The Thing (1982)
What many forget is that you can cash in and still make a great movie. That is exactly what John Carpenter did with 1982's The Thing, a remake of 1951's The Thing from Another World, itself based on the novella Who Goes There? by John Campbell.
The boredom and peace of an American scientific outpost in Antarctica is shattered when a helicopter from a nearby Norwegian base lands, apparently in pursuit of one of a sled dog. After one of the research team is shot, Garry (Donald Moffat), the head of the facility, kills the man, while a mishap causes the Norwegian helicopter to explode, killing the pilot. The team decides to take in the dog, but when it is ultimately put in with the rest of the sled dogs in mutates and starts to kill and assimilate the others.
Curious about what exactly happened at the Norwegian base, pilot R. J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) is tasked with taking a team over to investigate, despite the weather growing worse as winter approaches. They find the base destroyed, but records left behind that show that the researchers found a ship buried in the ice, with its occupant frozen not too far away. After thawing, the alien came back to life, and apparently took over the team members one by one before inhabiting the sled dog to make its escape.
Armed with this information, MacReady and biologist Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) grow concerned that the creature may have assimilated a member of their team before attacking the dogs and being destroyed. Blair is especially concerned, as his calculations show that if the creature was to get loose into the populated areas of the world it could end humanity within a short spread of years.
Soon everyone at the base falls under suspicion, as the creature is able to perfectly copy and mimic anyone it takes over. Moreover, practically every cell is its own entity, which leads to being able to test who is human, but ultimately does little to help matters. The creature itself, concerned that it may be frozen again or even completely wiped out, begins to build a new ship. Meanwhile, the only two who somewhat trust that they are still human, MacReady and Childs (Keith David), team up to make sure that the thing is wiped out forever, even if it means that they themselves will die.
I know the movie is 35 years old (which is one of the reasons I got to see it on the big screen recently), but I've left most of it vague for a reason. This is one of those movies that, despite its age, will always have new viewers (and fans), and the true sense of paranoia and isolation throughout is as much a tangible part of the movie as is the creature. The special effects, created by Rob Bottin and Stan Winston, are classic to this day, but are used sparingly. They are memorable because of the quality, but the movie itself is memorable because it is tense and unpredictable from beginning to end.
I have not read the novella, but this is supposedly closer than the 1951 film, which moves the action to the Alaskan Arctic and makes the creature a vampiric alien vegetable. It is a good movie in its own right, with some great production values for the time, but John Carpenter's take has eclipsed it over the time, although The Thing was lambasted by critics at the time as being brutal and unnecessary bloody.
I can't disagree more. This movie holds a place with me as the first R-rated film my parents let me watch (it helps that a bunch of guys trapped in an outpost with no women means my young eyes weren't going to see a bunch of sex scenes), and you can bet the scene when Copper (Richard Dysart) uses the defibrillator on Norris (Charles Callahan) stuck in my head forever. Not in a nightmare-inducing way, but in a "this is amazing, I mus see more stuff like this" fashion. Rather than causing any of the ill effects many critics were worried about in the 1980s, this made me appreciate the effort that went into making this.
I obviously was not the only one, as over the years both the effects and the vague ending having earned their place in horror and science fiction history. The movie is watched again and again by fans simply trying to figure out the ending, which still remains open-ended despite some clues. For instance, Carpenter's recent hint about "eye-lighting" really only seems to apply to the blood test scene, and not really anywhere else.
There are going to be some problems here. Since the focus is on the tension created by the creature invading the outpost, little time is spent developing the characters. Although Keith David's Childs is pretty well-drawn for what is here the other African-American character, Nauls (T.K. Carter), is a walking stereotype, which apparently became a contention when auditioning actors for the part. Specifically his introduction may be one of the few things in this movie uncomfortable to modern audiences.
Finally, a special mention about Ennio Morricone's electronic score for this film. It is one of the few that Carpenter did not score himself, but Morricone easily emulates the minimalist and discomforting nature of Carpenter's own soundtracks.
The Thing (1982)
Time: 109 minutes
Starring: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David
Director: John Carpenter