Today’s a movie entry! The 3rd of my 52 favorite movies is “The Thing,” the 1982 version, starring Kurt Russell and directed by John Carpenter.
Usual disclaimer; these movies are NOT in order, they’re ordered according to my whims. Nor am I saying they are the 52 best movies ever, or even the 52 movies I think are the best. They are my 52 favorites to talk about.
The first two movies, “Fargo” and “WALL-E,” I described in glowing terms as flawless films, so let’s get something out of the way; “The Thing” is not flawless. It has some things I find a bit awry in direction, scripting, and editing. Few movies are perfect, so that’s not a big deal.
John Carpenter never made a flawless movie, and never came close. I find his movies both fascinating and frustrating. He made a lot of really, really good movies; aside from “The Thing” he also made “Starman,” “Big Trouble in Little China,” “Christine,” “Escape from New York” and others. All have their problems but they’re all good. He also made some bad ones, like “Prince of Darkness” and “Vampires.”
I can’t think of a more daring filmmaker than John Carpenter in terms of the difference between the quality of his movies and what he was trying to accomplish. Say what you will about “Prince of Darkness” but the idea behind is it one of the most original anyone’s ever come up with for a horror movie. “Big Trouble in Little China” is a remarkably clever idea – an action movie shown from the perspective of the comic relief sidekick. “Dark Star” is silly original. “Vampires” was a deconstruction of the vampire movie before anyone knew it needed to be deconstructed. Carpenter was always trying to do something new and awesome, and sometimes he did better than other times. It often felt like he didn’t quite have enough money or something to pull it off, or like he was doing too much of the movie himself. But there was always an effort to something really, really cool. He’s the precise opposite of Chris Columbus, whose movies are slick and professional and beautifully produced and have not a shred of humanity or soul.
Anyway, I think Carpenter got the closest he ever did to perfection with “The Thing.” If you haven’t seen it, and you should, the story is pretty straightforward; there’s a bunch of guys in an Antarctic research station, as isolated from the world as you can be and still be on Earth, and one day a dog shows up, but it’s actually an alien than can perfectly imitate any living thing, including a person, and it’s “weird and pissed off, whatever it is,” and pretty soon the killing starts and no one knows who’s human and who’s The Thing, and mayhem ensues. The movie is fabulously tense and paranoia-inducing and has gory special effects that’ll scare the hell out of you.
Incidentally, it also stars Kurt Russell. Is there a better actor, with a more solid resume, in movie history who doesn’t have an Oscar nomination? How long has Kurt Russell been doing this? He’s been great in movies as a kid, a young man, a middle aged man and an old man. He’s been great in comedies and action movies and horror and drama. He’s been great in good movies and when he’s in bad movies he’s still great.
Anyway, in The Thing, the situation just goes from bad to worse. The theme of the movie is trust and paranoia; faced with an enemy that can take the form of a friend, the hapless residents of U.S. Outpost 31 can never quite cooperate enough with one another to effectively deal with it; someone always mistrusts someone else just enough to screw things up. Put into a situation neither humans nor Things can escape, the result is disaster.
I said the movie wasn’t perfect (it’s close) so why do I love it? I’ll keep coming back to this point:
I love movies that are trying to do something, and succeed in doing it.
I could try to stuff The Thing into some sort of political box, like saying it’s an allegory for the Red Scare or something, but I really don’t think it is; I think Carpenter was trying to create an atmosphere of true horror, mistrust, and fear, and he absolutely knocked it out of the park. The movie is just remarkable at doing what it seeks to do; to make you go “ohhhh nooooo” as the station and its crew go the hell in a handbasket. It’s one thing (ha) to have a monster eat the heroes; in The Thing, you don’t know if that actor is a hero or the monster. And neither do the poor jerks on screen, and you can feel it. The sense of dread is remarkably palpable.
The Thing never shows its true form. The viewer never find out (in this or in the 2011 prequel/remake) what a Thing originally looks like, or in fact if it even has a true form. It looks like a dog, or a person, or a PART of a person, or it just assumes whatever horrifying shape it needs to assume to stay alive; like the men we are rooting for, the Thing will do absolutely anything to survive. That adds to its terror; you literally never know what the titular monster looks like. In “Jaws” you don’t get a clear look at the shark until way more than halfway into the movie; in The Thing, you never get a clear look ever. Unless you find out it was a guy you thought was an okay dude. And then he sprouts tentacles and eats Steve.
I won’t spoil any more. If you don’t like horror movies, take it from me; I am not a huge fan of them either. I just like GOOD movies. And this one is way past good.
Here’s a fun fact; at the South Pole, like literally right there, is Amundsen-Scott Station, a U.S. research facility staffed year round. During Antarctic winter the station is cut off; there are no flights in or out, and six months of continual darkness falls upon them, the sun never rising, the temperature dropping to an AVERAGE of -62C, unimaginably cold. The winter staff is cut off from any hope of departure for a full six months of utterly desolate, bitter, lonely night at the very edge of the world where humans were not meant to be.
The first evening of winter, they always watch “The Thing.”
PS – The 2011 prequel-remake version, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is pretty good.