John Carpenter is as synonymous with horror as Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper and George A. Romero. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he developed memorable horrors like The Fog, Christine and his seminal work Halloween. One of his most enduring legacies though is the science fiction horror The Thing, which combined state of the art puppetry, with a deranged plot in an isolated research station. It did not do well at the box office as it ran into stiff competition from Steven Spielberg‘s juggernaut E.T., but it has developed its own following after release on DVD.
The Thing is set in an isolated Antarctic research station and follows protagonist and helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell). A Norwegian scientist from another research facility miles away is seen chasing a dog across the icy wasteland trying to shoot it. They kill the Norwegian in self-defence, but the dog, when added to pound begins a horrific transformation and the crew slowly turn on each other as one-by-one they are assimilated by the unknown entity. Paranoia and mistrust lead to a variety of showdowns amongst one another as the realisation that they cannot let this infection spread to the rest of the world.
The setting of Antarctica is perfect as the pure white scenery acts as a perfect canvas for the scenes of isolation and paranoia on which the film is based. There is a real sense of man vs. nature vs. intruder and it is as claustrophobic as any film before or since. The audience is immediately trapped with the increasing mental infirmity of the crew, which allows some agonising tension as we don’t know who to trust anymore than the crew do.
The real lasting impression from The Thing is the transformation scenes. As a crew-member is assimilated by the organism it goes through a horrific mutation and the puppetry used by Carpenter and crew still holds up tot his day. The pulsating, oozing, shaking creatures are so powerful that it’s almost impossible not to remember at least on the them. It is gore for the sake of horror, which makes a nice change from the repititious scenes of gore in later films in the genre.
The revelation of the origins of the creature is subtle and intriguing, but combined with the superb performances, incredible score by Ennio Morricone and the overall sense of despair and The Thing is a masterpiece. The inevitability and more importantly paranoia of the tension help the film to combine elements of horror, science fiction and even a sort of courtroom drama. There is no question that this is one of Carpenter‘s best film and one of the most affecting science fiction horrors of all time.