The gore! The chills! The brilliance! The snow! The humanity!
There was a time when John Carpenter movies weren't just not shit, but they were in fact really good. Escape From New York, The Fog and Assault On Precinct 13 spring immediately to mind as some of the director's most popular visceral treats, and nobody really need say much about the reputation of Halloween. Hell, even intellectual horror fiends got their gore with a smattering of quantum physics in the under-rated Prince Of Darkness. Show the man in the street a list of Carpenter's flicks and ask him to point though, and nine out of ten cats are going to prefer The Thing.
As a mark of how consumate a piece of film making it is, twenty-two years may have passed since The Thing hit cinemas but it still smacks you in the face like a wet kipper with a proficiency in Jeet Kun Do. Adapted from John W. Campbell's short story Who Goes There?, previously adapted for the screen in 1950 by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby as The Thing From Another World, The Thing revolves around a group of American scientists and technicians at a remote research station in the Antarctic who fall foul of an unearthly visitor from space with a tendency to shape-shift. First alerted to the notion that something is askew by a group of Norweigians chasing a husky and waving guns around in a fashion blatantly contravening at least three health and safety laws, our pick-'n'-mix group of heroes and victims slowly cotton on to the fact that something's gone awesomely awry on their patch.
A quick visit to the Scandinavian camp uncovers a human meatlocker scenario closely resembling the inside of Fred West's kitchen freezer and an open sarcophagus of ice that appears to have been excavated from the Antarctic tundra. Further exploration unearths a huge dig out in the ice fields, at the bottom of which there lies what may well be...dah dah daaaaah!; a downed alien spacecraft! Returning to base, the group soon begin to cotton on to the fact that a killer alien menace is mimicking their number one at a time, and it's here that the shit hits the already liberally gore-spattered fan. Helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) gradually emerges as the group's natural leader, his no-nonsense approach to weilding his natty flamethrower proving a most persuasive tool in convincing the lads he's the man for the job, although as the realisation that nobody is potentially who they appear to be sets in things get a little more complicated than merely baggsy-ing first shot at the guns.
The real engine behind Carpenter's vision is paranoia, with the tightly-knit frostbitten family gradually coming apart at the seams as friendship takes a back seat to the survival instinct. The group quickly establish the simple rules of this sick game: disappear from sight and expect to be napalmed upon your return. Unfortunately both the location and situation necessitate that at various points almost everyone is required or unwittingly sidelined into straying from the herd, and itchy trigger fingers soon abound as loyalty takes a steep dive on the stock market. Unsurprisingly, suspicions multiply even quicker than the alien organism at the movie's heart, propelling the protagonists through an emotional landscape even bleaker than the one outside their windows.
The sense of isolation he generates is perhaps Carpenter's greatest achievement here, with a sense of loneliness and despair sufficient to divide up and distribute among any number of other, sorely lacking efforts in this vein. Unusually for once the director has outsourced production of the intensely nerve-jangling score to one Mr Ennio Morricone, although The Big C does pop up on his customary synthesizer from time to time at moments of incidence. Bill Lancaster's screenplay is another departure from the norm, but boy does it set up the atmosphere superbly, at the same time freeing up Carpenter's creative process for the purposes of visualisation and wrangling of his cast. And what a cast. Russell has rarely been better in the tough guy role of MacReady, his practical exterior masking a fear and bewilderment that cements the audience in the centre of the action. Foil to his self-promotion as group commander is Keith David as the other significant non-scientist of the group, Childs.
David would later return to work with his director again on They Live, but despite an immensely enjoyable turn against Roddy Piper, he wouldn't prove to be half as effective as he is here, countering Russell at every role of the deadly dice, challenging MacReady's notion that he's the only one anybody can trust. A supporting cast comprised of stoic character veterans (Wilford Brimley, Donald Moffat) mingles excellently with a number of unknowns, all helping to generate a feeling that for once in a movie you really can't tell who is for real or who may be part killer parasite. There are no egos when it comes to dialogue either, with some absolute gems (Moffat's "tied to this f**king couch" rant a classic, and check out Thomas Waites as 'far-out' radio operator Windows whose "you've got to be f**king kidding" has gone down in movie history) that are most certainly to be savoured.
Now, never mind all that actors bollocks. Given that this is Carpenter, and that the name Rob Bottin appears next to the words "special make-up effects by", there may be a certain expectation inherrent in the viewer's mindset; an expectation of gore. Satiated? You have noooooo idea...
Yup, it's safe to say that whileThe Thing works superbly as a claustrophobic tensioner, it really comes into it's own when Carpenter and Bottin indulge in their shared love of slopping out the mortuary buckets. Oh yes, those of you with a weak stomach might well want to switch over to National Geographic as The Thing comes with a legendary tag for carnage in the body-horror mould that even David Cronenberg would sell his granny for. Severed arms are the least of your worries as heads sprout legs and turn into spiders, chest cavities retract to display razor-sharp teeth and hands and legs burst open into scum-oozing tentacles. Might I recommend you avoid that pre-movie kebab you had in mind?
Operating as it does on both an intellectual and purely visceral level, it's not hard to see why The Thing has achieved legendary status not only among horror fans but also the movie-going public at large. All of Carpenter's usual ingredients are there, but for one night only the dials are getting cranked up to 11. Being a fan of his other works isn't even necessarily a help, as we have here a movie so accessible to anyone with the stomach that a lot of directors before and since would have sold their grannys for half the crossover appeal Carpenter musters here. The Thing is that rare entity of movie making; entertainment, art, and more guts than an explosion in an overstocked abbatoir. Possibly one of the scariest movies made, it also somehow manages to be one of the most exciting and enjoyable. Watch it in the dark if you like, but make sure the emergency lights are illuminating a clear path to the toilet if you do. Sick as a big bag of Sick, good as a big bag of Good. Do it.
Disko awards this movie 5 out of 5 Bobo Monkeys
Keith David (Childs)
Donald Moffat (Garry)
Wilford Brimley (Dr. Blair)