I fucking love The Thing. Nine years ago I watched it at home alone, and it’s a film that comes to mind more often than most other films I’ve watched in the nine years since. Any time a bunch of characters are trapped in an isolated location and become paranoid that one of them may be a traitor, it’s The Thing. The Faculty? The Thing in a high school. The Hateful Eight? The Thing in a stagecoach lodge. That X-Files episode “Ice”? The Thing in…it’s just literally The Thing, they didn’t even try to hide it. In 1982 John Carpenter made a permanent mark on the cinematic landscape with this film, and it was interesting to revisit it last month in a theater surprisingly packed for 10:30 on a Friday night. Earlier this year, I was blown away by Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, another classic of paranoia, and I was somewhat disappointed to realize that The Thing wasn’t giving me those same visceral thrills. It’s a very different kind of film, though, and it’s fascinating to examine what it’s doing and why it works.
Carpenter opens the film with the landing of an alien spacecraft before cutting to…some people in a helicopter trying to kill a dog? It’s a bizarre sequence that automatically throws everything off-kilter because you have no idea why they’re after this dog, which eventually finds its way to the Antarctic outpost where we’ll spend the rest of the film. If you know what the movie is about, however — or if you’ve already seen it, say, nine years ago — it soon dawns on you what’s going on. The Thing is in the dog. Oh shit. Suddenly every shot of that dog is ominous as hell, because you know you’re not looking at a dog. You’re tense. You’re anxious. And nothing’s even happened yet. Carpenter is making you do the work of scaring yourself, and it’s brilliant because he doesn’t even need to rely on any special effects.
He’s still going to have them though. No discussion of The Thing is complete without mentioning Rob Bottin’s creature work, so while I’d like to focus more on the paranoia aspect of the film, I need this brief aside because WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK. Still the gold standard for practical effects over thirty years later, these goopy nightmares have more power to horrify than anything someone can create on their laptop. They’re tactile and visceral and whose fucking idea was it to put spider legs on a human head. Carpenter can have his cake and eat it too, incepting these monstrosities into your brain so that now when you look at any human being onscreen, you don’t just imagine a hypothetical alien being, you imagine that, and it’s the rare case where what you could imagine would not, in fact, be scarier.
In between every skillful and unexpected deployment of creature effects, Carpenter plays with emptiness. I love the early shots of the base that establish the geography, showing most of the rooms with no one in them or, even if someone is there, they’re surrounded by emptiness to emphasize their isolation, not only from the outside world but also from each other. Because one of the greatest strengths and greatest flaws of the film is how indistinct all the characters are. They each have maybe one character trait, but Kurt Russell feels the most layered, emerging as an Everyman hero. We get to know him the best, but the others are basically empty shells who could be filled by the Thing.
It’s extremely telling to me that at no time during this film does anyone use the classic “Ask me something only I would know the answer to” test. It’s a trope that’s always present in these types of paranoia stories, and yet the OG never does it? Because it wouldn’t work. These men don’t really know each other, do they? That’s what makes it so scary and so impossible to tell who might be an alien. How can you distinguish between someone acting strange because they are the Thing and someone acting strange because they think you are the Thing? These are superficial lizard brain behaviors unconnected to our own personalities, so the only way to be sure would be to have such a deep human connection with someone that an alien replicant would not be able to copy it. And these men do not have that. Have they ever had that? With anyone? Maybe that emotional repression allows them to take all that happens in stride, such that when someone sees a goddamn head with spider legs, his reaction is a resigned “You’ve got to be fucking kidding.”
The Thing takes its damn time, low-key in its quiet alien invasion. It underplays the discovery of a damn alien spacecraft; Ennio Morricone’s score never goes overboard. Rather than rely on jump scares, it relies on the audience to be inherently suspicious of everyone, just like the characters, obsessively trying to follow where everyone is and determine who might be the Thing. It nails the subtleties of paranoia, not sensationalizing the scenario like its imitators. By keeping the action relatively grounded, it brings to the fore a much more relatable unease that arises from the premise. On an everyday basis, we might not be worried about whether we know someone is an alien, but the real question is…can we ever really know someone at all?