Few filmmakers have a legacy that will compare favorably to that of John Carpenter. Carpenter has created some of the most memorable franchises and cult classic films of all time: Escape from L.A., Halloween, They Live, The Fog, Assault on Precinct 13, Dark Star, and Big Trouble in Little China, just to name a few.
It is arguable, however, that The Thing (1982) may be the gem of his career and the movie that finds the perfect balance in cinematography, writing, acting, and music almost in the same way that it finds the balance between science fiction, horror, suspense, and drama.
The film is based on the novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr, which was more loosely adapted by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby as the 1951 film The Thing from Another World. What makes it such an outstanding horror film (outside of being so well made that it still feels contemporary by modern standards) is how it intertwines 3 major elements of discomfort: isolation, paranoia, and the apocalypse.
Layering these elements together narratively as well as metaphorically through the environment and the cinematography is an impressive accomplishment that is rarely seen in any genre, and is particularly impressive in horror.
The Thing shares common properties with other monsters that convert their prey, bolstering their number by consumption, such as vampires, pod people, and the like. However, the body horror induced by the violent conversion of the consumed as the infestation spreads from host to host is so extreme, and the totally converted hosts are so completely normal and unchanged, that the dread more successfully explores the feeling of being alone and in constant danger rather than deeper metaphors about the monster itself.
Unlike other movies about the consumption of the host, there’s even a question of whether or not someone who is infected might even know that they had been changed. How can you trust yourself? At what moment would you stop being you? Even as we follow Kurt Russell as the protagonist MacReady, we doubt his humanity. We see him even test himself. The paranoia festers with the doubt and the isolation.
As a compounding element to this, the subtle fear that not only might the protagonists have lost themselves, but that in doing so they may have made it possible for a thing so virulent that it will destroy the world to escape.
One of the subtle tools that The Thing uses to capitalize on all of these themes is the scope of the environment. Opening with the beautiful landscapes surrounding the Antarctic research facility that is the focal point of the events to unfold, the audience is given a sense of vast scale and endless beauty. As the nightmare unfolds, night falls, tightening our awareness to the facility itself. Next, the storm comes, enclosing us within the ever more confining walls. Room upon room is destroyed by the conflict, reducing our freedom to ever tighter spaces even as we trust those around us less and less.
There is a profound beauty in how the shift in scale contracts. Where other apocalyptic films try to pull back for a wider view, The Thing pushes inward, squeezing the viewers into an increasingly uncomfortable space. The threat grows even as the protagonists chip away at it. This mirroring of narrative with the direction is profound and exciting.
Rarely do we get to see so much layering from the ground up in a film, and when we do it’s truly breathtaking to behold. The Thing is still one of my all time favorite horror movies, and continues to be a must watch for horror fans today.