“Paranoia is just another mask for ignorance. The truth, when you finally chase it down is almost always far worse than your darkest visions and fears” – Hunter S. Thompson
It’s business as usual in the Antarctic, at The National Science Institute research station, U.S. Outpost 31, that is until a sled dog arrives in the camp being frantically pursued by two Norwegians in a helicopter. The chopper lands and the Norwegian pilot haphazardly tries to throw an explosive charge into the camp to destroy the dog, but drops it in the snow blowing up himself and the chopper. The other Norwegian starts trying to shoot the dog, injuring one of the members of the outpost’s crew. The outpost chief shoots and kills him, thus eliminating any further threat. Such an odd occurrence begs an explanation, but the only one left alive that has a clue is the dog…and he’s not talking. The only available answers can now be found among the other inhabitants of the Norwegian outpost.
R.J. MacRready and the outpost doctor fly to the Norwegian research camp in search of answers only to find the camp burning and in ruins. They discover that the remaining members of the Norwegian outpost’s crew are all dead, and they make an even more grisly discovery in the process. They return to the camp with a gruesome, twisted, and misshapen humanoid figure, as well as research documents and video footage of an attempt to extract something from under the Antarctic ice. Later that night, the dog from the Norwegian camp begins to attack the sled dogs it’s penned up with at the U.S. research camp, and it begins to mutate while trying to “absorb” them. They burn the creature and kill the dogs it has attacked to stop any further mutations of the creature.
After such a horrifying encounter, the crew of the facility realize they don’t have the slightest notion of what they’re dealing with. Members of the research team venture out to find the area where the “thing” was discovered, only to find the crashed alien craft that brought it to earth. Blair, the outpost biologist, analyzes tissue and blood samples from the “thing” and discovers its terrifying adaptive ability. The remains of the burned creature prove to still be active as it claims one of the researchers and begins to mutate to mimic his form. They burn it before it completely transforms.
Burdened by his knowledge of the true nature of this organism, Blair permanently disables all modes of transportation by which both the human and possibly masquerading alien could leave. He then destroys any way to communicate with the outside world. Trapped 1,000 miles from anywhere at the bottom of the world, with no way to reach out for help, the key to survival is trust. But when somebody may not be what they appear to be, trust can be a tough thing to come by.
The screenplay for The Thing was written by Bill Lancaster, whose previous experience was limited to three Bad News Bears movies and the subsequent TV series. Despite primarily writing comedy in such a narrow scope, Lancaster was able to craft a script that is dark and full of fear and paranoia. It was adapted from John W. Campbell Jr.’s short science fiction story Who Goes There?. It’s a story that served as the source for Howard Hawks’ 1951 version, The Thing From Another World. Of the two adaptations, Lancaster’s most closely resembles the original source material.
On a visual level the film instills feelings of both claustrophobia and desolation. The wide open and barren landscape of ice and snow, offers little hope for escape from the terror hiding amongst the inhabitants trapped within the ever closing walls of the research facility. John Carpenter and his director of photography, Dean Cundey, often like to use a wide-angle format that gives that wide shot that is so perfect for horror movies. In this case it gives the viewer a feeling that there are even fewer places to hide from what may be lurking around each corner of the cramped research facility.
When it comes down to the acting, nobody really outshines any body else. Granted, Kurt Russell is obviously the star of this film, but that does not take away from the value of every other cast member. This is an ensemble cast where they relied heavily on each member to make the story work. They create a sense of camaraderie that ends up eroding as paranoia and distrust spread throughout he camp. At first there is a slight power struggle as MacReady and Childs vie for leadership, with the outpost crew siding with the even-tempered MacReady. Later trust completely devolves to the point where nobody trusts anybody, least of all MacReady.
While the cast includes notable names like Wilford Brimley, Keith David and Donald Moffat, some actors like Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Richard Masur, David Clennon, T. K. Carter, Peter Maloney, and Joel Polis are faces most people will likely remember as “that guy from that one movie”. Of course that fact that said people remember these actors should say something about their talent.
All of the effects, with the exception of the transforming dog created by Stan Winston, were the work by 22-year-old Rob Bottin. Winston came in to complete the dog effect at Bottin’s request, to help ease his enormous work load. Winston had always maintained that The Thing was and always will be Bottin’s film, where the effects were concerned. These practical effects were amazing for the time, and still hold up by today’s standards. Bottin’s dedication and meticulous nature, in regard to the process, was so intense that he slept on the set and was ultimately hospitalized due to exhaustion.
This movie did not open to rave reviews, but has deservedly become a cult classic over the years. It’s a shame that critics at the time did not recognize that this is not just a horror or sci-fi flick, but it is just as much a psychological thriller despite being within the framework of an effects driven movie. Especially since it does play on people’s fear of being able to trust others at face value, or finding out that they are not in any way what they seem.