Saturday, October 24, 2009

One Good "Thing" Leads to Another

When I first saw this movie in 1982, I left convinced that John Carpenter had produced a complete misfire (especially in comparison to the classic 1951 version). But I’ve come to learn over the years that some movies age well, or perhaps they grow better because we’ve aged and our tastes have changed. John Carpenter’s The Thing is definitely one of those films for me. It's now required viewing on the first snowy day of winter and has become my favorite among the director’s work.

The Thing opens in intriguing fashion with a helicopter chasing—and trying to kill—a lone Husky in the desolate Antarctica snow. The dog runs to the U.S. National Science Institute No. 4, a remote research station. In a bizarre series of events, the helicopter crew is killed and the dog is taken in by the research station’s residents. But this is no ordinary dog. It prowls the station’s corridors stealthily as if stalking its prey. It spies silently on the residents. It’s afraid to join the other dogs, which snarl at the newcomer viciously.
Seeking an explanation for the helicopter crew’s unusual behavior, McCready (Kurt Russell) and Doc (Richard Dysart) trace its origin to a Norwegian research facility. They discover frozen corpses and a strange, partially buried “thing” that could be human. Back at the U.S. station, an alien creature reveals itself for the first time by mutating out from inside the Husky (a fairly gory scene). With the creature’s ability to imitate other life forms established, the film’s premise is finally set into motion.

If the alien can be anyone of the research station’s crew, how can it be stopped? The seriousness of the situation worsens when one of the scientists models the alien’s ability to infect humans. He determines that if the “intruder organism” reaches the general population, it could take over the planet in 27,000 hours from first contact.

The plot is supposed to be closer to John Campbell’s short story "Who Goes There?" than 1951’s The Thing (see Aki's nifty review from earlier this month). But, truth to be told, this is a mystery masquerading as science fiction. A murderer is among a group of people at a remote location—isn’t that the plot of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians? The twist here is that the killer can reveal itself and then hide again by assuming another identity. The film’s best scene is when McCready devises a test for revealing the alien’s identity. This tense setup also recalls the classic mystery climax where the detective calls together all the suspects and unveils the murderer.

Subsequent viewings of The Thing allow one to appreciate its smaller pleasures: Ennio Morricone’s suspenseful electronic score (which has a definite Carpenter sound to it); an open ending that actually works (usually I loathe them); and Kurt Russell’s solid performance (less cartoonish than in Carpenter’s Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China).

Still, it’s the remote locale and the “who is it” premise that makes The Thing so entertaining for me. Other films have featured aliens who could take human form (most notably, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and cult classic The Hidden)—but this one remains my favorite.


  1. I agree..The Thing is an excellent film. I just watched it a few months ago, but I think I will watch again this weekend. Good post Rick.

  2. Rick, I've only seen this once when itwas firet released to video so it's been a long tinme. I did not like it then , after reading your post , I'll have to try it again. BTW I like kurt in Big Trouble In Little China. The whole pont of the film is to be over the top and boy is it. It's still my favorite Carpenter film (show's you how crazy I am)

  3. Excellent review! THE THING is my favorite John Carpenter film. As you said, the Arctic setting and the open ending are memorable and make for a entertaining flick. Kurt Russell is terrific, but I also really enjoyed Keith David's performance. There's a funny story about David. He broke his arm during filming (I don't think it happened on set, but while the film was in production), and Carpenter had to film around the injury. There's a great sequence where you can tell that David is trying to hide his arm behind other actors. Thanks for the write-up, Rick! Like poohtiger, I'm jonesing to watch this again!

  4. "The Thing" is a chilling and chilly film. I always hate when dogs get hurt in movie scenes but it serves to show that this "Thing" can take on any host. We're having chili tomorrow and that seems to be best with all of this talk about snow set films! Great write-up, Rick!

  5. I feel cold every time I watch this movie. I really love it. It's one of the few classic remakes I think is really good. The senses of isolation, cold, fear is done so well. And I agree, the music is part of all that. Great blog, Rick!

  6. Rick, this is one of my favorite sci-fi movies. I do not compare it to THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD because the plot is very different,the setting is in Antarctica, and the characters aren't the same. I liked this movie when it first came out mainly because I thought it was scary and tense, and I am the biggest Kurt Russell fan I know. The beginning of this movie is great. My favorite scene is when Mac tests everyone's blood to see who is The Thing. The ending is really good also. I missed the snappy dialogue and likeable characters in the first version, but it would be hard to be good friends cooped up for months in this ice wasteland. I read somewhere that there is an alternate ending to Carpenter's movie where Russell's character is saved and proved human. However, I have never seen it. I love Kurt Russell, but this movie is my second favorite of his. I like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK the best. Snake Plissken is so cool! Great review. It is a perfect October movie. I have already watched it. I have read the story WHO GOES THERE? by John W. Campbell. If you like this movie,there are some books I have read that you would like: TERMINAL FREEZE by Lincoln Child; BLOOD AND ICE by Robert Masello; and THE TERROR by Dan Simmons.

  7. Thanks everyone for the comments! It's nice to know that Carpenter's film has its fans. Aki, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and HALLOWEEN are my other Carpenter faves (though I also have a soft spot for STARMAN). Sark, I had never read about Keith David's broken arm, but will look for that when I next view THE THING. The music does indeed enhance the film, Becky. This is one of my comfort movies, Poohtiger...I can watch it anytime. Paul, I probably need to check out LITTLE CHINA again (as I have other friends who also like it). Toto, it's chilly outside tonight...and chili sounds good.

  8. Rick,
    I have seen this movie! And it is one of my favorite Kurt Russel films. What I love about this movie is that the audience is kept in the dark as much as the characters. Any time a character is not in a scene, you wonder what is happening to them. You could feel the fear and confusion that was going on.

    I thought Wilford Brimley was wonderful in his role, especially in the scene where he goes nuts, smashing up his lab with an axe and shooting at his coworkers. Richard Masur was great as a quiet guy who prefers the company of dogs. Kurt Russell looked awesome with a beard.. i thought he was convincing playing the part of guy who wanted to be left alone with his bottle of J&B. Loved the musical score. Perfect to set the mood for this movie.