Catching the Classics: The Thing

thingSince 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list is updated regularly and is currently more than 1700 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.

I don’t recall when I first heard about The Thing, but it had to have been a decade or more ago. I’ve known more about its reception than about the film itself; I knew that it wasn’t a major success initially, but that it is one of a number of films to have its stature grow over time to the point where it’s considered a classic of science fiction. Of course, I did know some details. I knew it was about a shapeshifting alien beast in the Antarctic. I knew it was directed by John Carpenter, who directed the horror classic Halloween. And I knew it starred Kurt Russell and Wilford Brimley, who are among my favorite actors and character actors, respectively. All of those seemed like perfectly valid reasons to check the film out.

The Thing is sometimes classified as a horror film, and this is a reasonably accurate description, if incomplete. With an alien slowly killing everyone inside the Antarctic base, and many of the kill scenes being rather gory, it certainly has its horror credentials on display. But unlike most horror films, it’s not the kills themselves that are truly frightening about The Thing. No, it’s the shapeshifting aspect… for this isn’t a monster that changes shape to kill. It’s a monster that kills to change shape. It infects animals — any animal — with its cellular structure, and eventually takes over the body. It can then mimic the animal perfectly. Appearance. Movements. Instincts. Memories. Voices.

Yes, memories and voices. Soon after the Antarctic research team uncover the existence of the thing, Wilford Brimley’s character realizes the ramifications of the creature’s abilities. It doesn’t just imitate lower lifeforms; humans are as susceptible as anything else. He soon realizes he can’t trust anybody, and goes mad from the fear. The rest of the crew slowly realize the same thing. Helicopter pilot MacReady (Russell) is put in charge of the team, but he has to figure out who he can trust, and how he can make that determination.

The result is a horror film that doesn’t rely on the startling nature of the deaths to frighten the audience. Like the alien creature, The Thing only seldom acts that overtly, and instead gets under the skin of the audience. It’s paranoia in celluloid form. The creature is nearly unkillable. It’s patient. And it can hide, nearly perfectly, in anybody. And just because somebody is human now doesn’t mean they will be later. The characters and the audience alike are unable to completely trust anybody in the film… not even the protagonist.

The effect is heightened by the setting. The Antarctic is chosen as the location for the story because it provides a convenient place for the alien to be lurking before discovery, and because it keeps the heroes isolated from the rest of mankind — thus giving both an element of danger (no calling in an airstrike) and an element of hope (if it can be stopped here, it won’t wipe out the world.) But there’s a little more to the setting than that. The isolation MacReady and his team face as a group is echoed in their individual isolation; none of them can trust each other. Ultimately, they’re all on their own, even as they’re forced to team up in order to avoid being caught alone by the alien. And the danger of the creature is reflected in the danger that Antarctica itself presents. An infected human looks the same as a healthy one. The Antarctic landscape looks virtually the same at any angle; the safety of camp is easily lost in the climate. One alien cell replicates into millions and spreads throughout its host. The freezing climate of Antarctica means that millions of years of snowfall — in terms of annual precipitation, the continent is a desert — all remain and accumulate into a treacherous landscape. Being caught alone with the alien means assimilation. Being caught alone in Antarctica means freezing to death. The Thing is set in a location that bears a strong thematic resemblance to its threat.

It’s that symbolism, coupled with the psychological aspects, that elevate The Thing above being a mundane horror film. It’s a classic of both the horror and science fiction genres, and deservedly so.

Rating: 5 Stars

33 thoughts on “Catching the Classics: The Thing

  1. This is an all time classic and one of the top 5 “better than the original” remakes of all time. I remember this in the theater when it first released and it was astonishing.

    Nice coverage!

    • I haven’t seen the original The Thing From Another World yet, but I can certainly see the potential to agree here.

      I can only imagine how impressive this must have been on the big screen.

  2. Hi, Fogs and company:

    Excellent piece of work!

    Being older and a child of the Cold War and its “Red Scare” genre of science fiction films. Howard Hawks still holds top tier in that vein. With Don Siegel’s ‘Invasion of Body Snatchers’ a very close second.

    Though, in the arena of paranoid, claustrophobic science fiction, Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ holds its own and stands alone. For superior Special Effects work, ensemble acting and telling its story extremely well! More an homage than a re-make that set the bar very high in imagination and execution for others to follow.

    • Yeah, I’m the “and company” on this one. 🙂

      I still need to check out Hawks’ version, so we’ll see what I think of it when it comes around. Same with the major versions of “Body Snatchers” as well, come to think of it.

      But yes, for paranoid claustrophobia, this is a tough film to beat.

    • Yeah. If it had just been Halloween that was a standout in his filmography, we could perhaps consider him a one-hit wonder director. But this marks at least two great films for him, plus a few other solid ones.

  3. Yep! Love this film. It’s still one of my favorite movies. There are some really funny moments, but it’s the very subtle sense of building horror that gets under your skin.

  4. Really nice connection between the monster and the environment. There are resonances of this in Alien as well, where the creature’s appearance is literally molded by the ship itself. There are shots of the Nostromo that clearly resemble the Alien. I think there is a lot here to unpack.

    The Thing is one of my favorite horror/sci-fi movies, as it takes the body horror concept to a new and startling direction.

    I am glad I came upon the site. I look forward to following the progress!

    • Good call on Alien; definite resemblance between the ship and the creature in that one.

      The body horror in The Thing is certainly strong… especially as there seems to be the implication that someone who is infected may not even know it initially.

  5. I remember the X-Files episode in the first season very similar to this, but I never checked out The Thing until about a year ago. It is pretty great and gets better on a second viewing. I also love the setting, and I like your insight into why its in the Antarctic.

  6. Excellent review! Time has been very kind to this version of The Thing. I believe it was a complete flop when it came out. They reckon one of the reasons was that it came out around the same time as E.T. and everyone was high on aliens being cute and nice, rather than eating us for lunch.

  7. A personal Fav of mine, seen 1st time on VHS around ’85/’86, freaked me out completely! I had the Alan Dean Foster film adaptation, which if I remember, was quite good, and is hard to find these days! I have subsequently bought this on DVD, and now Blu-ray, I also had the Soundtrack on vinyl in the 90’s, which I used to sample the strings on making dark trip-hop/ electronica!
    I won 3 t-shirts from Last Exit to Nowhere by designing a poster (here) based around “The Thing” that’s me wearing an “Outpost 31” tee!

    So, you could say it’s sunk quite deep into my subconscious! this, and Alien were 2 films which left a deep love of sci-fi/horror, I regularly quote from “The Thing” unintentionally, yup, total geek, and proud!
    I put my love of horror and sci-fi down to my dad, who regularly used to get me out of bed late on friday night for the late night movies, usually B-movies in B&W) after he got back from the pub, I think he just wanted to pass on something to his young son, I do the same thing with mine now ( Godzilla, The Kaiju variety are a bit of a fav of his at the moment!)

  8. Yeah, I think you just put yourself in the “Superfan” category for this film. 😀

    Alan Dean Foster sure did an awful lot of movie adaptations, didn’t he? I usually see more adaptations from him than original novels at the used book store…

    Alien is great as well; another five-star film, easily.

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