The Thing (1982) is a movie I have had to revisit at least once a year. It invokes feelings that a lot of other horror movies fail to deliver on, even to this day. When I first watched it as a fresh faced boy of 10, I felt this horrifying fear of the unknown, due to the creature’s unpredictable shape shifting and the harsh landscape of the Antarctic. As and adult, I’m terrified by the helplessness these colleagues are experiencing in the face of an unpredictable threat, and the claustrophobia caused by the research station and its isolation. Before I continue, I’m going to try to avoid spoilers as much as possible; I personally think it’s important to try and go into this movie as blind as you can. A difficult task, considering how long the movie has been out, but entirely possible if you aren’t a horror movie buff; I’m in my 30s and I still have friends who haven’t seen this movie. Assuming you are not a crazy person like me and seek out horror like a drug addict, there are five important elements that put this movie above plenty of other horror out there.
1. Less is More
Monster movies in the old days kept the creature at the forefront of the movie. Posters and trailers flaunted creatures like Dracula and the Werewolf, mostly due to the star power behind them at the time. That, and they were human monsters; while broken and ultimately a danger, there was a compassion that we felt with them. They were vulnerable, they were misunderstood, they were hated and they had emotions. Monsters of the heyday had backstories, cruel histories that tugged at our empathy. However, as the horror genre evolved, it became less about understanding the monster (the last big push for this kind of movie that I can remember is Hitchcock’s Psycho, although the entire film is a spin on that perspective) and more about making the audience uncomfortable through a lack of information. In 1975, this was made apparent by a film called Jaws. Jaws was not like anything else a the time of its release. Based on a fantastic book by Peter Benchley, Jaws tells the story of a small New England town dealing with a killer shark during their tourist season, with a large focus on the police chief, a shark expert, and a grizzled old fisherman. What put audiences on edge was the decision to obscure and hide the monster for most of the film. Due to constraints in the animatronics, the shark ended up looking a bit on the goofy side. This would be a problem in any other horror movie, but due to the ability of the director and cinematographer, the shark remains ambiguous for most of the movie. In the final cut of the film, audiences don’t see the entire shark until our heroes are slinging chum over the side of The Orca, which is well into the movie (almost two hours, if I remember correctly). So for most of the run time, there are these attacks happening by a killer shark, made even more ominous by the fact that we can’t even see this creature as it chews its way through this coastal paradise. Alien did this to a wonderful effect as well(save for a particular “jazz-hands” scene). The Xenomorph, as it was later known, was a constant hidden threat, sticking to the ventilation shafts and the deep recesses of the Nostromo. It stalked the crew and picked them off one by one from hiding places, until only one member was left. Michael Meyers in Halloween is an unstable individual, committing acts of violence and stalking Laurie Strode because she just happens to be there. All of these movies have a distinct lack of information, be it backstory or visual cues. They keep it simple: Alien boils down to “creature on a ship.” Jaws is simply “giant shark is killing people.” The Thing, however, takes its own kind of twist on this approach. While it adheres to the rule of “less is more,” it also makes the monster completely unpredictable.
2. The Monster
Unpredictable monsters are nothing unique to The Thing. The Alien series has various creatures in different states, from the iconic Facehugger to the embryo, Drone Xenomorphs to the Queen. Event Horizon has different ways that the haunted spaceship effects the rescue crew. An American Werewolf In London has a hell of a transformation sequence after a lot of ambiguity around the main character’s specific nightly activity. The Thing, however, blows all of these away. The genius behind the creature isn’t the fact that it’s from another world; its that its actual form is a mystery throughout the entire movie. I cannot say much more without spoiling some of the movie, but I have yet to meet a single person that expects what this movie is doing the first time they watch it. The first “exposure” scene shocks them. And so does the next one, and the next one, and the next one. John Carpenter constantly subverts your expectations over the run of the movie, and not in a few little ways here and there. The director is not afraid to grab you by the hair and force you to see some very unique…things (see what I did there?). To be honest, you see a lot of the monster in this movie, but how you see it allows it to break the “less is more” rule. I will say one something that some may consider a spoiler, and that is that you never see the monster the same way twice, and when you do see it, it doesn’t stay the same for long. It’s an ever changing, ever persistent threat, much to the frustration of our crew.
3. The Actors (and Acting)
Trust and close relationships play a central role in The Thing. All of the characters that reside at the research base trust one another at the beginning of the movie. In fact, part of the slow burn in the beginning is to show just how close some of these characters are, be it in a professional or personal capacity. Then, after the initial “incident,” you get to watch these relationships become strained and truly tested in the face of an unknown enemy with the singular goal of killing everyone. Most everyone here has known each other for a while, even before they arrived to US Outpost 31. As far as they knew, they were the only ones in Antarctica, so they have been out in the wilderness together for an extended period of time. It should be of no surprise that these actors spent a lot of time together before they began filming. They became very comfortable around each other in and out of their roles, so their performance feels natural, unlike some horror movies. Regular fellas working and doing a job (much like Alien) before something throws a wrench into the works. When someone dies or disappears, you can feel the characters reacting to the loss genuinely. Each member of the research team has their strengths, weaknesses and shortcomings. This is most evident in the famous “blood test scene.” Without saying a whole lot, it shows what the characters really think of one another in one of the most tense and memorable scenes in the movie. On top of all of this, these guys are stranded in what might possibly be the worst place for something like this to happen.
4. The Setting
Looking on Wikipedia, there are a grand total of 41 films that take place in Antarctica (including the 2011 version of The Thing; please don’t watch that). While the Antarctic is a barren and almost lifeless place, it plays to a particular fear within humans, and that’s fear of the unknown. I always think of a particular memory when it comes to establishing horror in any medium, and that is when I first met my in-laws. It was in northeastern South Dakota, and it was in the middle of winter. Within the first night, we were snowed in. Mind you, I was 30 minutes outside of town, in a strange house with no other homes within at least a 10 mile radius. The only thing I could see outside at night was a generator with a light pole attached to it. It sat in the middle of their home lot, and everything else around it was pitch black. All I could help thinking is that there were things beyond the cone of light on the ground; that it represented a literal safe haven that could be snatched away at any second in this barren land. The setting of The Thing conveys this exact same thing. These characters cannot call the police; they can’t really even radio anyone in time to get to them. There is no military on the way; no safe-houses; no fallout bunkers. It’s just Outpost 31, and the raw elements.
5. The Legacy
So, I stated before that I would not go into spoilers, and I will not. However, the fact is that this movie was (and continues to be) an inspiration for horror media. Movies, TV, video games, board games, books, comics, and the like all have products that have taken inspiration from The Thing. Some of these are pretty direct, like The Thing board game (which I may say, is fun as hell with seven or so people), or The Thing comic books that pick up right after the ending of the movie (all non-canon of course). Others are more of a homage; movies like the wonderfully made Harbinger Down, The Void and video games like the Dead Space series.
I’d go as far as to argue that no horror (or film) fan’s collection is complete without seeing and owning a copy of this masterpiece of a creature-feature. Do yourself a solid; download and watch this movie at night, in the dark, preferably with a loved one. I have yet to see someone disappointed with it.