial, how to they kill it, but also the concept that it can be anyone at (almost) any time. This further enhances the focus of survival, not from a group perspective, which is typical of many horror movies where there’s often a wider cast surrounding a couple of key characters, the purpose of whom is to allow the antagonist to exercise increasing displays of power as they eliminate them without consequence to the story. In ‘The Thing’, every character counts, each one contributing to the group cause, but ultimately protecting their own self interests at the same time.
The dynamics and layers of these aspects in the film ensure there’s not a scene wasted; right from the film’s mysterious opener, to the more horrific scenes which follow and culminating in one of the best ‘end on a question’ endings seen in cinema!
Talking of horrific scenes, well I don’t think any review of ‘The Thing’ is complete without commenting on its numerous masterclass set pieces in practical effects and gore. The creature effects as gruesome as they are inventive. There are enough GIF’able scenes in this film to keep Twitters ‘Friend Friday’ lists stocked for decades! I don’t have enough hyperbole in my vocabulary to enable me to express just how cool the effects are in this film. Contorted bodies, mutilated limbs, distorted heads, walking heads, alien dog puppets, carnivorous mid-riffs and screaming husks akin to the chilling ending to ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ all feature and are all suitable gooey and gory; watch in HD and marvel in the attention to detail given to the creature design, almost a shame to have it melted with the frequently used flame-thrower!
Overall, every detail of this film is meticulously locked down to make sure it culminates in a benchmark creature horror. Every element from its minimalist score, its authentic locations, a fantastic cast (including the ever-popular Kurt Russel) to its memorable creature hits the mark. Its one of those films I can watch on repeat, and despite a competitive selection of other amazing films, it’s my favourite from the revered director.