The summer of 1982 produced a heap of landmark sci-fi blockbusters like “E.T.,” “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and “Blade Runner.” There was so much going on, that it was easy for a film to fall through the cracks — and that’s just what happened to John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” The film opened on June 25, but struggled to find an audience and barely broke even at the box office.
With a reception like that, it would appear to be just another schlocky B-horror movie, designed to muster up a quick scare in theaters before disappearing into the cinematic garbage dump. But “The Thing” was far from your ordinary horror flick. The story of an Antarctic research team stumbling onto — and being preyed upon by — a mysterious, shape-changing alien, left a crater-sized impact on horror cinema that is still being felt today. And there are several elements from the movie that prove why it’s so influential and intimidating to modern filmmakers.
Gruesome Practical Effects
The most noteworthy achievement of the film lies with the special effects that were used to give life to the Thing from Another World. The hellish mutations were created by Rob Bottin, a seriously under-appreciated visual artist who has worked on projects like “The Howling,” “RoboCop” and “Total Recall.” By using animatronics and make-up to depict the monster, it created a physical threat in the scene; the look of horror on the characters’ faces matched the real disgust of the actors having to stare at a pulsating, tentacled eight-foot-tall parasite.
As producers increasingly rely on cheap CGI to be a quick and easy fix for every facet of movie-making, a lot of special effects skills will be lost to history. With the exception of a handful of foreign directors (like Guillermo del Toro or Peter Jackson) there’s no one in Hollywood today that can match the terrifying creativity on display in “The Thing.” As frightening as the final product may be, it is still the work of an actual skilled artisan and not just an assembly-line mouse-clicker.
(Special props to the late Stan Winston for creating the nightmare-inducing dog monster from the beginning of the movie.)
An aspect of early Carpenter that gets overlooked is the efforts of Dean Cundey, the cinematographer on many of his first films. Just look at the palette used in work like “Halloween,” “The Fog” and “Escape from New York” and it’s clear that Cundey was a master of atmosphere. His contrast between darkness and light amplified the looming menace that hid in the shadows. By striking the bright white snow of the Antarctic against the dead black night, the environment becomes almost abstract, adding to the fantastical nature of the horror.
Furthermore, for as otherworldly as the Thing appears, Carpenter and Cundey still used the classic approach of bathing the monster in darkness, and only revealing the full horror in brief shots — leaving the viewer’s imagination to fill in the rest.
Usually Carpenter scores his own movies with a signature synth-driven sound, but “The Thing” marks one of the rare times he handed off the composer’s hat to someone else — and that someone else just happened to be the iconic Ennio Morricone. The Italian music-maker is responsible for some of the most famous soundtracks in history, notably the westerns of Sergio Leone.
Uniquely, “The Thing” is one of the few Morricone works that is driven by synthesizers, giving the movie a cold and unnatural sound, filled with menacing, thudding minor keys. Instead of the traditional string section that raises its pitch when something scary happens, a methodical electronic wave washes over the entire film.
“The Thing” belongs to an unofficial trilogy in Carpenter’s head known as “The Apocalypse Trilogy.” (The other two films being “Prince of Darkness” and “In the Mouth of Madness.”) They all bare the markings of one of his biggest influences: author H.P. Lovecraft. “The Thing” especially plays with many of the same themes of the influential writer. The horror is cosmic in nature and unexplainable to human biology. And it’s not just the group of characters in the movie that are victims; all of humanity is at risk, and not for any overtly sinister motivations. Humanity is at risk simply because it’s weak enough to get in the way of a cold and uncaring universe.
The Thing is not a villain; it is simply a predator of horrific, unimaginable proportions, and we are it’s prey. Removing all emotional understandings of “good” and “evil” from the threat, and raising it to the more abstract “survive or die” philosophy is not a comfortable talking point for popcorn audiences (which is probably why producers prefer to keep us distracted with campy trash about naked babysitters).
For a cold and unrelenting threat like the Thing, you need a cold and unrelenting protagonist. As R.J. MacReady, Russell isn’t really a hero (made evident by his gunning down of colleagues), but he has the detached survival instincts needed to get through the situation. It’s his lack of compassion and hesitation that allow him to survive the paranoid scenario; for a lot of audiences that put themselves in his situation, they know they would be goners.
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