“…satiation rather than horror…” – Derek Malcolm
“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding.” – Palmer
If we are not going to have AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, then we will have to satisfy ourselves with this masterly homage to Lovecraft’s horror. Although this film is based on a novella, WHO GOES THERE? by John W, Campbell, this adaptation is pictured through H.P. Lovecraft‘s mutated spectacles.
THE THING is a significant, ground-breaking, science-fiction-horror film that was under appreciated at the time and, like BLADE RUNNER which was released in the same year, it has gathered a loyal following and critical acclaim after years of VCR and DVD sales. It shares the theme of identity with BLADE RUNNER and what happens when humans become indistinguishable from aliens/robots, in this case, the ‘replicant’ is a horrific, deadly ‘Thing’.
A group of male scientists in an isolated research station in the Antarctic dig a frozen creature from the ice. The parasitic creature is able to replicate the creatures it inhabits, which introduces nerve-jangling paranoia to the film culminating to its most jumpy moment where no-nonsense, tough-guy J.R. ‘Mac’ MacReady (Kurt Russell) devises a blood test using a hot wire. I have seen this film a dozen times and I still jump when the creature reveals itself.
There was a time when it was also known as ‘John Carpenter’s …’ presumably to differentiate it from the Howard Hawks produced THING FROM ANOTHER PLANET (1951). The epithet is pointless as Carpenter’s stylistic touches are all through the film. He made his name with HALLOWEEN (1978), the original stalk-and-slash chiller that created suspense through using the full expanse of a wide screen, fluid camera movement and an eerie, electronic soundtrack.
All of these factors are deployed to great effect in THE THING: there’s a moment when the full-wide-screen reveals a gooey aspect of the creature dripping to the ground, escaping, as characters are talking at the back of the room; a steady-cam follows a roller-skating cook around the warren of the complex; while the Ennio Morricone soundtrack sends piercing chords through the corridors.
Anne Billson, in her BFI pamphlet on the film, suggests that the reason why the film hit the wrong-note with audiences, was that its ambiguity and paranoia belonged to the 70s era prior to STAR WARS, which she pin-points as the moment when 80s cinema began, when blockbuster budgets were given to b-movie ideas and they needed to be broad in their appeal. THE THING is decidedly ‘adult’ in how it deals with its genre elements.
The reason why the film is ground-breaking is that it broke the trend for keeping the monster hidden. There was a feeling that all monsters ended up looking like a man in a monster suit. Carpenter creates a vivid creature that it un-predictable, seems to to stink (there’s a brilliant autopsy scene where I am convinced you can smell the rotten remains of the creature), and is almost formless. These tricks are easier to draw in CGI. In this film, the creature has ‘weight’, it looks like its in the room with the actors.
Carpenter has never really produced anything to equal what he achieved in THE THING. There is a pointless remake due later in 2011. Fans of Hawk’s version said the same thing about Carpenter’s, but is there really anything else left to add, when everything is right here?