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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Classics Review: The Thing (1982)


Every time I rewatch The Thing, I think I have it figured out, knowing all the tricks it has up its sleeve as it readies itself to ensnare me - ultimately consuming and assimilating me like each one of the film’s unfortunate victims. But this time is different. It’s not getting me this time dammit. I am going to outwit, outplay and outlast (where my Survivor fans at?) the Thing as it works to do the same to me. But alas, it never works. The Thing, without fail, always manages to catch its prey, fooling me into a false sense of security. Despite seeing it umpteenth times and fully knowing what to expect, I always end up uncovering something new beneath the snowy, bloody, gooey tundra as it pulls you deeper into the arctic hell John Carpenter crafted so effortlessly 39 years ago.


Taking place in an Antarctic research base, a group of Americans find themselves fighting for survival among themselves as a shape-shifting creature invades their base, slowly picking them off one by one as it consumes and imitates its victims.

Adapted from the John W. Campbell Jr. novel Who Goes There?, The Thing’s concept is something you may have seen in some of your favourite shows, games and movies since then. And although it’s a concept that has been done similarly in films prior to it, particularly the 1951 original The Thing From Another World and both iterations of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Carpenter’s interpretation of the source material, as well as his take on paranoia and mistrust has arguably been more influential in pop culture through film, TV and videogames in particular. Where The Thing From Another World and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the 1950s original at least) served as interesting metaphors for anti-communist fear mongering and McCarthyism respectively, they serve as an accurate snapshot of the zeitgeist of their time (notably the 1950s), and although the Body Snatchers remake gave it a fresher, more relevent update in 1978, none of these films quite reached the same level of timeless relevance that The Thing found itself inheriting past its 1982 release.

However, The Thing was not a hit upon its release. Billed to coincide with the release of Spielberg’s family friendly mega-hit E.T., Universal were expecting The Thing to be a hit as much as E.T. was as it was perceived to only appeal to kids while The Thing would be marketed towards grownups instead. The kids would go see E.T. while the parents would hop over to The Thing right? Not quite. E.T. surpassed its expectations and became a worldwide sensation filled with the hope and friendship audiences craved for, while The Thing was filled with nihilism, gore and wide-eyed paranoia. Thanks to the waning interest in horror among viewers as well as test audiences not liking the ambiguity of the film’s finale, The Thing was just too gloomy and perhaps even too far ahead of its time to get its deserved praises. Thankfully this all began to change when the film arrived on home video, forcing people to revisit and reevaluate what they initially thought about the film. Once again, home video comes in to save an overlooked gem from potential obscurity.

Carpenter brilliantly plays with shifting perspectives to build an intense level of paranoia and mistrust throughout the film. Normally, we would be pushed to stick with the charismatic, Hollywood-friendly Kurt Russell ‘protagonist’ of MacReady, but he refuses to do so. Even though we do spend the most amount of time with him at the epicenter of it all, he wants us to doubt everyone, including the perceived hero of the story as his paranoia begins eating away at him, causing MacReady as well as the audience to question who he really is. Again, this is why Carpenter’s choice of spreading screen time around the large ensemble is so important as it constantly tests our own perceptions of who we think these people are and who they have possibly become. We never see the full picture as to where everyone is at any given time, and by essentially hiding the finer details of each characters whereabouts and intentions, Carpenter allows for the unpredictableness and mystery of The Thing to flourish.

