The Thing (1982): Suspense-filled, Psychological Horror at Its Savage Best

Over the past few months news has surfaced of a possible remake of John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi/horror masterpiece The Thing. The news follows the reports of new source material having been unearthed in the last two years.

You see, neither 1951’s The Thing from Another World nor The Thing from 1982 was based upon the full body of John Campbell’s text, and the 2011 sequel/prequel directed by Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr. was not based on the original source material, at all. The 1982 cult classic was penned by Bill Lancaster and, just like the 1951 version, was based on the novella Who Goes There? from 1938 by John Campbell.

The actual title of the full novelization is Frozen Hell. The story that Campbell originally created was lost in its totality for decades, not to be found again until 2018. Now that this discovery has occurred and Universal and Blumhouse have backed the upcoming project, I felt this was an excellent opportunity to take a look at one of my all-time favorite movies.

It has been nearly 40 years since its initial release and it remains as relevant today as it ever has. Now more than ever, we can appreciate an unseen terror, an enemy that can not be compromised or bargained with. The global scenario right now gives us all the in-depth knowledge of isolation, separation, and the fear of the unknown.

I have watched The Thing countless times. Every time I put it on, the opening sequence makes the hairs stand on the back of my neck. The haunting synthy bassline just repeats over and over again. Immediately, we see how the score will be used to set the tone. It is a chilling portent of what’s to come, that unknown threat that lies just over the snow-covered horizon.

Then you see that helicopter in hot pursuit of what looks just like your average sled dog. What could cause these two men to hunt down this animal in such a manner? The introduction to The Thing leaves you in what will be a permanent sense of being off-kilter and riddled with self-doubt.

A helicopter flying after a huskie which is running across a snowy landscape.
A Norweigan helicopter hunts down the sled dog.

From minute one, Carpenter creates the terror-filled atmosphere to perfection, constantly setting you up for a scare that is never where you think it is. He is so talented at making you doubt your senses, your sense of your surroundings, your sense of trust in what’s right before your eyes and even in your sense of self. He is the true master of pressing on those innate fragilities we all have as humans.

The Thing never lets up from there, pulling on your strings throughout each and every moment. The way Carpenter uses the isolation of the base to sew the seeds of fear and unease in the viewer is excellently done. He constantly reminds you that these men are all that each other have, that they are trapped in a frozen hellscape with nothing but the unknown terrors that lurk in the dark for company.

As the story unfolds, it quickly becomes clear to the men that they are in a situation that is beyond belief. It is only when MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) investigate the Norwegian station that we see there is a lot more to this story than meets the eye. When they reach the station, we see that the story our heroes find themselves in is only the beginning and the end of an entirely other brutal story has just played out.

The station lies in ruins and all its inhabitants are dead. What they find are the remains of a ghastly human-like creature. They take these remains back to the base with them. It is these events that lead the men to confront the true scale of the threat they now face. After storing the creature they brought back, Bennings is left alone and becomes infected by it.

When the men finally catch up to him, they see what they think is Bennings (Peter Maloney), but it is not Bennings or even human at all. Nearly everything about him looks human until you see his elongated hands, he then turns to the others and lets out a sound that is wholly from another world. The men now realize the implication of what they are seeing and how grave the situation that they find themselves in actually is.

Bennings looks up at the men as they catch him in mid-assimilation.
Bennings (Peter Maloney) mid-assimilation.

To bring these terrors to life, Carpenter deploys state of the art practical effects, and the way he does it just enhances the horrors that these poor men have to endure. The grotesqueness of the creatures is nearly beyond imagining. Rob Bottin’s creations jump off the screen and their stench oozes through, hitting the viewer with the same sense of repulsion that the characters feel. The Thing is the personification of an assault on the senses.

Carpenter allows you to construct threats long before ever showing you the real dangers: he brings you along for the ride and you let him. You too want to know what lurks in the dark. You want to see if it is what you think it is. You want to know if your mind has the strength to deal with the horrors that await you.

At the center of the terror is Kurt Russell, who leads an incredibly strong cast. His turn as the flame thrower toting, sombrero-wearing helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady is legendary within horror circles. Russell uses a skill he has always possessed and that is grounding what could be outlandish characters. He somehow makes MacReady so real, so believable.

