The Thing

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"Man is the warmest place to hide."

Is that the coolest tag-line for any movie ever?

The Thing (1982) might be the greatest ever monster flick. Great story in a great setting, well acted, directed by John Carpenter and showcasing some truly awesome special effects by Rob Bottin. This is the kind of thing that filmmakers these days would swear could only be done by CGI. They'd create a shapeshifter with morphs and glowing lights... and these 1982 effects would wipe the floor with them. This shapeshifter has character. It grows insect legs and nasty whippy tendrils. It oozes icky fluid. One feels that its natural shape would be vaguely invertebrate, some scuttling thing that lived under rocks and sucked out brains. It's always grounded in reality (never does the Thing fail to convince) but it's so outrageous that you never have any idea what it might do next.

Of course, the downside of this is that your first viewing of the film is an experience in terror that you'll never recapture. WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS??? Where is it now? On second viewing, you know what's in store and must be satisfied with the film's other virtues.

It's a John Carpenter flick, which to me means great music. Halloween's theme was awesome. Assault on Precinct 13's theme was awesome. However The Thing is pretty much music-free; I loved what we got, but for the most part silence is used to augment the claustrophobia of the Antarctic setting. And it really is claustrophobic; unlike Howard Hawks's 1951 version, these guys aren't an easy plane ride away from the nearest town. They're completely cut off. The radio is pretty much useless from the beginning, while even the simplest helicopter ride is vulnerable to wind and weather.

The characters aren't given much room for development, which might be for the best. A screenplay full of cute character vignettes wouldn't evoke the same mood. The actors give it their all with conviction and brio, but only Kurt Russell gets much help from the script. He's always impressive as a hard-drinking, tough-minded son of a bitch who's ruthless as hell when it comes to fighting for survival.

Though having said that, hardcore Thing fans claim that every viewing reveals new aspects and details. Each character gets his own defining moment, right down to poor unassuming Fuchs (choosing suicide over absorption), and part of the fun is backtracking all the characters and their variously shady motives. Apparently, if you look closely, everyone is well differentiated and strongly characterised. Me, I'll take the fans' word for it. Kurt Russell gets a startling introduction with a chess computer, but with everyone else the film just takes us in among them in a naturalistic fly-on-the-wall style, never giving us enough time to get to know them. When whatsisface shoots someone at the beginning, it's so brief that you'd have to be familiar with the film to recognise him as the same character in later scenes. When some guy says "you gotta be kidding" at the spider-head Thing, you'd *never* realise on first viewing that this is the same man who, um, opens up in the next scene.

This might be deliberate. If we don't feel we know the people on this base, then it's easier for the paranoia to affect us. Even without these nuances, the film works fantastically first time around by dumping the audience in the middle of this Antarctic base and slightly overwhelming you with who's who and how many there are. (How many men are there? A dozen? I honestly don't know. A few have easy identification handles - the pothead, the roller-skating black dude - but it's an ensemble piece in which the interactions are the important part, not the individual folks.)

This isn't a film with a deep theme, or so I thought when I first reviewed it. I was wrong. This is a group of outsiders, isolated in the least populated place on Earth, who've isolated themselves even further - socially, psychologically and physically. MacReady is such a loner than despite his surroundings, he chooses to live in a completely separate building from the rest. They'd rather play chess with computers or watch old game shows than talk to each other, even when communication becomes a matter of life and death. When they do talk, they argue and don't listen. Look at the lengths to which Fuchs must go to persuade MacReady, who just wants to go to his shack and get drunk, to listen long enough to tell him critical information about Blair's findings. (These insights are courtesy of WideScreenPig.)

The plot... well, let's just say that you'd do better not to examine it too closely. You wouldn't normally expect plot holes in a story this simple, but if you try to work out when and how the Thing infected its victims, you'll go blind. What happened with the blood locker? And what about the big chunk of Thing that escaped from the dog pen? (Apparently the eighties television version ended with additional footage of a dog running away into the snow, suggesting that at least some Thing had survived.)

But the plot isn't the point. The Thing is a classic piece of paranoia and a worthy successor to Hawk's 1951 film (though it's not a remake, but instead a more faithful adaptation of the original 1938 short story by John W Campbell Jr, Who Goes There). Random trivia... apparently Donald Pleasance was the original choice to play Dr Blair, but he couldn't do it due to other work and Wilford Brimley got the part instead. Also apparently the Norwegian with the rifle at the beginning is screaming (in Norwegian): "Stop; get the hell away! It's not a dog - it's just an imitation of a dog; it's a kind of thing. It imitates. Get the hell away from the dog, you fucking idiots!"

The Thing (1982) could hardly be more straightforward. A monster infiltrates an isolated outpost and the men there try to kill it before it kills them. But sometimes the simplest stories are the best.

Reviewed by Finn Clark