However, the gloomy, pessimistic themes and ideas didn’t test well among audiences of the time. They showed that they would much rather prefer definitive answers instead of ambiguity, thanks to mainstream feel-good hits like E.T. Despite Carpenter providing key clues and important character beats to help audiences come to their own conclusions of its ambiguous finale, they hated that. Carpenter stuck to his guns and it’s a true testament to his vision - one that didn’t let negativity deter the intended route the film needed to take. A happy, neat, Hollywood ending just would not have worked as effectively, and thankfully due to its somewhat depressing up-in-the-air ending, The Thing allows us to revisit and solve the mysteries that still remain within. It’s endlessly re-watchable because of it. Fear of the great unknown is one of the defining characteristics of cosmic horror, a subgenre created by sci-fi horror author H.P. Lovecraft. The Thing and a large portion of John Carpenter’s output as a filmmaker is influenced heavily by this notion. One of Lovecraft’s effective ways of instilling horror in its readers is when he chose to not describe monsters in great detail. Instead, he lets the imagination of his readers run away with them as he purposely stops in his tracks trying to make sense of the unspeakable horrors that lay before his characters. That is why it’s incredibly difficult to make an accurate form of cosmic horror work on the screen as you need to give some sort of added mystery and imagination to what could potentially be unfurling itself in front of our eyes. Although we do see the Thing and multiple versions, or forms, of it in the film, we still never see the creature on its original appearance. Special make-up effects master Robin R. Bottin designed the many iterations of this creature with the very idea in mind that this being has traveled across the galaxy, assimilating and absorbing other creatures as it adds to its ever-growing list of organisms it can shapeshift into. This allows for the visual and aural horror to take the film to truly cosmic horror territories, allowing the baffling shapes, textures and sounds of the monster to be completely indescribable to viewers. You really have to see it to believe it as we try to make sense of the grotesque horror forming on screen as it continues to turn into its victim’s appearance, going through the Rolodex of creatures it has collected. These make-up effects are simply spectacular, still holding its ability to evoke unease, queasiness and terror in us as it reveals its many forms to us. Lovecraft’s characters are often driven mad by the things they see and endure in his stories. Carpenter does this justice as he puts unforgettable imagery onto the canvas, pitting each character to the spot as they are frozen with sheer terror and bewilderment, much like we are. Although we begin to understand the creature’s methods in how it hunts and changes, we are never given an explanation as to why it’s doing what it’s doing - its motives. Even when an individual is “infected” or assimilated by the Thing, we are never given insight into it - no monologues from the big baddie as it explains its evil master plan to us. Once again, the power of audience interpretation comes into effect as to why the Thing is doing what it’s doing. We get snippets of it here and there, but true to Carpenter’s intention, it’s ultimately up to us to decide. The fact that each individual isn't completely certain they are who they say they are, and the monster's intentions never revealed to us, makes the tension and fear of the unknown in The Thing a true piece of cosmic horror executed perfectly.

The gross creature effects are an obvious hero of The Thing, but what truly defines the film’s masterpiece label, within the horror genre, is its perfect pacing. This is a major strength in John Carpenter's wheelhouse. Nothing ever feels rushed or wasted, and even when things do appear to be slowing down, it’s all for a divine purpose in each one of his films’ final third. With the film’s combination of genres in cosmic horror, mystery and thriller, his pacing remains arguably the most crucial ingredient into the film’s atmosphere that is so quintessentially unique to John Carpenter’s repertoire. It’s as much a thriller as it is a horror, with his use of suspense rarely being matched since. Without spoiling too much, the blood test scene, in particular, is a masterclass in tension as each crew member is forced to come to terms with the fact that the Thing is hiding in one of them, and if it is indeed one of them, are they aware that they are just a duplicate of their real self? Carpenter’s usual use of roving steadicam work provides further moments of unrelenting dread as he crawls through the claustrophobic base, tightening the vice on our characters as he barely lets them breath for a moment. You can hide, but you can't escape. The tension and nihilistic atmosphere are amplified to eerie heights with Ennio Morricone’s layered score that, on the surface, appears to be simplistic, but like the Thing, has sinister, unknown motives surging underneath. He never gives us cues that would spoil the Thing’s position as it readies itself to pounce, playing with the agonizing suspense of waiting for us to be its next victim. In just one of the baffling examples of how underappreciated and wrongfully lambasted The Thing was upon its release, Morricone’s now iconic score was nominated for worst score at the Razzies, as well as the film being labelled as boring and unoriginal. Thankfully we have gotten wiser since then and as expected, an army of critics have come forward admitting their hastiness in dismissing The Thing’s status as a horror masterpiece that was simply too far ahead of its time.

The longevity of The Thing’s legacy is in its ability to shapeshift and adapt to current and future waves of paranoia and mistrust. It’s all an effective allegory for what was happening at the time and pretty much anything that has happened since then. The threat of nuclear war, rising tensions between US and Soviet relations, and even the AIDS pandemic come into discussion when analyzing the film’s symbolism and meaning in the 1980s. And thanks to the beauty of interpretation through the subjectivity of film, The Thing allows itself to remain a timeless piece of metaphorical storytelling that can be newly interpreted and essentially reimagined against the backdrop of our current socio-political (and health) worries. A box office and critical bomb in 1982, The Thing continues to mutate and assimilate according to its viewers woes with each passing decade, as it continues to stake its claim as one of the most intelligent and timelessly relevant horror films ever conceived. Deceptively smart in how its meaning changes according to the zeitgeist’s current paranoia, no one is ever who they appear to be. And with that, The Thing continues to trick the audience at every turn, fooling them into thinking they know the full story and its inevitable outcome.


Where you can watch it: Apple TV, Google Play (SA), Starz (USA), most VOD platforms (USA, UK), Stan (Australia)

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