Overlooked on its release but now hailed as a classic, John Carpenter’s body horror masterpiece is another remake. He took the Howard Hawks’ 1951 sci-fi thriller (based on a short story by pulp author John W Campbell called Who Goes There?) The Thing From Another World and turned it into a gorefest that has never been equalled. Retrospectively, The Thing has proved itself to be one of the most important horror movies of the 1980s, despite not being a box office success at the time. It is now seen by many as visionary, from a technical (the special effects far outstripped anything previously seen and certain scenes are horrifying to watch even today, nearly three decades on), and from a philosophical perspective. Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers it offers a discourse on what it is that makes us human, by examining what happens when our humanity is engulfed by alien biology.
After establishing a successful track record with Dark Star, Halloween and Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter decided he wanted to remake a movie that had entranced him as a child, The Thing From Another World. This black-and-white RKO picture revolves around the (largely) unseen threat to an isolated group of scientists working on an ice station. When we finally get to see what has been menacing the men, it looks unfortunately like an overgrown carrot, and the sinister effect is somewhat undermined.
Carpenter wanted no such disappointment with his version, and engaged Rob Bottin as special effects designer. Apart from working with Carpenter on The Fog, Bottin created the state-of-the-art special effects in The Howling, producing frightening and convincing man-to-wolf transformation scenes. From the very beginning (even before Carpenter hired him), he had a very clear concept of how the Thing should look and behave, resulting some of the most grotesque images ever brought to the cinema screen.
SFX aside, The Thing also contains some fine, understated performances from an interesting selection of character actors. The tension in the movie comes as much from the conflicts between the men as it does from the presence of the monster. Kurt Russell has worked with Carpenter many times, but for the rest of the cast, Carpenter decided he wanted an ‘uncomfortable’ feel, and chose an array of unfamiliar faces. The Thing‘s storyline is conventional enough – monster threatens isolated community and picks off the inhabitants one-by-one – but never predictable, in that it is impossible to judge who will be next. There is deliberate ambiguity about who is taken over by the Thing when, and even repeat viewers of the film share the cast’s edgy mistrust of each other.
The ending, as Mac (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David) settle down to a slow suicide by hypothermia has provoked much discussion. One, both or neither of the men being a Thing are all valid possibilities, and the mysterious absence of frozen breath coming from Child’s mouth simply fuels the debate. There is no triumphant resolution here, no final destruction of the Thing to prove that humans are the superior race. We are left with a real sense of unease, and cannot acquiesce to MacReady’s suggestion that we “just wait here for a little while…see what happens.” The credits roll and we never know what happens. Despite having ‘what happens’ thrust in our faces in full, grotesque detail earlier on in the movie, we are never allowed to see what happens at the end. Thus The Thing is a genuinely scary movie, a parade of visual nightmares which keeps you jittery long after the last remnant of gore has faded from your retina.
- Film Monthly review
- When The Thing Became John Carpenter’s The Thing – a producer’s guide to the evolution and production