John Carpenter sure has a way of churning out genre classics. The dude set a new bar for what could be done with low-budget, indie horror when he released Halloween. Then he turned around four years later and made a balls-to-the-wall tour de force of practical effects with The Thing, which released in 1982 for a cool $15 million budget. This is a movie that took some time to really catch on and like Halloween, it has become a bonafide requirement for the horror fan. If you’re worried about spoilers for this classic that everyone has seen, then do yourself a favor and amscray, watch the movie so you can be considered a respectable human being and come back. We will be here waiting with open, spoilery arms.
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Mark: John Carpenter’s The Thing. Hot diggity daffodil. There’s a polar vortex sitting above our houses, a general bleakness in our atmosphere as the days grow shorter, and this is the perfect movie to complement that mood. Jake, you picked this movie for us to watch. Tell us why, preferably without parroting exactly what I just said.
Jake: Would you rather me parrot lyrics to a Foreigner song? What do you want from me, man? It’s cold as ice. If that ice were 4 degrees, that is. It’s fucking cold. Like this movie. That’s why. Bam. Perfect. Reviewed.
Still Jake: Just yankin’ your tit, mate. I chose it because on top of the weather, it’s time to review this movie. It’s horror 101.
Mark: I hear that, figuratively. Actually I see that, but that’s not the aphorism. This movie is a total classic. Despite the fact that it was nearly universally panned when it first came out, it has survived for nearly 40 years buried beneath the ice of Hollywood. Fun fact, Blade Runner came out at the same time, and also was universally panned only to go on to be considered a classic. What did you think of Blade Runner, Jake?
Jake: Don’t bury the lead like that, you son of a bitch. I’m not going to talk about Blade Runner. What I will speak to, however, is your comment about the release of the movie. It is insane to me that these two films came out at the same time, and in such quick succession after another goliath like E.T. It has to be at least a small part of why they received only meager box office results. Try to pick out a run of releases like that in recent years. Do it.
Mark: The movie’s opening is a dog getting chased by a helicopter with the two guys on board attempting to shoot it/blow it to smithereens. In a feat of slapstick that sets a really weird tone for the rest of the movie the first guy pulls the pin on a grenade, drops it, and then blows himself the fuck up. It may have been just me (it was just me), but I’m certain I heard Yackety Sax playing in the background.
Jake: Yeah, it must have been wafting in on the balmy polar breeze because that was some dumb shit. I almost didn’t notice how weird it was over my focus on the dog, though. Go back and watch that sequence again. That dog is actually afraid for its life. Turns out you can’t train a dog to be cool with being chased by a helicopter and then buzzed at point blank range. You know how loud helicopters are? Think they put earplugs in for the dog? Fuck no they didn’t. We’re 15 seconds in and there is already a non-zero amount of animal abuse in this movie. Good work, nutsacks. Either way, the movie uses this scene to introduce us to our cast, who are stationed on an American base in Antarctica. They shoot the remaining Norwegian in the dome so he can’t kill the dog.
Mark: Apparently if you actually translate his Norwegian into English he is actually recounting the whole synopsis of the movie. Something to the extent of: “That’s no dog. That’s a shapeshifting monster you god damn idiots. Mark is very handsome and smart.” It’s a rough translation, but any Nord will happily confirm that I got the gist right.
Jake: The gist, sure. The last sentence is slightly incorrect though. You’ll find that the Norwegian actually translates to “Mark has full blown aids and punched a baby one time at a Beef ‘O’Brady’s”. In seriousness though, that’s fucking outstanding. Why did they bake-in actual Norwegian spoilers to the script? What happened when this premiered in Norway? Were people pissed?
Mark: That baby had it coming. Aside from that “premiered in Norway?” This thing barely garnered any attention stateside. I doubt its Norwegian premier would’ve been a barn burner either way. Anyways, that’s your spoiled plot right there: shapeshifting alien monster takes over Antarctic base. Not too many frills, plenty of literal and figurative chills. The real crux of the movie is people figuring out how to tell who is human and who is an imposter.
Jake: Very true. Norwegian aside, it’s really hard to spoil this thing by stating the overarching plot. The brilliance of this movie is in the suspense of who might be infected as the crew begins to unravel the mystery of what is going on. And the gore. Oh the gore.
Mark: The first real glimpse we get at the titular Thing is in a scene that I can unequivocally say is the best example of dog acting I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen Homeward Bound 2: Lost in San Francisco.
