First of all let me say that this is going to *contain spoilers*, so if you are worried about me spoiling this 1982 classic, then you need to go away and watch this film. I see it as a personally insult that you have not seen this film at this point in time.
So with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get on with the retrospective review.
Yesterday I saw that John Carpenter’s: The Thing was released thirty five years ago that day (June 25th). I have to call it “John Carpenter’s: The Thing” due to the poorly named prequel, released in 2011, also called The Thing, which I will cover further later in this article.
When I saw that it was one of my favourite films’ birthday, I thought that I should write a retrospective of it to express just how good a film this is and why I love personally love it so.
Sometimes people say to me “Danny, you are a handsome and clever, what is your favourite film?”, I reply with “Well first of all let me thank you for your well informed compliment, but I cannot pick a single favourite film”, to which they will ask what are some of the my favourite films, and John Carpenter’s: The Thing will always be mentioned (alongside Alien, Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and…. Emmm, something that isn’t sci-fi… umm… the Godfather”.
I can’t remember when I first saw this film, but I can assure you that I was not the appropriate age. I seem to remember watching this and Alien 3 around the same sort of time, so it must have been in the early to mid 90s. The film is incredibly gory and gruesome, which I will touch on further later, and the horrific dog death scene is something that shocked me to my very core. So no doubt this film scarred me for life. I have a thing about animals dying in films and normally do not care for a film that features this, but both The Thing and Alien 3 (the theatrical version anyway) have horrible dog deaths and yet I still love the films, so it shows that they are doing something right (I know Alien 3 is debatable, but now is not the time).
I have recently been doing “Sci-Fi Sundays” with the kids at home, showing them some classic and personal favourite sci-fi films (and some of their terrible sequels, see: The Matrix any anything after Terminator 2), and while some of the films might be a little inappropriate (Alien 3, I didn’t realise how much swearing is in it!), I feel that a lot of these films are not that bad, and given that they are quite old and dated, I don’t think the man in a suit in the original Alien film is going to give them nightmares (despite the fact that Alien is an absolute brilliant film). The Thing, on the other hand, I have reserved for when they get a little bit older, as the effects in the film are fantastically horrifying, even to this day, with so much blood and gore to ensure that they will be going to bed with their covers wrapped firmly over their heads.
When it was first release, John Carpenter’s: The Thing came out on the exact same day as Blade Runner, by Ridley Scott, and only a few weeks after Steven Spielberg’s: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. It seemed that the audience at the time were sick of Science Fiction movies, and so it caused The Thing to not do great at the box office. Since then it gained a cult following and not long afterwards the world would fall in love with it, the same way that I did.
I only found out, maybe eight years ago, that this film is actually a remake of a 1951 film titled: The Thing From Another World, which, while having a similar storyline, is nothing really like the original. Both of these are adaptations of novel written in 1938 called “Who Goes There?”
While both films and the book all have the same setting and enemy, each one is remarkably different from one another. So you will not appreciate The Thing any more if you have read the book or seen the original film.
The story of the this film follows an all male group of scientists, and their pilots, living and working in an outpost facility in the Antarctic. One day a dog arrives at the camp, being chased by two crazed sounding foreign men in a helicopter, armed with rifles, grenades, and buttery fingers. The scientists assume that they are attacking them, and shoots one of them dead, as the other is killed when their helicopter explodes. It’s a rather action packed intro that gives us very little information as to who anyone is, or what is even going on. The first five minutes of the film is just the dog running through the snow, being shot at and chased by the helicopter.
There is a shot at the very beginning of an alien spaceship that seems as if it crashes through Earth’s atmosphere, but I don’t like this shot as it gives too much away.
The scientists learn that the men came from a Norwegian outpost about half a day’s flight away.
R.J. MacReady, played by the badass Kurt Russell, flies a small team to the Norwegian base to discover the place in total ruins. Everyone appears to be either dead or gone. They find the outpost half burnt down, a man in a chair with a slit-throat AND slit-wrists (if you are going to do it, then do it properly, although how he actually did it is another story), as well as evidence of a battle (a fire axe stuck in a wall, and gunshot holes dotted about), and strange burnt remains, the likes of which they have never seen, of a corpse with, what looks like, two faces split together. They find a large ice cube where something clearly was thawed out of the ice, as well as some of the Norwegian scientists research papers and video tapes. The men grab the tapes and the corpse and head back to their outpost to study it all.
