John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)
Ennio Morricone may have penned the soundtrack but from the opening titles it’s seething with Carpenter’s pulsating synth-style. So slow is this score that it’s close to crawling, but its sonorous beat is cold, withdrawn and chilling.
Carpenter uses many low-view shots of desolate corridors and darkened shadows whilst Dean Cundey’s cinematography is once again evidenced through the beautifully lensed neon flares, blue-hued snow and the velvet of the polar nights – it’s sublime.
Like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and to a lesser extent in Prince of Darkness (1987), the strength lies in the attachment Carpenter draws to our doomed band of men. The scientific research station is initially portrayed as a kind of giant bar; when we get there, its occupants a parade of bar-flies whiling away time playing cards, pool and drinking. That is until the paranoia sets in; Blair is locked up; Clarke innocently gunned down and Bennings and others executed mid-transformation.
The cast are unbelievably strong and welded together with a script epitomising the everyday dialogue of men trapped in moribund isolation. Aside from Kurt Russell’s towering performance as the de-facto leader of the group, Wilfrid Brimley’s character Blair is fantastic; the first to realise the potential for ”The Thing” to escape, he opts for a scorched-earth policy before being exiled to the tool shed. Garry, played by Donald Moffat, is under perpetual suspicion until after a dose of blood testing provides proof his innocence , he robustly declares ” I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!!”.
Keith David’s Childs is hot-tempered and vying for alpha male position with Kurt Russell’s McReady. The much-talked-about final scene as these two sat amongst the ruins of the camp, with temperatures plummeting and no power, staring at one another hoping each isn’t “The Thing”.
One of my favourite scenes is when Stevie Wonder’s superstition plays over the radio as we pan around the barren corridors looking for “The Thing”. Another is the shot of the dog (the original host of the Thing) approaching the shadow of an unknown man sitting on a bed, and we know as the shadow’s head turns back that he’s about to come face to face with “The Thing”.
Rob Bottin’s special make-up effects still stagger today; these eye-popping visuals won the film some infamy on release but they are terrific set-pieces peppered throughout the film. Watching a head detach from the body, grow spider-legs and run away is a remarkable experience.
There is resolutely nothing that I dislike about this movie. It’s pure Carpenter.
It’s oft-stated that Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is the pinnacle of sci-fi terror, but over the years I have increasingly come round to the notion that this isn’t quite right. Carpenter’s film is the more visceral, the more watchable and the more tense.
For me, whilst Alien’s elegance may ever propel it to the top of various lists, Kurt Russell’s gang of paranoid men isolated in Antarctica will always hold me more than the crew aboard the Nostromo in Ridley’s classic.