Jake: Yep, they pop Norwegian dog into the kennel with the other sled dogs on site and my god. What a believable reaction by all canines involved. Bravo. Norwegian dog sprouts about a billion tentacles and folds in on itself like a Little Debbie Swiss Roll made of blood and guts instead of chocolate cake and cream… Naturally, the crew hears the racket as the rest of the dogs desperately try to escape and they have to call in the heavy artillery and go with a flame thrower. It’ worth noting at this stage that we aren’t using character names in this review because A) there are about 11 relatively undeveloped dudes comprising the cast of the film so it's hard and ain't nobody got time for that and B) Kurt Russell is in it but we will talk about him later.
Mark: And then he lights that mother on fire and sends it to hell. Two issues with this scene: 1.) There is a giant transforming flesh demon chilling in front of you actively eating your dogs and you need to take a moment to collect yourself before you open up the flamethrower? No, that’s not how that works. You panic, shit yourself, and immediately set the entire base on fire if that happens. 2.) Roughly 1.8 seconds after he torches the thing they put it out. What? Why? That’s not how killing with fire works. You’re supposed to let the motherfucker burn.
Jake: That’s actually pretty fitting for how the rest of the movie goes. Seeing the alien in the flesh, the crew dives deeper into the mystery and via an autopsy on the dog learns that the Thing is a molecular chameleon that assimilates living organisms and disguises itself as them to infiltrate larger populations and proceed to grow that way. They discover it had been dormant for about 100,000 years and there’s some janky sci-fi conversation with a computer about how quickly it will overrun humanity if it escapes. As it turns out, it’ll take roughly three years. Does not inspire confidence.
Mark: There’s an outside chance the the Blair-literally-just-asking-a-computer-questions scene is actually a hallucination sequence as Blair goes insane. I mean given the director and tone of the rest of the movie it’s highly doubtful, but it sure as shit makes more sense than that nonsense. In any case Blair does go bananas (B-A-N-A-N-A-S) and destroy most of the technological shit on base to cut them off from the world and prevent help from coming. The rest of the crew takes it poorly, and they lock his crazy ass in a toolshed.
Jake: With it definitely being clear that the men can be taken over by the Thing and with all their transport and communication fucking ruined, the remaining group isn’t left with many options. Distrust quickly builds among the ranks and it comes to a head when they attempt to do a blood test only to find that someone among them tampered with the stock of blood bags, suggesting that one of them has been taken over.
Mark: Yada yada yada “let’s split up gang!” After searching all over the base Nauls finds reason to distrust Macready (Kurt Russell) and cuts him loose in the snow. There’s a whole thing where he breaks his way back in with a flamethrower and dynamite and causes one of the guys to have a heart attack. Norris? I have the hardest damn time remembering people’s names from this movie. Anyway, they go to revive the guy and he transforms into a body monster and head spider.
Jake: This whole sequence is pure horror gold. It’s an effects tour de force with guts and tentacles and ooze all over the place, layered with psychological elements of distrust and mystery. MacReady explains a theory that the Thing is made up of cells that act individually of one another and with their own will to live. He tests the idea out on more blood samples by dipping heated copper wire into each man’s blood in a petri dish.
Mark: One by one he exonerates people as actually still being human. It’s one of the best scenes in all of horror. No one really knows who is still legit, or even this method works. They each get results, but the number of people left dwindles down to just two or three guys. One quick amazingly cool note about the filming itself is that in this scene everyone who is human had their eyes lit on set so that they had a bit of a lifelike glow to them. The actor who plays Palmer, who turns out to be the alien, notably has lightless eyes. Long story short Palmer transforms and kills Windows before getting blown the fuck up with Dynamite. There’s a lot of shit happening in this scene.
Jake: In a classic bit of horror movie stupidity, the four remaining men immediately decide to split up, leaving one to keep guard while the other three go out to test the doctor. Turns out that mother fucker had been assimilated and was scavenging parts to build a flying saucer-looking thing in a tunnel it had dug. This is where it starts to lose me a bit. I love the idea of the alien in this being a simplistic, survival imperative of a godless parasite.
Mark: You have two options: either it’s an unintelligent hitchhiker that killed whatever had built the bigass saucer in the ice and was too dumb to land, or it’s an intelligent alien hellbent on wiping out every living thing that it encounters. I don’t know which is worse. Are jellyfish scary because they’re mindless killing machines or would they be scarier if they actually tried to come after you? The movie seems to heavily suggest that the thing is intelligent.