Meanwhile the dog is just knocking around the base, sitting under tables and looking at people with shifty eyes. Personally, if it was not for the film staring Kurt Russell and Keith David, the dog would be the best actor in this film. It is not to say that the others are bad, but the dog is actually really good at being suspicious and acting a little strange.
They exam the body that they brought back, preformed by a medical officer known as Blair, and discover that the corpse has various human internal organs, but they are not attached to anything on the inside, and the shear look of the remains tells them that this thing is not human, despite what they have found.
The videos reveal that the Norwegians found something strange buried in the ice and took it back to their camp.
So anyway, the scientists end up realising that this dog has got free range of the outpost, and they decided to lock him up with the rest of the huskies that they have (used as sled dogs, I am assuming), and turn off the lights for the night. As soon as this new dog enters the pen, you straight away get the feeling that something is not right. The other dogs stare at it and stay their distance as the newcomer sits in the middle of the kennel.
At this point in the film, you would really have no idea what the film is about and do not know what comes next. Suddenly the new dog lets out some strange inhuman noises, as the other dogs begin to bark and try desperately to escape (poor things), but it is no good. Within moments the new dog begins mutating and thin tentacles shoot out everywhere, it squirts disgusting looking yellowy/white goo at one of the gods, and its face splits open in a miasma of blood as it wraps its tentacles around the dogs.
The scientist can hear all the commotion and rush in. The lights are busted so they can’t really see what is going on, but armed with axes, shotguns and flash-lights, they enter the pen. To their horror they see half digested dogs, crying out in agony (mate… I am making this film sound horrific), as they see what can only be described as an abomination. The Thing (are! I see what you did there) tries to attack them, but Keith David shows up with a flame-thrower and burns the beast, which seems like an effective way of killing it.
When they get the monster onto the operating table and Blair looks it over, they discover that this creature was digesting these dogs and attempting to assimilate them, meaning it would take their physical appearance, which is what is clearly did before with the original dog that showed up at the camp. It is then that everyone realises that the dog was roaming freely around the camp for the better part of a day, and so it could have easily killed off an assimilated any one of the crew members. Clarke, the guy who looks after the dogs, was alone with the dog for hours and is immediately the first suspect.
The above is only the first twenty minutes of the film, but I really felt that this sets the scene perfectly. It is only once you discover what the creature is that you can truly understand the film. The beginning builds this up fantastically, to the point where, if you haven’t seen the film before or do not know the story, you are waiting for something to happen, but you have no idea what it its.
If you have seen the film before, then it is great for a completely different reason; You know what this shifty dog is doing, and you are trying to guess when it assimilated the members of the crew that you know is a Thing.
From this point onwards begins the key aspect of the film, the main factor which the prequel failed to understand, that it is all about not knowing who to trust. Any one of them could be a Thing. It is not a B-movie monster film, lets get that straight. The prequel ignored this fact and focused solely on the creature attacking the crew. That is not the point. The point is you feel as if you are there amongst them. There is no dramatic irony where we know that this particular character is a Thing, and so we are thinking “Don’t go with him MacReady! He’s an alien!”
Everyone seems normal, even the ones who are Things, which makes it even more scary. Your mum could easily be an assimilated alien, but if she looks exactly like her, sounds exactly like her, and does everything that she would normally do, would you know any different?
The monster doesn’t want to hunt, like it does in the prequel movie, it wants to hide in plain sight and await the chance to be alone with its prey. As they soon discover, when the creature gets a chance, or is threatened, it transforms and attacks in an attempt to digest them and make a copy of person it is attacking, creating multiple entities and spreading itself like a virus amongst the camp.
An example of this is when two characters are busying working away in the store room, which is where they were also keeping the remains of the thing they brought back from the Norwegian camp. One of them leaves for a moment and when he returns, he finds his friend being horrifically assimilated (covered in strange goo and completely naked). It is a quick shot that we see, so we are left wondering what the hell it was we just saw. It is a great way to play on a persons mind and create that psychological horror which I love so much (and I will cover more in my Silent Hill 2 retrospective review another time).
After that the guy runs off to get the others. When the others get back, they find that the guy being assimilated is gone. All that remains is his ripped and bloody clothes. One of them sees him outside, and when they get out there and surround him, they can see that the creature did not have time to fully copy him. His arm is twisted and deformed, and knowing he has been discovered, the Thing lets out a frightful roar before being burned alive (the only way they can kill it).
