“The Thing” initially received negative critical reception upon its release. (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)
Of course the term of perfect is not something that can actually be applied to a film. Every film has at least a few details, whether major or minor, that go wrong. That being said, it is possible for a movie to achieve perfection in the sense that it does everything it set out to do correctly, and John Carpenter’s 1982 horror movie “The Thing” is one of those movies.
On the continent of Antartica, a remote American research station comes under duress when an alien creature with the ability to take the form of other living things starts to take the form of the station’s small, hapless crew.
Right off the bat, “The Thing” hits the audience with just how isolated and trapped the characters actually are. As survivors of the last arctic station that the creature attacked chase after the beast in their helicopter, the camera takes wide shots of the Antarctic landscape they are in, which is all snow white as far as the eye can see with the occasional snowcapped mountains. The audience doesn’t have to take the characters’ words on it when they say they are in the middle of nowhere and can’t get help because the film has shown this.
Isolated and with a creature that could take the shape of any one of them, the twelve man team of the station begins to develop a sense of paranoia and mistrust amongst themselves. The theme of paranoia and fearing the unknown was a common horror movie theme as a result of the Cold War, and “The Thing” sets itself apart from other films like it through how extraordinarily well it conveys those themes. For example, it’s not just that any character could be the creature, it’s that every character also has a connection to something suspicious or does even a minor action that builds on the possibility that any one of them could have been replicated and replaced.
With a twelve man cast and only a runtime of 100 minutes, the movie does a remarkable job of developing all of the characters. Through their dialogue and actions, all of the characters’ personalities are laid out in an organic manner so that the audience can differentiate them and care about them in the event that one of them meets their demise.
A lot of credit for this success with the characters rests with the cast, who all give really great performances, the most standout of these performances coming from Kurt Russell, Keith David and Donald Moffat.
While the acting, themes and setting all help to sell the scares of the movie, the lighting and the music add a lot to the overall atmosphere, which helps knock the terror and suspense up a few more pegs from the high point it was already at. The musical score by Ennio Morricone is simple yet uneasy, similar in fashion to the John Williams score from “Jaws,” and the lighting is very natural, which creates a grittiness to everything. For example, there are a lot of scenes where fires or a sparked flare provide lighting for the scenes.
Above all else, though, the truly terrifying thing about “The Thing” is just how realistic it all looks and feels, at least as far as a horror movie about a shapeshifting alien monster can be realistic. All of the characters are believable in their setting, the dialogue is very organic and feels like the things people would really be saying in such a situation and the methods in which the characters go about trying to deal with the creature make sense from what they know and what their situation is. If a shapeshifting alien monster really were to exist and start replicating and replacing people, “The Thing” is probably what it would look like.
John Carpenter has made a name for himself as a horror icon, and the near impeccability of “The Thing” makes him deserving of that status.
Final Grade: A+