THE THING ***** USA 1982 Dir: John Carpenter. 108 mins
The horribly disturbing tagline: “Man is the warmest place to hide”. In the same year as VIDEODROME (also released by Universal) and at the height of the special make-up effects revolution, this was contemptuously received by mainstream critics disgusted by its unflinching visual assaults of mutated human bodies. It was also shunned by audiences the same summer as E.T.: THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL, itself starting life as a more sinister tale of alien visitation. Carpenter’s adaptation of John W Campbell’s brilliant, influential pre-war novella “Who Goes There” was the black sheep in his career for a long time before its VHS popularity (no movie warranted freeze-framing more) and good sense allowed it to be recognised for the modern American masterpiece that it always was.
A lifelong fan of Howard Hawks, whose fingerprints are all over the original THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), Carpenter nonetheless replaced the banter-laced character dynamics of the earlier film with a rich line in deadpan gallows humour and ditched the archetypal gutsy female lead in favour of a portentous computer voiced by Adrienne Barbeau. In going back to the core of the original story rather than the more conventionally plotted – yet still truly chilling – 1951 movie, Carpenter delivered a nihilistic study in paranoia for Reagan’s America, as a dozen tough-talking macho men are swiftly decimated, dismembered, decapitated and (at best) left to freeze to death courtesy of an alien life form that no one has any hope of besting.
The eclectic cast of hardmen of all ages (from Keith David and Kurt Russell through to Wilford Brimley and Richard Masur) convey a contrasting bunch of personalities in a script that has no time for sentimentality or conventional getting-to-know-you chit chat. Ennio Morricone’s ice-cold score pulses and throbs to an uncomfortably ominous degree and Rob Bottin delivers a series of on-set metamorphoses like nothing seen before or since. The oft-quoted, laugh-out-loud funny one-liner “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me!” feels like a massive understatement in the face of such a vivid, horrifying, even (disarmingly) beautiful display of graphic physical hybridisation, though the movie is equally strong on suspense : the protracted blood-test sequence is uncomfortably intense even when you know the outcome. It was a bold Hollywood studio that funded such a costly tentpole genre picture with such an unrelenting approach and one of the great downbeat endings of any horror era : “Let’s just wait here…and see what happens”. More than two decades later, Frank Darabont – working on a smaller scale but with a more politically loaded subtext – came closer than most to delivering a horror movie with both an obvious nostalgia for the golden age of monster movies and a pessimistic outlook for the society in which it was created : THE MIST and THE THING just might be the greatest – if most depressing – American horror double bill you could hope for.
Review by Steven West