John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is not just one of the all-time best horror films, it is the coldest-looking – it takes place at an American science outpost in Antarctica where mists and blizzards are common daily. The Norwegian science outpost was wiped out. Two Norwegians in a helicopter attempt to hunt a wolf with a rifle. But fail, of course. The wolf is then welcomed in by the Americans. Included in the all-male cast are Donald Moffat, Richard Dysart, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, Keith David, and Kurt Russell as the boozing cool guy R.J. MacReady.
The unclassifiable monster can mimic humans and animals and insects, and when it is cornered, it is seen morphing from one imitating organism to another before our eyes. Rob Bottin created the special effects makeup of the ever-changing creature, his work was also prominent in “Robocop” (1987) and “Total Recall” (1990). Carpenter’s film is so terrifying because it is so disgusting and skin-crawling. But the anticipation of the creature’s belated time between appearances is what keeps the nerves on edge – it can f***in’ be anywhere! The elongated corridors and cramped room space is effective because you know the creature is moving somewhere along or under the buildings where the men harbor. Without reservation, “The Thing” is skin-crawling, nervy and creepy just in its orientation.
Autopsies of remains give ideas of what is possible. Once the men learn that the creature can inhabit and mimic human beings the real paranoia begins – it emulates the classic Agatha Christie scenario “Ten Little Indians.” The respected scientists within the group pair up, while the rest turn on each other, and the leader quarantines the suspicious from the others. That’s MacReady, a sympathetic hero, who has to tie up three of the men who might not be human. The “blood test” is a sequence that I feel is of such ingenious predicament that it could have come from Quentin Tarantino’s mind, and in terms of high tension suspense, is as good as the basement saloon sequence in “Inglorious Basterds” (2009). It’s also more exciting that the men are conserving gun ammunition and use a flame thrower instead, a weapon that’s far too underused in battle-with-aliens films.
Another frightening aspect is that we accumulate the feeling that the monster has a retaliatory intelligence. It’s mysteriously scant, but there is an underlying awareness that the monster doesn’t want anybody to get out of this outpost alive. If there is one little development that I no longer believe, it’s that it is implied that Dr. Blair (Brimley) borrows parts from a helicopter to make his own snow escape vehicle. In the freezing climate, nobody could possibly put that together.
The existentialist conclusion is friggin’ fantastic. The survivors crouch into the snow looking out on the fiery wreckage, and one comments that this fire isn’t going to last forever. Neither guy has a radio or unlimited flares. Neither guy trusts each other either. “If we got any surprises for each other, I don’t think we’re in much shape to do anything about it,” mumbles one. Carpenter at his peak (“Assault on Precinct 13,” “Halloween,” “They Live”) was a masterful craftsman who put artistry into his frigid claustrophobic settings. He had an ability to build suspense from the pessimism because you could watch his movies and never guess who was going to get out alive. On top of everything else, “The Thing” has sound effects that are hypnotic and the music has a hopeless deadening quality.