Released in 1982, The Thing was John Carpenter's 18-certificated remake of the classic 1951 sci-fi horror film The Thing From Another World. Though both were based on John W Campbell's short novel Who Goes There?, Carpenter's version depicts the effects of the alien invader by using cutting-edge special effects, allowing the audience to experience more viscerally the fear and mistrust felt by the 12 men who are stranded with it in the middle of nowhere. The film is similar in some respects to Ridley Scott's Alien; both films feature a handful of stranded individuals trying to defeat a seemingly unstoppable monster, which picks off the crew one-by-one. The Thing combines Carpenter's knack for creating classic horror films, such as the Halloween series, with Kurt Russell's own brand of action hero as seen in Carpenter's Escape From New York. The film is the first of Carpenter's 'apocalypse trilogy' of otherwise unrelated films, the other two being The Prince of Darkness and Into The Mouth of Madness.
Like the 1951 version, Carpenter's film played on the political climate of the time. Some critics draw parallels between the invisible, blood-borne infection seen in the film and the AIDS virus and other diseases which were at that time just beginning to surface. Although it failed to compete with ET - The Extra-Terrestrial, which was also released in 1982 and became the benchmark for blockbuster science fiction marketing for years to come, The Thing became more popular during the 1990s as critics began to afford the film greater regard, recognising the psychological aspects of the film instead of responding with a knee-jerk reaction to the film's gore. A collector's edition was released on DVD in 1999, containing the bonus documentary The Thing: Terror Takes Shape.
Mostly set in Outpost #31, a quiet American-owned research base in Antarctica, the film begins with the arrival of two Norwegian men, shooting at a husky from their helicopter. As they land one of the men fumbles his grenade into the deep snow, destroying the helicopter, while the other shoots at the dog, hitting one of the Americans by mistake and giving camp administrator Garry reason to shoot the remaining Norwegian dead. By this stage the husky has already disappeared into the base, and is soon being looked after by Clark, the base's dog-handler.
Doctor Copper forms a theory that the Norwegians had become 'stir-crazy' and decides to fly over to their base with pilot MacReady. The pair soon encounter the ruins of the Norwegian base, including the frozen body of a man who had recently committed suicide. They also find some video footage and a huge lump of hollowed-out ice which had until recently contained something. Heading back to the helicopter, MacReady finds the burnt remains of a man whose head seemed to have been stretching apart. Back at Outpost #31, lead scientist Blair dissects the remains while the others watch footage of the Norwegians blasting a hole in the ice. A second journey in the helicopter leads the men to discover a huge alien spaceship, near to which is a hole in the ice from which the Norwegians had retrieved the lump of hollowed-out ice.
Later, Clark is sent to put the husky that the Norwegians had been chasing away in the cage, but after he has left it begins to deform and grow tentacles, attacking the other dogs in the kennel. MacReady hears the commotion and sounds the fire alarm, telling the others to fetch the flamethrowers. They arrive to see the 'thing' engulfing the other dogs, and although the monster grows claws and tries to escape, Nauls manages to burn the entire conglomeration. Blair forms the theory that the lifeform from the spaceship can absorb and replace other lifeforms, thereby spreading itself until every other living thing has been replaced by an alien imitation.
Blair secretly calculates the probability that one of the outpost's crew is already an imitation, as well as the time the 'thing' would take to wipe out the human race if it found civilisation. Meanwhile, Fuchs talks to MacReady in the snowmobile outside, explaining that the disfigured remains 'aren't dead yet.' At the same time, the remains attack Bennings, although the crew reach his imitation before it has properly formed and torch it, along with the remains. Without the others' knowledge, Blair goes berserk, destroying the base's radio, dogs and helicopter, leading MacReady to lock him in the toolshed. Copper thinks of a blood test using the base's blood reserves, but the crew find them destroyed, leading to further tension. MacReady takes over command, taking everyone outside to make a speech:
I know I'm human. And if you were all these things, then you'd just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn't want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It'll fight if it has to, but it's vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it's won.
The scene has been set, and as the characters are killed off one by one, the audience are allowed a peek into the world of mistrust and paranoia to which the remaining humans on the base are subjected...
- RJ MacReady, helicopter pilot (Kurt Russell)
- Blair, lead scientist (Allen Wilford Brimley)
- Garry, camp administrator (Donald Moffat)
- Copper, doctor (Richard Dysart)
- Fuchs, biologist (Joel Polis)
- Childs, facilities manager (Keith David)
Nauls, cook (Thomas Kent Carter)
Norris, geophysicist (Charles Hallahan)
Palmer, assistant facilities manager (David Clennon)
Bennings, meteorologist (Peter Maloney)
Windows, radio operator (Thomas Waites)
Clark, dog handler (Richard Masur)
The classic whisky-drinking cowboy, MacReady spends most of his time drunk, but comes into his element when things start to go wrong. Despite his inability to tell Scandinavian countries apart, MacReady is able to pull everything together, and is often thought of by the audience as the one who must still be human, despite the odds. While he isn't the only good actor on set, Russell delivers a notable performance which communicates how even the level-headed ones find it hard to cope in such circumstances.