Blair, knowing what this creature can do if it managed to get back to the mainland and infect the general population, goes a little insane and destroys all the vehicles’ engines and the outpost’s radio equipment, completely sealing the group off from the outside world. During the struggle one of the other members of the team is knocked over and appears to be suffering a heart attack. The following scene turns into a massacre (right at the most unexpected time) and all hell breaks loose. They manage to burn the Thing (as it has revealed itself at this point), but notice that the head, of the character the Thing was, detaches itself from the rest of the body, sprouts legs from god knows where, and tries to escape only to be seen and burned with the flame thrower.
It is here that you really see how good this film holds up to, in terms of effects, to this day. The detaching head is done so horrifically excellent, that it actually looks as if it is real. The people in charge of the special effects clearly took the time to make it look as real as possible, even though the film was made in 1981-82, and you can imagine that they had no computers to help them.
This is something I am very vocal about; I hate CGI. For films such as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, you can’t get apes to act like that, so you need CGI. However, the CGI is done well. It is not a quick and easy short cut. That is what film makers need to remember. CGI is for making the stuff you cannot do in real life. Everything else should be done with animatronics.
If you have seen the prequel film, then you will see that they just used CGI for everything, and while a little bit of it looks good, most of it looks too computerised and terrible. Annoyingly, if you look on YouTube at the making of, they had amazing animatronic effects for pretty much everything. The bloke who splits in half and tentacles fly out of his opening, you can see on this video that it was all done in real life with a cool suit, which opens up as he stands up. It was amazing! But they decided to chuck a load of CGI on over the top of it (maybe even replacing the entire thing with CGI) during post production. It was a terrible move. Especially as the amazing effects company must have spend so much time on making them.
CGI is based on what technology we have at the time. Look at Jurassic Park, when I first saw that brachiosaurus, I thought to myself “That’s a real dinosaur. We don’t have technology like this, so that must be the only explanation”. It was truly amazing… at the time. Now when you watch the film, that bit if fucking terrible. It clearly looks computerised and superimposed into the scene, however the scenes involving the T-Rex and the raptors still look great even to this day. This was because they created real looking dinosaurs in real life, using models and puppets etc. They managed to hold their own against today’s films.
Sometimes having CGI for most of the film can make it look terrible, even if it is brand new technology. The prequel film The Thing is one of these (another one is The Mist. All the monsters look like they were processed on a Nintendo 64 and instantly lose any horror that they were trying to portray).
Back to The Thing… John Carpenter’s: The Thing that is. The disconnecting head looked amazing, as well as pretty much every one of the creatures in this film, because the special effects crew took the time to make them. The monsters are completely messed up and there are so many details you didn’t notice until you either read about it or a watch making of, or the director’s commentary. The dog monster at the beginning of the film has a section of it that looks like a flower, but you don’t realise that it is actually made to look like it is compiled of dog’s tongue and teeth. The whole thing is horrifically brilliant and terrifying at the same time.
Of course not everything looks fantastic. The part of the film where one of them is grabbed and eaten by a Thing and they are upside down in the creature’s mouth, doesn’t look too great. You can clearly see that it is not a person upside down, but the shot is so quick that you rarely have time for it to register. It is only because I have seen this film about eighty times that I notice it.
Anyway, so the detached head gives MacReady this theory that each part of the creature is its own separate living organism, and that leads him to create the most iconic scene in the movie; the blood test scene.
MacReady (who the people are untrustworthy of as they found some ripped and bloody clothes of his stashed away) ties up a couple of the crew and (horribly) cuts their thumbs to fill a Petri dish of blood from each of them. He then tests them one by one by heating up the end of a piece of copper wire and stabbing it into the blood. The idea is that if the blood itself is a separate entity, then it will try and escape being burnt.
The first few people testes all come up fine, leading MacReady to free them. They then help with another flame-thrower in carrying on the test. After a couple more people (including testing one guy that MacReady shot dead himself) nothing seems to happen. This makes Keith David’s character think that this is nothing but a load of bullshit and that this test proves nothing. An argument breaks out and during this MacReady, without even thinking, tests the next person and suddenly a creature jumps out, scaring the shit out of the audience. It is done brilliantly as our attention is on the argument. It is not like a classic horror movie jump scare where it is all silent before hand and then we are treated with this sudden and drastic noise or visual change, this is done whilst our attention is clearly focused on something else.
After this the guy testes mutates and the carnage resumes.
I won’t go into the ending of the film, or the main antagonist, as it is not really relevant to my point, and if you haven’t see the film for a while, but remember seeing it before and liking it, it should hopefully keep it enjoyable to re-watch.
