Netflix Friday Night: The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is the kind of film every horror fan thinks they know. And on a general level, you probably do know what happens: near-unbearable suspense, impressive blood spatter, all-around scares, gruesome transformations, inconceivable aliens… You know, the standard fare for horror movies these days. But when director John Carpenter tackled an adaptation of the novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell (the novel that inspired the 1952 The Thing from Another World), he created a horror film that can still take us, an audience jaded by years of cheap knock-off horror flicks, back to the purest form of a genre curated with deliberate care to shock and unnerve. To put it simply, John Carpenter knows how to make a horror film with an enduring “creep” factor.
Horror films operate on a simple but modern human concept: the desire to be scared. We’re safe in our rooms or in the movie theatres, so our natural fight or flight reflexes are ostensibly shut off. We don’t physically fear horror films, but the various thrills and frights still trigger our adrenaline. And that rush we get from a good fright is addictive. We want to be scared again. So repeating the same tricks to get us there can work time after time. That being said, horror films can start to feel the same: after Saw ripped onto the screen in 2004, we received a slew of knock-off horror films that drove every horror trope into the dirt and then some. That is why revisiting classic horror films can ameliorate the boredom that comes along with the standard horror murder mystery. Revisiting the work of Carpenter and other horror greats revives the simplest and most crucial draw of the horror film: not blood and surprisingly not startlingly loud, jump out of your seat noises (though those are great, too), but the proper use of tension and suspense.
At its simplest and most horrifying, The Thing focuses on a group of men stationed at a scientific outpost in Antarctica (quick tip: never sign up for a trip to Antarctica. Go to Australia instead. Just don’t fly Oceanic Airlines) who come to realize their ranks have been infiltrated by a shape-shifting alien with murderous and world-dominating intentions. The creature—“the thing”—enters their camp in the form of a dog, and after discovering its existence as it kills and then transforms into their comrade, the American scientists fall into a deep hole of paranoia and mistrust. When the creature can be anyone and there’s no test to determine whom it isn’t, suddenly that basic human instinct to look out only for oneself emerges in full force.
Carpenter’s expert direction throws doubt on every character. The Thing is a classic not because it has an amazing concept, and not only because the make-up department went above and beyond, but also because the direction manages to accurately and effectively hack into the mental state of each viewer. Each shot that captures the faces of our survivors seems to convey multiple messages: “I am the thing,” “I am not the thing,” “who the hell is the thing”? And most importantly, especially to our main character MacReady (Kurt Russell, in an amazingly bodied hair performance), “How do I stay alive if any of the crew is infected?” The Thing is smart and calculating, so each decision the dwindling survivors make could be one step closer to annihilating the entire group. MacReady, a pilot, takes control of the situation with a no-nonsense attitude, but over time, even he can see the reality of the unfortunate situation.
The Thing utilizes a few jump-out-of-your-seat surprises and more blood spatter than one season of Supernatural, but ultimately, its success lies in the perfect collaboration between the director, music composer, and make-up department. We’ve already discussed Carpenter’s use of misdirection to create a tense atmosphere, but the score as composed by musical legend Ennio Morricone is like injecting oneself with an undiluted dose of anxiety. You can never be quite sure what you’re hearing because you’re too wrapped up in the film to notice that the score grips you like a trash compactor. And at the point at which you’re ready to burst or fling your hands in the air as if you’ve just finished watching a Lost season finale, the make-up department delivers with award-worthy surprises.
Suffice to say the “creature design” of The Thing is one of those great design masterpieces that manage to feel so real it’s bizarrely out of place. In The Thing we watch an alien currently in the shape of a dog attach to a human being and attempt to steal its form; we also watch a disembodied head sprout legs and crawl around the research station like a spider crossed with Vladimir Harkonnen. This film certainly takes the necessary steps to differentiate itself from the family-friendly, less-than-scary comic book hero with which it shares the same name.
Often hailed at one of the greatest horror films of all time, The Thing deserves a little Friday night Netflix attention. Watching older films that sparked a creative resurgence of any genre can often feel like treading through genre techniques and approaches that have been done. Though they played with, transformed, and often created many of the horror tropes we have grown accustomed to, John Carpenter films still manage never to feel “done.” Though we have, in fact, “been there and seen that,” we still want more.
Are you a fan of The Thing? What do you think makes it remain a relevant and surprisingly contemporary-feeling horror film? Watch The Thing on Netflix this weekend and leave your comments below.
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