Childs - Hey, take it easy. Come on, Blair, you don't want to hurt nobody.
Blair - [Shoots at Childs but misses] I'LL KILL YOU!
At first Blair is the most professional of the crew, providing a sensible but disturbing take on the alien lifeform that the crew have discovered. However, once Blair determines the scale of the threat the creature poses, he gives up hope and simply tries to isolate the base in a selfless effort to stop the 'thing' from spreading.
One of the veterans of the group, Garry is usually in charge of the base, organising its everyday running. However, his ability to cope in a military situation is questionable, and Garry is forced to stand down as the crew start to suspect he is an alien. Though at first he tries to hand leadership to the incapable Norris, in the end he begrudgingly allows MacReady to take charge.
They're Norwegians, Mac.
Very much the Doctor McCoy1 of the base, Copper is keen to discover the cause of events. Perhaps the only one to remain truly calm, his attitude suggests that he has seen it all before.
Fuchs plays the important role of understanding the situation and convincing MacReady that he cannot just sit back and let the events blow over. Curious and analytical, Fuchs knows that immediate action is the best solution to the incident.
Though he has an uneven temper, Childs seems to have gained MacReady's respect and is capable of dealing with situations, although this mainly involves the use of explosives and flamethrowers.
With an attitude similar to that of Childs, Nauls differs in that he is more rebellious than downright bad-tempered.
Nervous and unsure of himself, Norris has heart problems and a severe lack of courage which soon leads to him becoming cannon fodder.
The Thing is notorious for its ambiguity, with both Carpenter and Russell admitting that they are still not sure at what point different crew members become alien imitations. The film ends without revealing which of the crew are still human, and MacReady is forced to give in, with the last line being 'Why don't we just wait here for a little while... see what happens?' However, the film was followed by the 2002 Konami video game, also called The Thing, which covers the misadventures of a team sent to investigate Outpost #31. There is very little chance of a sequel to the film ever being made, and although the story was continued in the Dark Horse comic book series Thing From Another World, this does not form part of Carpenter's original storyline.
An alternative ending was filmed with MacReady being rescued and his blood being tested to reveal that he was still human. However, this ending smelt too much like a run-of-the-mill happy ending, and was never used. Other endings were made for use on American television broadcasts and included a dog running away from the base, suggesting that the 'thing' had escaped, although this went against Blair's earlier rants:
No dogs make it a thousand miles through the cold! No, you don't understand! That thing wanted to be us!
The novelisation of the film, written by Alan Dean Foster, uses Carpenter's original ending.
While a lot of filming took place in the wintry conditions of British Columbia and Alaska, some of the indoor scenes were shot in refrigerated parts of Universal Studios. The screenplay was written by Bill Lancaster and took a year to develop, and filming began in June 1981, with the budget for the entire film being at least £5million. In order to save money, the scenes in Outpost #31 were shot first, with the dilapidated US base seen towards the end of the film then being re-used as the Norwegian base, right down to the door with the fire axe stuck in it. The film is unusual in having an all-male cast, the only female voice being that of a chess computer, as voiced by Carpenter's wife, Adrienne Barbeau. Footage from the 1951 film is used for the videos of the Norwegians digging the spaceship out of the ice2.
Unusually, the film's soundtrack was not composed by Carpenter, who had, up to this point, scored all his own films. Instead, Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who is best known for his soundtracks to Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns3 was brought in to do the job, providing a tense, urgent background which efficiently matches the film's mood. However, Morricone criticised Carpenter for picking the tracks which were most like the director's own work, with the film's main theme, which sounds very similar to Carpenter's own composition style, being used throughout in preference to other tracks that Morricone supplied.
While some may find the film's special effects either gut-wrenching or downright comical, an astounding amount of effort went into their creation. Designed by Rob Bottin with the help of Albert Whitlock, the various 'thing' creatures consisted of various synthetic parts, some including tentacles that had to be manually worked by Bottin himself. Bottin worked every day for a year to produce the effects and admitted himself to hospital due to exhaustion once the filming was completed. Although the effects were greatly criticised for being excessively repulsive when the film was released, Bottin's hard work created monsters which were far more realistic than the 'carrot' of the 1951 version and are good enough to stand up to today's high standards, thus saving Carpenter's film from being relegated by cheesy B-movie effects. While Steven Spielberg himself felt the need to update the special effects for ET, which had dated quite drastically, The Thing still remains popular enough with sci-fi and horror fans for similar updates to be unnecessary.