The beauty of the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres is that they literalize the figurative. Enemies become demons, philosophers become wizards, etc. This is why the two genres are ( undeservedly ) heavily associated with children, since children have yet to create a literal sense of the world. One of the few bastions of “adult” fantasy is the horror genre. Here, fantasy can explicate the darkest fears of the subconscious. John Carpenter’s The Thing ( 1982 ) is an excellent example of how the juncture between Horror and Sci-Fi can produce amazing results.
A little background: The Thing was directed by John Carpenter ( Halloween, Escape From New York ) and written by Bill Lancaster ( The Bad News Bears ). It’s based on the novella Who Goes There? (1938 ) by John W. Campbell Jr., which also inspired The Thing From Another World ( 1951 ). It stars Kurt Russell ( Escape From New York, Death Proof ) Keith David ( Pitch Black, There’s Something About Mary ) and Wilford Brimley ( Diabetes commercials ). See the trailer here
The plot: A group of American Antarctic researchers get more than they bargained for when they take in what seems like a dog that was being chased by a Norwegian gunner. Upon shooting the man and letting the dog into camp, it quickly reveals itself as a shape-shifting monster. Even worse, it turns out it can impersonate humans as well.
There are several things that makes The Thing a thing of beauty ( i promise i won’t make that joke again )…
The threat of the shape-changing Thing creates tension between the researchers. This could have been played very straightforward: everybody just flips on each other at a moment’s notice. Instead, the characters do something unheard of: THEY ACT RATIONALLY. MacReady points out that “he knows he’s human and that some of them must be human too or else they’d just attack him. He recognizes that there’s still some reason to trust each other. When one of the characters suspects that the doctor might be going insane, he pulls MacReady outside into a helicopter to discuss the issue, rather than just putting the guy on the spot and risking a freak-out from the others. The characters are smart. Most horror films rely on stupid people making stupid decisions. They play on the lowest common denominators with helpless women and children. This is why Roger Ebert once called slasher films “dead teenager movies”. Because they’re smart, it makes the threat so much more compelling when shit hits the fan. The threat of the alien is rational when you remember that the dog had some time to interact with them and leave parts of itself. Anyone could be The Thing. Several characters try to establish a chronology of contact which is constantly in question. Who interacted with the dog first? Who was in the room during attacks? Even suggestions become suspect as we know the Thing could be trying to cover it’s bases. What’s even worse is that even the characters THEMSELVES seem uncertain if they are the Thing or not. When MacReady starts testing everyone’s blood, one of the characters is relieved when his test is negative. He wasn’t even sure if he was still human. Your own body could betray you in this film.
While i’m no opponent of CGI, physical effects are always the best to me in regards to horror. It’s hard to get across quality viscera with computer models. The Thing uses entirely physical effects, making it a bit of a dinosaur when compared to its new-fangled 2011 remake. Instead of this being a hindrance, the actual models allow for a palpable level of repulsion. The Thing has some of the freakiest scenes scenes i’ve ever seen. One of my personal favorites is when a character is jumped by the Thing and his flamethower malfunctions. The Thing’s head then proceeds to SPLIT IN HALF AND BITE HIM!
That’s the kind of shit you can’t do with CG. Like most smart pre CG films, the cinematographer is careful not to hold too long on anything so we always have very immediate bodily impressions of the Thing’s forms. This still leaves the monster some mystery.
3. Build Up and Pay Off
In America, there seems to be two schools of thought when it come to Horror film plotting. You either a) allude to terror and leave threats permanently ill-defined ( Rosemary’s Baby, The Changeling ) b) have immediate scares that jar audiences into terror ( Hostel, 30 Days of Night ). Both of these methods have their flaws: a creepy atmosphere that doesn’t deliver on threat can feel unsatisfying, whereas a overt scares can desensitize an audience. The Thing does both by having a legitimately threatening monster that doesn’t necessarily show itself unless it has to. The camera implies heavily that there’s something…off…about the dog they pick up, and we don’t realize what exactly is wrong with it until the half hour mark. Up until then, all we see is it’s longing looks at the rest of the cast. The film actually convinces you the dog is plotting against them. When it’s put in a cage with other dogs, we clearly see its demeanor is completely different from the other dogs from how it sits.
We then of course get to where it reveals itself as a monster.
Even after this scene, we go only a few minutes before someone else is copied. It’s at this point the film takes a step back to focus on the human drama as these men have to deal with the fact that they can’t necessarily trust each other. In addition, there’s no way for them to leave or get help in this arctic wasteland, turning the camp into a pressure cooker of tension
Overall, i would say The Thing easily rates as one of the best horror films i’ve ever seen. Do yourself a favor and check it out before the month is out.
For more posts on classic horror:
Also, if you want, here’s a quick musical summation of the film