An Appreciation – The Thing
From the late 1970s through the ‘80s, John Carpenter directed a string of good to great films. Working primarily in the action and horror genres, Carpenter exhibited a keen sense for style – generating atmosphere and building tension. This ability was not only due to his directing prowess but also in his musical scores, which he often composed himself. Amongst this run is the seminal Halloween (1978), which helped redefine the slasher film and ushered in a wave of imitators. But the work that best exemplifies him as a storyteller and artist – the one that shows him operating at the height of his powers – is The Thing (1982).
The story of The Thing is reminiscent to many other productions that were dismissed upon initial release and then embraced through the passage of time. After the success of Halloween, The Fog (1980), and Escape from New York (1981), Carpenter was granted his first studio-backed project. With Universal supplying the budget, Carpenter was free to take his vision on a grander scale – upping the ante in terms of scope, setting, and execution. The final product turned out to be a critical and financial failure. This was partly due to it being released on the heels of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), which painted a completely opposite view of humans interacting with alien lifeforms. It was also released on the very same day as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) which would share a similar long-term legacy. In a bit of irony, Scott also directed Alien (1979), which The Thing has long been compared.
In the decades that followed, the film gained in popularity with both audiences and critics alike. Through the benefit of home video, it was given a chance to be re-evaluated. It is now hailed as a masterpiece of horror filmmaking. It stands as a benchmark of the genre – a perfect balance between shock value and stellar craftsmanship. It showcases the peak of practical effects, before the rise of digital technology of the mid to late nineties. Carpenter (along with screenwriter Bill Lancaster) structure the narrative as both an ode to the past as well as incorporating a modern sensibility. They not only pay tribute to John W. Campbell Jr.’s original 1938 novella, “Who Goes There?”, but they also pay homage to the 1951 Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks’ adaptation, The Thing from Another World (1951). One need only see the main title burning through the screen to see the connection.
What makes Carpenter such an excellent filmmaker is his mastery of both the suggestion and showcase of terror. He can hint at an unseen threat and then show it in its full glory. Not many are able to accomplish both as skillfully. Carpenter establishes the sense of dread immediately, with the opening scene featuring a helicopter chasing and shooting at a lone dog in the middle of the Antarctic. Dean Cundey’s cinematography places both the dog and the helicopter in the middle of a vast, snow-covered landscape, like two beings on an alien planet. The set up immediately pulls us in and has us questioning what is happening. Why are the people in the helicopter chasing after a dog? Why would they want to kill it? Is there something wrong with the dog, or the people in the helicopter? Right away, we become invested in what is happening.
While many remember the gruesome and violent nature of the latter half, none of that would be as effective if Carpenter and his team did not set up the front end as well as they did. Carpenter takes his time, allowing us to get acquainted with the setting and characters before the mayhem begins. Most of the action takes place in a research station – U.S. Outpost 31. Settled in the middle of snowcapped mountains, the station is constructed not so much as a place of science as it is an isolated trap. In fact, while the setting is meant for research, it has a noticeably unscientific aesthetic. Our characters dress and behave like blue-collar, oil-rig workers. On the inside there are pool tables, rec rooms, and arcade machines. Characters play poker, drink, or watch TV.
We become acquainted with a handful of names and faces. The writing and direction does not give much opportunity to get to know character backgrounds. Instead, personalities come forth through traits and behavior. Windows (Thomas G. Waites) operates the radio transmitter and spends a large portion of time wearing sunglasses even though he is indoors. Nauls (T.K. Carter) is the cook, who likes to ride around the hallways wearing skates. Blair (Wilford Brimley) is a scientist who first realizes the danger they are in once the alien being (or “The Thing”) penetrates their base. And then, of course, there is MacReady, played by Kurt Russell. MacReady is the station’s helicopter pilot and our main protagonist. Russell – a favorite among Carpenter’s actors – fills the character with charisma despite not providing much of his backstory. All we need to know about MacReady is established early on. When he loses a game of a chess to a computer, he decides to destroy it with a glass of alcohol.