A lone helicopter swoops erratically through chilly Antarctic landscapes, the Norwegian men aboard doing their best to shoot and kill an apparently ordinary dog. At the outset of horror director John Carpenter’s magnum opus, The Thing (1998), we wonder what could be happening, and almost instinctively, we side against the men shooting at the helpless dog, who is soon rescued by the confused men at a neighboring American outpost.
The mystery of those men in the helicopter, who die in a fiery crash, intensifies as the Americans investigate their torched compound, complete with an unsightly, almost inhuman, frozen corpse. Even as Carpenter raises more questions, he uses his camera to hint at the answer, following the mysterious dog around the compound as he skulks among the men with a hint of wooden calculation conveyed by his stiff movements and Carpenter’s perpetually lingering camera.
The original 1979 Halloween, which established Carpenter as one of the world’s greatest minds in savage but disciplined horror filmmaking, used the same sort of slow-moving camera movements to create an air of implied doom as boogeyman Michael Myers stalked teenagers in suburban Illinois. But Halloween was an exercise in simplicity, while The Thing‘s denser, extra-terrestrial-based plot allows Carpenter to explore complex psychology, higher stakes, and a shape-shifting adversary.
Myers was scary because he was unstoppable. The titular Thing is scary because it’s unstoppable and unknowable, making for an atmosphere of intense distrust within such a delicately contained environment. Plus, if it gets out, the human race is essentially toast.
Carpenter’s storytelling instincts amplify the horror, as he doesn’t waste time fleshing out precisely what the alien invader is and what it does. It kills organisms, and regenerates a perfect copy of its cells so that it might kill more. Other horror films tread lightly around the rules of their monsters, but here they are clear, so the characters might act as competently as possible.
The grizzled men at this Antarctic outpost, led by a never-better Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady, have all the facts, and they act as most of us would given the situation — a fact that makes it all the more terrifying when their actions are still hopeless to stop the spread of this alien parasite.
MacReady is the hero of the story by default, but he’s not any sort of hero by most standards. Wilford Brimley’s Blair is probably the most heroic of the lot, as he realizes the threat the Thing poses to the human race and decides to torch their compound so it cannot escape. Of course, the others wish to live and lock Blair up for most of the film. MacReady is a counterpoint to Blair, whose sole motivation is self-preservation.
When the others believe him to be turned, he takes them hostage with a flamethrower, and it’s easy to see in Russell’s crazed eyes he’d kill the lot of them if he had to — a sign of both his character and of the intense paranoia built into this premise, which might recall McCarthy-era paranoia (as it should; the film is a remake of the 1951 Thing from Another World, in turn based on a 1938 novella).
The film is an exercise in primal horror and group psychology, as the social expectations that bind the outpost together are completely broken down as the men slowly realize they don’t know who is who.
There’s an implied existential question to it all, too, as demonstrated in its best scene, and one of the greatest horror scenes ever filmed. MacReady ties up the other survivors so he can test their blood, correctly assuming that the Thing’s cells will try to protect themselves even when isolated in a blood sample. If the blood reacts, that person is the thing. MacReady, to make a point, even tests himself, and we can see the way he just barely breathes a sigh of relief after he tests his own human blood. It’s never said, but he and the others must wonder, “Am I the alien, and simply unaware of it?” It’s a fascinating crisis of self that works amazingly, layered into the scene with a dozen other layers that work just as well.
The tension to the scene show Carpenter’s mastery of his audience. The first alien blood sample reacts only seconds after the last test, when MacReady tested the blood of the most obvious suspect without incident. It’s a moment to breathe a sigh of relief, and in this moment when the audience has its guard down, the next sample squeals and explodes in a spectacularly terrifying surprise.
The surprise leads me to another aspect of The Thing’s unique greatness, one I can’t believe I’ve yet to mention — the special effects, created by Rob Bottin and his crew. His practical creations have weight, unlike modern CGI effects, and they’re convincingly uncertain, always shifting into new and disturbing configurations, as a shape-shifting alien would.
Each time the Thing reveals itself, it looks different, but each time it looks otherworldly and incomprehensible. Like MacReady and the rest, we can understand the Thing on a basic level, but can never hope to comprehend how it feels and how it thinks, if it does either.
In the film’s final moments, Carpenter undermines his apparently conclusive climax, raising new questions simply by letting his camera linger a second too long. MacReady and his tough-guy rival Childs are the only two men left, huddling over the warmth of the torched outpost. They wait and watch each other. They know, as we do, that either one of them might be the alien and they know what it means for humanity if the Thing gets out. Rather than provide answers and relieve the tension, Carpenter fades to black, to keep us asking.
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf
Check out Entertainment Cheat Sheet on Facebook!