The Thing - the horror movie that won’t age
It’s hard to predict how a movie will age. Some get better while others start showing their flaws. A few will even briefly shine before time catches up with them. But John Carpenter’s The Thing remains an ageless and terrifying horror movie.
In one way the Antarctic is a good place for a movie. Technology changes, but not by a lot. For the most of us, how people behave at the far south of our planet is mostly a mystery. It’s almost always parkas, grizzled explorer types, wolfish hounds and close quarters surrounded by snow.
Maybe the real thing is different, but this movie archetype seems quite timeless. Even watching Werner Herzog’s 2007 film Encounters at the End of the World reveals a world similar to The Thing — only they were made 25 years apart.
John Carpenter made The Thing in the early Eighties. After the success of Escape From New York, he appeared to have had some leeway in terms of being ambitious. It ended up being a box office dud, though Carpenter recovered the following year with Christine. Critics didn’t take to it either. Yet over time The Thing has creeped into all kinds of movie lists and horror homages as a classic.
Adapted on a short story from the 1930s, it’s actually the second of its kind. 1951’s The Thing From Another World also used the story, only it jettisoned the paranoia of the various people and the monster’s shape-shifting abilities. Fun fact: you can spot this movie’s title sequence on a TV in Carpenter’s Halloween.
In the Thing the crew at an American Antarctic base come in contact with a shape-shifting alien creature that can mimic anyone. Pretty soon the people start to suspect each other: who has been infected and who is fine?
It’s a fine bit of paranoia that runs perfectly with the remote, isolated location. Shot on a glacier, the exterior set was built before the snow season, so when shooting took place it looked like a half-buried outpost.
Another bit of genius was to bootcamp the actor for two weeks before the shoot. They hung around in cloistered conditions and really got to know each other as well as develop their characters. The result is a very believable cast who truly radiate a mixed bag of confusion and survival instincts.
All of that make for a great movie. But The Thing’s clincher comes with its special effects. From the space ship crashing towards earth to matte backgrounds painted by the late and great Albert Whitlock to the creature effects.
Yes, the creatures. If this bit requires any explanation, you have not seen The Thing yet. The shape-shifter sequences are incredible examples of real-world effects and a particular moment involving a human head has become as iconic in movie lore as the Alien chest-burster and Jaws coming up for chum.
A 2001 prequel failed to capture any of the intensity in Carpenter’s work. Even Carpenter’s other movies have not held up as well as this film (except perhaps Big Trouble in Little China).
The Thing is still a fun, freakish horror film where nothing overpowers the rest and everything is at its best.