An American research station in Antarctica solely unravels as a mysterious “thing” arrives in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to see Carpenter’s most acclaimed work until a recent 40th-anniversary screening. I do know the movie possesses a polarizing existence, debuting with apathetic reactions in 1982 before receiving positive reappraisals from modern critics.
Watching The Thing in a dimly-lit theater conjured an unforgettable first-time viewing experience. From the cold opening onward, the film sets the stage for a piercingly chilly descent into the unraveling human condition.
Much of The Thing’s appeals harken to the film’s slow-burn approach. Unlike modern film’s overactive plotting structures, Carpenter unwinds his tensions at a glacier pace. His patient framing and deliberate long-takes ground viewers in an atmosphere of uneasy malaise. I also can’t praise Ennio Morricone enough for his minimalist score. Every lingering keystroke and haunting pause set the mood in a magnetic fusion between Carpenter synth and classical aesthetics.
An opening shootout shrouded in mystery develops a sense of intrigue that unravels throughout. As an average dog transforms into a grotesque monster, the American crew soon descends into paranoia driven by the creature and the crew’s array of personalities. Who can anyone trust when “the thing” transforms into realistic recreations of its inhabitants?
The interpersonal tensions become just as fascinating as the onscreen horrors. Most horror films assemble a motley crew of archetype characters – an eclectic ensemble that primarily exists as cannon fodder for our sinister foes. Screenwriter Bill Lancaster defines the horror contrivances with refreshing poise and depth. Lancaster writes a lean narrative that forgoes traditional exposition in favor of expressive character building. Each crew member comes to life as distinctive everymen, showcasing a balance of personality and insular dimension as captivating enigmas onscreen.
A skilled veteran cast fully enriches the array of personalities. Wilford Brimley showcases astute intellect that transforms into chaotic mania as an observant scientist; David Clennon and Keith David are fittingly sharp as militaristic survivors, and a slew of other entrancing personalities serve their part in the ensemble piece.
Centered around the madness, Kurt Russell reminds viewers why he shined as a movie star in his heyday. Kurt Russell emanates cool. He stands tall as a transfixing cool magnet – quipping biting one-liners and swaggering speeches with a verve that few modern stars could match. Under the cast’s versatile abilities, The Thing offers a fascinating ensemble of lived-in personas to follow.
Ultimately, The Thing stands the test of time as a horror vehicle for a reason. Carpenter and special effects team conjure some truly demented creature designs – a blend of contorted body parts and bloodied images that sinks into viewers’ nightmares. Aesthetically, few imagine scenes with Carpenter’s striking visual panache. Wintery nights illuminated by the glaring red-blue flare tints, shadowy interior corridors, and the setting’s desolate isolation all come to life under the director’s atmospheric eye. The patience and craftsmanship Carpenter imbues in every setpiece further increase the unease, gradually building his claustrophobic setting until it explodes with paranoia and lingering distrust.
The gradual loss of humanity driven by mania and compromising circumstances is familiar stomping grounds for horror movies. With The Thing, Carpenter’s relentless nihilism streak offers one of the more thoughtful interpretations of the conceit. As the crew succumbs to the rising tensions of their situations, Carpenter showcases an array of composed personalities consumed by their most animalistic desires. The age-old scenario also poses striking relevance to the film’s 80’s origins (The Cold War) and our challenging modern times.
Watching The Thing for the first time felt like a milestone viewing experience. Drawn with remarkable composure and craft, the film sows into dark crevices as an unrelenting sci-fi horror showcase. It’s stood the test of time for 40 years, and I am sure we will be talking about it again in another 40.
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