In the interests of full disclosure – John Carpenter is one of my all-time favourite film-makers. His work had a massive influence on me as a younger man, and I honestly don’t think the man can do any wrong. He basically invented the slasher-movie template with Halloween, and his 1980s science-fiction films helped to define the genre. Even his apparently poor films thrill me.
So here is why you absolutely MUST watch his 1982 masterpiece ‘The Thing’.
Firstly, it stars Kurt Russell exuding effortless cool. He plays MacReady, a helicopter pilot for a US research station based in Antarctica. He drinks a lot, has access to weapons, and trashes primitive computers when they beat him at chess. Exactly the kind of man you need hanging around a scientific establishment.
The beginning of the film opens on some pesky Norwegians following a dog in a helicopter and trying to kill it with rifles and a fair few hand grenades. We’re immediately on the side of the dog at this point – cute little thing. Plus these Norwegians are useless with the grenades and haven’t bothered to learn English which obviously means we’re not meant to be too sad when they get themselves killed by the staff of a US research base.
But don’t you know – there’s something not quite right about that dog. He’s a nosey fucker for a start, and starts swanning round the base like he owns it. He doesn’t take to kindly to finally getting put in a kennel for the night with the other dogs. Mainly because he’s not a dog, he’s a shape-shifting alien who absorbs living creatures and takes their form. Ah, that explains it.
The rest of the film descends into a tale of survival in isolation, against a beast from the unknown. Standard stuff, but the genius of The Thing is that it doesn’t actually need to show it’s monster. The real monster in the camp (cue pretentious over-reading of the film) is the team’s paranoia and suspicion of each other. The ‘blood test’ scene is up there with Hitchcock at his best in terms of building up tension, and allowing the characters onscreen to psychologically unravel before our eyes. Much like the recent (and excellent) film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy isn’t about spying, but rather about suspicion and paranoia – The Thing isn’t about an alien shape-shifter, but about the fact that no one in this camp can trust each other. Trust is the thing that keeps order in society – and if trust was totally removed then society would collapse.
And society in the camp definitely collapses. As does the camp itself, mainly due to weapons, explosives, and flame-throwers that I assume are commonplace in all scientific research establishments. Hell, CERN probably has an Apache gunship in the car park.
As I said, this film would work without ever showing the ‘true’ form of the alien. But it would be a lot less fun. Some of the effects in The Thing put today’s computer-generated graphics to shame. There is a soul to these hideous creations that can genuinely terrify you.
I don’t want to give away the ending, but this film is bleak and nihilistic in its tone from start to finish. There’s certainly no easy tying up of loose ends and the hero doesn’t get the girl and crack a joke at the end. Mainly because there is no girl. John Carpenter lives on a higher plane than gender politics, so let’s not go there.
Like so many films that are now considered classics, The Thing was a critical and commercial flop on release. It’s taken over 2 decades for it to complete its rehabilitation as one of the defining films of modern sci-fi – so the least you can do is set aside a couple of hours this month to watch the film that John Carpenter describes as his favourite example of his work. And John Carpenter is never wrong.