- The Room
Yeah, unless you really know me, you probably didn’t see this one coming, but John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing is my favorite horror movie of all time. I know it’s not a favorite all around, I know it’s got its pacing issues and a lot of the other standard problems that go along with all John Carpenter movies, but I’ll be honest: I don’t care. The Thing has been one of my favorite movies ever since the first day I saw it.
It was a summer day in 1996, and dad said, “Hey, wanna see a monster movie?” Now, this being a more innocent, fearful Matt, I asked him how scary it was. He said it had aliens and monsters, but they were no worse than the aliens in Independence Day. Since being an 11-year-old boy in 1996 Independence Day was my favorite movie in the world, I figured, what the heck, let’s give this a try. Two traumatized hours later, I was changed for life. On its own, my dad’s statement was not all that inaccurate. The Thing is not a traditionally gory movie. There is very little human blood, only slight dismemberment, and not even that many onscreen deaths. Still, what it lacks in these respects, it makes up for in mindblowing monster designs and terror that still manages to make me feel cold to this day while watching the movie. It has what I still believe to be two of the most effective jump scare scenes of all time (the defibrillation scene and the blood test), and I spent much of my adolescence introducing my friends to this movie and just watching their reactions in these two scenes. It was a cruel, unbelievably fun game. I still have fond memories of watching my best friend at the time leaping halfway across the room screaming obscenities during the blood test reveal. It made up a great portion of my youth, and probably worked as a gateway that helped me become a proper horror fan later in life.
Anyway, onto the movie.
Antarctica. Winter. 1982. The tedium of an American research outpost is interrupted by a Norwegian helicopter chasing a sled dog, shooting at it and trying to blow it up with hand grenades. An accident destroys the helicopter shortly after it lands, and the gunman is soon killed after raving madly and shooting one of the Americans the dog had run to for safety. Looking to see what caused this mystery, the Americans head to the Norwegian camp only to find it a burned-out wreck. There are signs of furious fighting, violent suicides and bodies deformed in impossible manners. Putting the pieces together, they soon find that the Norwegian camp had discovered a UFO buried in the ice for thousands of years and in digging it up discovered a frozen lifeform from the ship. To their horror, they too discover that not only was the creature still alive, but that it was capable of absorbing and perfectly replicate any lifeform it encounters, even people. Realizing the likelihood that members of their own camp have been taken over, the men soon begin to wonder if they can trust their best friends, and if any of them will make it out of this alive.
Two of my favorite themes in horror are claustrophobia and paranoia, and this movie better than any other plays with these ideas to maximum effect. The Antarctica setting of cold, barren wastelands is at once open and forbidding. These men are trapped not by hordes of ravenous zombies outside their doors, but by mother nature herself. This isn’t a horror they can hope to escape, they can’t just run outside, it is one they are forced to deal with from within. This is compounded by the fact that the menace they’re fighting comes literally from within. Unlike most body-snatcher type movies where a person will behave differently when they’ve been taken over, the copies in The Thing are perfect imitations. They don’t behave any differently than they did earlier in the movie, adding a further level of paranoia and whodunit when things start going to hell. They lead you down the path of assuming that a certain person just has to, has to be taken over, and then BAM! they’re revealed to be a red herring in a surprising, often gruesome manner.
This atmosphere of fear and paranoia is buoyed by an excellent ensemble cast of 80’s character actors. One of the biggest complaints against this film is that it’s just too many bland-looking guys with beards yelling at each other, but I don’t buy it. Yeah, there’s some overlap, but there are also a lot of distinct personalities hidden within to keep the whodunit aspects going. Kindly old Wilford Brimley plays a great, maybe bad guy with the biologist Blair (kudos to him for his gusto in all of the autopsy scenes). Keith David plays an angry badass like no other. Richard Masur is wonderfully suspicious as the dog-handler Clark, while Donald Moffat plays the pompous base commander Garry to the hilt. And of course, being a John Carpenter movie in the 1980’s, there’s Kurt Russell who plays… Kurt Russell with a beard and sombrero. Gotta love it.
This film is one of the great classics of 80’s special effects with some of the most awesome and bizarre creature designs of the day. There is no one set design for The Thing; as an organism that more or less exists at a cellular level, it can change its form and body as it sees fit. It can grow tentacles, spikes, and extra legs as it sees fit, creating some of the most horrifically surreal monster scenes of the day. Makeup expert Rob Bottin may have been out of his depth when taking this project on, but his skills shined through brilliantly, particularly in the infamous defibrillation scene. Every time I see that man’s head detach from the body, grow legs and start crawling across the room, I’m a giddy 11-year-old all over again watching something awesome he wasn’t supposed to see.
I get that this isn’t a movie for everyone (as my wife can certainly attest). Hell, this wasn’t a movie for 1982, if the box office receipts are any indication. It is, however, one of my all time favorites, and a movie that to this day still manages to make me feel cold whenever I watch it.
It is also my favorite horror movie of all time.
(PREQUEL NOTE: In 2011 for some unbelievable reason Universal Studios released a prequel to The Thing, based on the events of the Norwegian outpost. The film bombed, and has had a mixed reaction from viewers and Thing fans alike. I went in nervously, not knowing what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised. While flawed, it’s a pretty fun little movie that is very reverent toward the original source material, explaining all the little plot points in the Norwegian base scenes nicely. It falls apart at the end, but is still immensely fun, even with the overreliance on computer-generated Thing effects. Hell, my wife even loves it, and considering her opinions on the first movie, that’s pretty damn impressive.)
Agree? Disagree? Have your own favorites you want to talk about? Sound off in the comments!
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-- Matt Carter
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