He is a man that is struggling to get to grips with the newfound leadership position that has been thrust upon him under the direst of circumstances. MacReady knows himself to be human, but he has to try and convince men that have been bombarded with events of unimaginable proportions. He has to lead these men while also trying to find out who or what is threatening his very existence.

MacReady is the lens we view the movie through, for the most part. It is through his sense of paranoia that we get the truest feel for what these men have to experience. They all know the threat is still out there—that is not the question. The question is what shape has the threat taken. You can not simply hide from this creature, it could be anyone at any time.

The iconic scene where MacReady is testing the blood exemplifies everything that makes The Thing so excellent. It shows all its strengths in one short sequence. It builds suspense, terror and puts the claustrophobic squeeze on you. You watch on with bated breath as MacReady goes through each sample, subjecting them to heat in a bid to lure the creature out of hiding, to defend itself on a molecular level.

Just like the men strapped into that couch, we can not hold back the flood of adrenaline. As he tests each sample, one by one, you inch closer and closer to see who if anybody is masquerading as a human. Who is this otherwordly thing that is hidden among these weary men? Just like many other scenes, this one turns your preconceived notions on their head. You are so sure in what you know, but Carpenter takes you in another unexpected direction. Once again, the maestro shows us that he has yet another trick up his sleeve and we never saw it coming.

MacReady stands across the room heating the wire to use for blood testing, as the other men sit tied to the couch on the other side of the room.
MacReady readies the blood test.

The Thing’s major weapon is not just its excellent cast but how it uses paranoia as much as a fear-inducing weapon as the thing itself. When you hear the music, just like in Halloween, you slide forward in your chair, waiting for the next threat hidden away somewhere in a dark corner of the recess of your mind as much as the dark corners of the station.

The brutal trials of these men are backed by an excellent score, one of if not the eeriest that has ever played in a horror movie. Ennio Morricone’s score is so simplistic and yet so incredibly frightening, it is a perfect mirroring of what is occurring on the screen. It sets the tone of this suspenseful masterpiece perfectly. The music embodies the unease that these men feel. It brings their fear to life for the audience in such a way it puts you on edge for the duration. It gives you the same dose of hyper-awareness that the characters have pumping through their veins.

The climax to this horrific work of art epitomizes everything The Thing is about. It leaves you in the dark on who the creature might be or if it even is either of the two remaining survivors. It could be both or neither or either one. Carpenter leaves you with the knowledge that threat might still be out there, waiting to be discovered. This is apt considering The Thing waited for a long time to get the credit it deserves. It too laid waiting to be discovered, just begging for the chance to terrify the wits out of all the generations that would happen upon it for themselves.

Left: Childs Right: MacReady
Left to right: Childs (Keith David) and MacReady (Kurt Russell)

The Thing may just be John Carpenter’s magnum opus, a director at the peak of his powers finding the right project at the exact moment that he could bring it to fruition in the way he did. It was a perfect snowstorm filled with suspenseful savagery, a blizzard of brutality brought to life by a master of horror. It is a tale of all the things that make us human. It plays on our anxieties, our distrust, our fear of being alone and, most importantly, our fear of all we know changing in a way that we never knew possible.

The Thing is a perfect example of how a great movie can be timeless. It has gotten better with age just like the finest of wines—not just better as a movie, but it is now better understood and better appreciated. It is the definition of a cult classic. No matter when they are released, great movies always find their audience in time. Even though it was not given the respect it duly deserved when it came out, it would go on to inspire so many others in the genre. There are more than a few trees of woe that find their roots firmly stemming from the horror-thriller that Carpenter has crafted.

The Thing was released five years before I was even born and, to this day, I count it amongst my top ten all-time favorite movies. It may actually be the movie that I have re-watched more than any other. There is just something about the isolation, the near impossibility of the men’s task, to be so far away from everything you know, to be hunted by something that you are completely without knowledge of.

In my mind, it is immovable, just like Spielberg with Jaws, Kaufman with Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Carpenter himself with Halloween. The Thing grabs the imagination every bit as much as it chills you to the bone.

It is just like H.P Lovecraft said: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” I think that sentiment rings true and nobody or no movie plays with the fear of unknown like John Carpenter’s The Thing.

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Written by Vincent Greene

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