Jake: You’re overthinking this. By a lot. The thought of assimilated Wilford Brimley alien being a sentient organism that could conceivably fly around in a makeshift saucer is laughable. Seriously, picture that scene set to some Kenny Loggins and it’ll make your fucking life.
Mark: Unfortunately, the Kenny Loggins fantasy never comes to fruition because MacReady blows the thing to kingdom come. Another fun fact about this movie? To save on budget they only built one base, and re-used the torched one they made in this scene to be the shithoused Norwegian base from earlier in the movie.
Jake: I love the end. The movie was panned at least in part for being bleak, and the ending fits the bill. MacReady and Childs are the only ones left, and they are sitting in the sub-zero Antarctic night being warmed only by the residual fires of the base. Their only lifeline is destroyed and they don’t know if the other is assimilated because they had split up. So they drink scotch and wait for the swift wings of death to carry them to their icy grave. Fin.
Mark: No one (audience included) can be certain that either of them are human, and in fact there are an immense number of fan theories about this ending. It’s perfectly ambiguous. I hate ambiguous endings that don’t give any interpretive fodder to argue about. This one gives a ton. Unfortunately for that side, there was a video game that came in 2002 that is apparently canon that shows that Macready is human and childs (regardless of humanity) died of exposure overnight. I prefer to watch the film in a vacuum.
For 1, think of how Jean-Ralphio would rate the quality of his sister:
For 10, think of how Noah would rate the quality of that ride:
Mark: 9 - It’s more or less impossible to do a good shapeshifting bodysnatcher movie without the level of story getting to be pretty high. They set up the intragroup dynamics and each character is well developed (or at least the main ones are). There are almost no holes in this story. The only complaint I really have is that there a few decision points in the story that I can second guess, and Window’s reaction in the blood testing scene is basically suicidal.
Jake: 8.5 - This is an all time great story. It’s not totally original, being an adaptation of the original 1938 novella “Who Goes There?” by John Campbell. 1951’s The Thing From Another Planet is also an adaptation, but not as accurate as this.
WORLD BUILDING / IMMERSION:
Mark: 9 - They set this category up in the opening scene when you see just how isolated the base is. The “world” of the base is well done, almost purely because it consists of like five rooms. As far as immersion goes, almost nothing takes me out of this film. Hell, even the dogs deliver good performances.
Jake: 8 - The world built here is as bleak as they come, and the mystery of the story makes it easy to become invested in what happens, despite some character depth.
Mark: 5 - This is our most subjective category. Objectively I feel like my score should be higher, but subjectively this movie just doesn’t do it for me. Also, unlike my colleagues, I don’t count gore in the “scare factor” category. That probably would’ve helped this out a lot. I will give it credit for having a whole helluva lot of psycholigcal tension.
Jake: 8.5 - A dormant alien life form that could molecularly mimic and overtake a host is a terrifying concept. The fear is then made even more realistic because it introduces the basic question of trusting a fellow man to the mix. Really creepy stuff.
EFFECTS (OR JUDICIOUS LACK THEREOF):
Mark: 10 - Holy cow. How bout these effects, eh? The monsters in this thing are amazing, and they’re all practical. There’s some cheesy CG in the title card and in the very first scene, but they aren’t substantial enough to knock the rating down. This movie stepped up to the plate, pointed at the left-field stands, and fucking belted these effects out of the park. Two words: “head spider.”
Jake: 9 - Aforementioned critical panning? Yeah, it was also due to the intense and all-out gnarly special effects that were seen as gratuitous at the time. What this is, though, is a shining beacon of how to handle special effects. So much care was put into each effect through practical means that even the shots that lasted mere seconds cost many thousands of dollars and took days to get right in filming. This is a perfect 10 outside the opening shot of the movie with the horrifyingly terrible cg spaceship entering Earth’s atmosphere.
Mark: 9.5 - You know what’s interesting? I don’t think I would’ve had this in my top movies without having to go through this ratings process, but on closer examination this turns out to be near the top of my all-time favorites list. The only thing that’s keeping it from being higher is it just doesn’t have that subjective connection on the scare factor.
Jake: 8.5 - Despite the slow start at release, this is now considered one of the scariest and best horror movies of all time. I completely agree with that lofty praise. Required reading for any horror fan.