31 Screams in October, Vol. 2, #3: The Thing (1982)

Posted: October 3, 2015 in Movie Review
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The Thing (1982)

Director: John Carpenter

Starring; Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, Joel Polis, Thomas Waites

Second to waking up to a world where you’re the last man standing, the idea of being unable to distinguish friend from foe that wants to copy and destroy you is one of the most terrifying thoughts that I can conjure. In the 1950’s, there were several tales of fiction which fed this particular fear. One was the 1951 science fiction classic “The Thing from Another World” which was based on the 1938 novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. One of the very first films about a hostile alien force, it made other, similar films like Ridley Scott’s “Alien” possible. The John Carpenter-directed remake of “The Thing” is less a re-telling of the 1951 film than it is a closer adaptation of the original source material.

The film opens with an alien spacecraft crashing to the Earth, and then moves ahead to the winter of 1982, where an American research team located in Antarctica have their quiet operation interrupted by a nearby research team composed of Norwegians, who are inexplicably chasing a husky with a rifle, thermal charges and a helicopter. All but one are killed when one of the thermal charges misfires and destroys the helicopter. The surviving Norwegian gets a bullet through the eye, courtesy of one of our defending American scientists. The Americans, led by R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), bring the dog inside their compound. They move to investigate the Norwegians, wanting to know just what could have possibly driven them to hunt down that dog. When they arrive at the camp…. or what remains of it…. they discover inside the charred remains of some hideous looking thing that actually has a few human features. Being the scientists that they are, they bring it back with them to their base. Big mistake.

They find out, as soon as they put him in with their other sled dogs, that this one is not a dog at all. One shocking special effects sequence later, and the “dog” has begun to absorb two of three huskies. After a quick blast from their flamethrower, the scientists find that this…. whatever it is…. was not just absorbing the other dogs. It was beginning to copy them, and would have finished the job had they not acted so quickly to stop it. Suddenly, a fear overwhelms the group: That “dog” had been running loose for quite a while before they put it in the kennel, and it had been alone with more than one of them for extended periods. So, who among the research team is really them, and who is a copy? Another question that comes up but that is answered by another helicopter search is how long it had been here. Frozen solid for 10,000 years, apparently, and they have the Norwegians to thank for digging it and its spaceship out of the ice.

Foolishly, they have kept both the creature from the Norwegian site and the faux huskies, and when one of them is left alone in the room with the Norwegians’ “thing,” he is absorbed just like the dogs were. His friends destroy it but one of them, Blair (a moustache-less Wilford Brimley) suffers a nervous breakdown. He’s just calculated that the entire world’s population could be overrun by this thing in a little more than three years, and he’s determined to see that doesn’t happen. He sabotages the helicopter and the radio, and also kills the remaining dogs. He’s put away in the tool shed for his own health, but the damage is done. All contact with the outside world is gone. Worse still, they cannot run the standard blood test because all the blood packs have been destroyed. Three more lives are lost when Norris (Charles Hallahan) appears to suffer a heart attack but is proven to be a copy when Dr. Cooper (Richard Dysart) attempts to defibrillate him and has both arms chewed off by Norris’s “torso.” Not long after this, Clark (Richard Masur) is shot through the head by MacReady when Clark attempts to stab him from behind.

Finally, a blood test is improvised by MacReady, touching a heated copper wire to a blood sample from the thumbs of Cooper, Clark, and each surviving scientist (except for Blair, still exhiled in the tool shed). Through this test Palmer (David Clennon) is I.D.’ed as a copy and destroyed, but not before taking Windows (Thomas G. Waites) with him/it. MacReady and three others are found to still be human, and they move to test Blair as well. The tool shed, at first glance, appears empty, but they realize Blair has dug a tunnel underneath where he has been building what looks very much like a small version of the alien spacecraft that crashed to Earth. “Blair” absorbs two of them, leaving MacReady to fend for himself while Childs (Keith David) is nowhere to be found. MacReady uses the dynamite they’ve set up to destroy “Blair” and their entire research facility. Childs shows up out of nowhere but, realizing just how futile it is to go on distrusting one another, he and MacReady share a drink as they “wait a while” and “see what happens” as the temperatures continue to plummet to hazardous levels.

While I’ve observed and participated in much of the displeasure over the growing trend of horror remakes, I cannot deny that there have been some which I felt did manage to outdo the originals. I count “The Thing” among this select group, and John Carpenter’s direction has an awful lot to do with it, as do the spectacular makeup effects (the REAL star of this movie). Carpenter almost didn’t get the job at all, as Tobe Hooper had been the original choice. It’s the first of his movies for which Carpenter didn’t compose the score himself, but I’d like to think of Ennio Morricone as a more than adequate substitute. I’m also impressed by the film’s defiance of the unwritten rule that you must have at least one female cast member in a horror movie. We don’t get to know these twelve men as well as we did the crew of the Nostromo in “Alien,” but I don’t think the movie would work half as well if we did. More intimate knowledge of what makes each individual tick might clue the audience in too quickly when one of them has been copied and replaced. Sadly, “The Thing” did not perform well at the box office in 1982, thanks in large part to Steven Spielberg’s more family-oriented sci-fi adventure about an alien being who gets stranded on Earth. However, the cult status which “The Thing” has sustained for over three decades now proves it to be a modern sci-fi/horror classic, and a must for anyone’s video shelf. When it comes to the subject of copies, one should not fear “The Thing,” but embrace it.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    This one Charles, Jr., Charles III and I saw together. It has to count as Charles III’s first horror movie, even though, dressed in yellow footy pj’s at the drive-in, he was asleep part of the time and only a few months old. If his subconscious mind absorbed the sound and dialog, that would be about the extent of it, and pretty weird at that. However, I did and still do really enjoy this movie. Nicely written, CEW III. Congrats!

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