But I will say that the final scene in the film is brilliantly done. The last two remaining characters have survived, but there is some shiftiness going on as if they both suspect the other of being a Thing, but by then the base is in ruins and the cold is surely going to kill them. We are left wondering what will happen next and if any of them was truly a Thing.
I recently wrote a review of Fargo season 3 and this sort of ending was done there and I didn’t like it, but the difference here is that we have already had a final showdown with the Thing and so having the little bit at the end, even if it is an unanswered question, is a little extra. Where as in that season it WAS the whole ending. There never really feels as if there is much pay-off before this. The Thing had this covered, so it is allowed to do whatever they like at the very end.
At this time I would just like to point out at this point that two of the characters you have no idea what happens to them. One is found burnt alive in the middle of the snow and it is assumed that they tried to kill themselves before being assimilated. An alternative death is shown on the deleted scenes of the special edition DVD and on YouTube, but this death is terrible and leaves more stupid questions than letting our minds wander in terror, so I am very glad that they cut this out.
The other character decides to go off down a dark tunnel and is never seen again. I have read that they had a great idea for this character and how they would come back as a Thing, but due to the fact that they were limited by their effects in 1981-82, they simply cut this out and left it up to ourselves what happened to them. You can see the artwork below.
Since the film did not do very well in the cinema at the time, they decided to leave it alone and not make loads of sequels, carry it on, which is great because you can see that, most of the time, multiple sequels tend to ruin entire series of films, with only the original (maybe maybe the first sequel) being the only ones that are any good.
However, due to the cult following of the movie that came afterwards, they did continue the expanded universe of The Thing is many different forms.
Dark Horse released a limited comic series continuing after the events. It states that one of the characters was in fact a Thing and so when the rescue team came, the story could continue.
I haven’t read the comic, but I have read the synopsis of this, and it is not really the best.
Another continuation was properly endorsed by John Carpenter and is a really cool (if not dog hard!) PS2 game in 2002 and is classed as an official sequel to the movie. The game featured a team visiting the locations in the movie and it was overrun with Things. An excellent element was the fact that you could not trust the people you would find and who accompanied you throughout sections of the game, and so you could acquire the items needed to make a blood test. If it failed then the person would be less helpful as you didn’t trust them, but if it shows that they were a Thing, then they mutate and attack. It was kind of a lose/lose situation, but at least they didn’t mutate when you were fighting another Thing, which, when fighting multiple Things, was a bastard.
After that came the prequel movie in 2011, also called the Thing. The film was not sure if it wanted to be a reboot (as it featured some of the exact scenes from the original, such as blood sample bit and the shotguns and flame-thrower in the hallway moment) or if it was a prequel. This story followed the Norwegian outpost (visited by lots of Americans of course) and when they first discovered the crashed alien ship buried beneath the ice, all the way up to the dog escaping at the end, only to be followed by the helicopter and two guys. In fact, the way it ends, you can easily put the original film on afterwards and the two would link together perfectly like one film.
I personally really like the amount of detail that went into the film from the original. Other than a couple of inconsistencies, I did feel as if the writers took the time to study the Norwegian base scenes from the original and try to explain every moment; the Fire Axe in the wall, the guy who had his throat and wrists cut, the ice blog, the two faced body, etc. The only issue is that the film is not very good. As I have mentioned before, they tried to focus too much on making a monster movie, and forgot that the point of it is suppose to be about the crew not trusting one another and the audience never knowing which one of them is currently an assimilation, than being chased through the hallways by a massive mutant monster.
The amount of CGI they used was a terrible choice, and the over the top ending is eye-rolling laughable. It did raise some interesting points into the creature’s origin and if the ship truly did belong to it, or if it was just another alien race that it had assimilated before arriving on Earth, but overall the film is a bit of a let down and almost feels like a B-movie.
As for the original, John Carpenter’s: The Thing is a masterpiece in my eyes. Thankfully, about seven or so years ago, my locale cinema showed this film for one night only, and it was great to see it on the big screen (as I was not born until five years later, so I would have clearly missed it the first time around).
The Thing captures a perfect mixture of horror, science fiction, tension, and action, all held together with blood and guts. The scenes of not knowing who is human and who is not is done fantastically and you are left guessing all the way through the movie, all the way up to the end. On a second run through, you are trying to desperately see the things that you wouldn’t have noticed with the knowledge that you had the first time around about who was a Thing and who wasn’t.
This tension is the true meaning of horror and it is the reason why you should never judge a book by its cover. You never know who is your friend, and who is an assimilated human.
After all, man is the warmest place to hide.