Sign up for our weekly newsletter
Framework - Power Up

40 Years Later: The Thing

24 June 22 words: Aaron Roe

John Carpenter's masterpiece remains one of the greatest horrors of all time, despite its dated visuals...

Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter
Running time:
109 minutes

John Carpenter rose to prominence in 1970s Hollywood in an era that, while it birthed the modern blockbuster with Jaws, is arguably defined by complex character studies such as The Godfather, Taxi Driver and A Woman Under the Influence. But Carpenter instead built up a body of work that relied on a tight plot, binary characters and technical precision. Splicing a B-movie sensibility with a Hitchcockian level of control, synth-soaked nightmares like Halloween and Escape from New York inhabit our minds with feverish luminescent. The Thing is the twisted magnum opus that does its dirty dance through all of the tropes, and is still one of the best examples of sheer craft around after four decades.

1982 was such an expansive for sci-fi; Ridley Scott came out with the existential noir Blade Runner, while Steven Spielberg smashed box-office records with his rousing crowd-pleaser E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Both films have their fair share of big ideas and sentimentality, but Carpenter's The Thing slashes down any form of pretention with a scythe-like approach to pure, unadulterated terror. Loosely adapted from John W. Campbell Jr’s novella The Thing from Another World, the film follows a group of American researches in Antarctica who are terrorised by a bizarre extra-terrestrial with the ability to assimilate and therefore imitate its victims.

As each grim detail is revealed - the impending snowstorm, the downed coms, the strange creature found at the Norwegians' camp - it becomes clear that we’re dealing with a threat beyond our comprehension

As soon as Ennio Morricone’s score starts up, we're struck with pulsations of dread. The ominous synthons remind us of how important the scores are in Carpenter films; metronomic, visceral, encapsulations of a narrative with a few notes. It also kicks into gear one of the most effective opening acts in any film. We’re just as confused as our American friends when a helicopter suddenly comes upon the camp, with a bunch of ‘stir-crazy’ Norwegians shooting at a rogue husky. But as each grim detail is revealed - the impending snowstorm, the downed coms, the strange creature found at the Norwegians' camp - it becomes clear that we’re dealing with a threat beyond our comprehension. 

Of course, The Thing will always have a certain infamy because of its use of special effects, and as the ‘Thing’ starts to succeed on its quest for total assimilations, the nature of the set pieces get bigger and more outlandish each time it is revealed. Becoming dated is unfortunately an occupational hazard for old films that rely on practical effects, and I could see why some members of the audience wouldn’t be able to contain some of their laughter, desensitised by CGI saturation. To be fair, I find each bone-wrenching transformation gets closer to absurdist body horror, and every time the ‘Thing’ becomes bigger and stronger, the scares become weaker. But I can’t imagine what it must have been like to watch this film forty years ago in a packed theatre, watching people collectively lose their shit, at the mercy of these technical marvels designed by the master, Rob Bottin.

Every time one revisits the film, there’s a previously unseen detail here, a fresh revelation in one of Carpenter's suggestive compositions, a new layer of grizzled ambience

In the moments between the bile and gnashing teeth, Carpenter exposes us to a different kind of anxiety - as the familiar gets called into question, so does the solidarity of the group, and fractures start to appear. Films like Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog see Carpenter juggle multiple characters to varying degrees of success. The crudeness of his storytelling doesn’t leave much room for character development, and it’s no different with the ensemble in the The Thing - I don’t actually care about the characters that die. But at least we have Kurt Russell's MacReady acting as our tether to some semblance of truth, no matter how strenuous. Delivering a wonderfully understated performance, he’s the only one we can completely depend on - but each performance is undeniably human… until it’s not. 

There’s a moment at the beginning of the film where Mac is playing chess against an AI computer. Just when he thinks he’s got her beat, she hits him with a checkmate. It’s a precursor for the whole bloody affair that I’ve never noticed before, and it reminded me of how re-watchable it is. Every time one revisits the film, there’s a previously unseen detail here, a fresh revelation in one of Carpenter's suggestive compositions, a new layer of grizzled ambience.

Did you know? John Carpenter has stated that, of all his films, this is his personal favourite. 

We have a favour to ask…

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion now

Bierkeller - Nottingham Hill Carnival