When it comes to horror remakes, there are two approaches that can be taken. First is one of replication, where the filmmaker simply imitates the story and style of the original. The recent remake of Carrie did this, as did the new rehash of Poltergeist (and don’t even get me started on Gus Van Sant’s Psycho). The other way of thinking is to take the basic premise of the original and run with it until something new and different emerges. These are the reboots that become legendary classics, movies such as David Cronenberg’s The Fly or Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac. Horror icon John Carpenter’s 1982 reimagining of The Thing belongs squarely in this second category.
The Thing begins with an Alaskan Malamute being chased by a helicopter into American Antarctic Research Outpost 31. The Norwegians in the helicopter are shooting at the dog, and when the Americans intervene, the Norwegians are killed. The Malamute is put into the pen with the rest of the dogs, and a crew is sent to investigate the Norwegian base. The find it destroyed, and it is learned that the Norwegian scientists found a flying saucer that contained a shape-shifting alien being. By the time the crew of Outpost 31 determines that the fugitive dog is the shape-shifter, it has already assimilated the other dogs and has moved on to the humans in the camp. One by one, the crew is taken over by the alien. Paranoia runs rampant through the base as the men of Outpost 31 try to figure out who amongst them they can trust…and who they can’t.
Written by Bill Lancaster (The Bad News Bears), the screenplay for The Thing is a reworking of the 1951 Howard Hawkes production The Thing from Another World. Both movies are based on the short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr, but Lancaster’s shape-shifting alien sticks closer to that of the source material. The Thing was director John Carpenter’s first foray into big studio filmmaking, and initially, the film was a huge disappointment, both critically and commercially. It was only in the years following its release that it became the undisputed classic of both the science fiction and horror genres that it is today.
As a director, John Carpenter is a complete auteur; he leaves his thumbprint on every picture he makes, turning any genre in which he decides to dabble on its head and making it horrifying. Whether it’s a pure horror movie (Halloween), an action movie (Assault on Precinct 13), a sci-fi flick (They Live), or a psychological thriller (The Ward), a John Carpenter movie is always obviously a John Carpenter movie. The Thing is no exception. Carpenter takes the simple alien invasion motif that audiences have seen time and time again, and turns it into a screaming, squirming, screeching experience.
A key component of what makes The Thing so memorable is the brilliant performance of the ensemble cast. The crew of Outpost 31 is made up of twelve men (the lone female presence in the movie is the voice of a computer, provided by John Carpenter’s then-wife Adrienne Barbeau), all experienced actors who make the cast greater than the sum of its parts. The lead in the film, helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady, is played by Carpenter favorite Kurt Russell (The Hateful Eight). The leader of the camp, Garry, is portrayed by Donald Moffat from Monster in the Closet. The camp doctors, Dr. Copper and Dr. Blair, are played by Richard Dysart from Prophecy and Wilford “Diabeetus” Brimley from “Our House,” respectively. The rest of the tough-guy team includes Keith David (They Live, Platoon), Richard Masur (It, Nightmares), T.K. Carter (Domino), David Clennon (Gone Girl), Charles Hallahan (Nightwing, Twilight Zone: The Movie), Peter Maloney (Manhunter, Thinner), Joel Polis (Fatal Vision), and Thomas G. Waits (The Warriors, Light of Day). That’s a lot of testosterone for one cast, and it shows onscreen; The Thing is full of machismo and braggadocio, and that’s part of why it gets so tense and suspenseful in its later stages.
As unforgettable as the cast is, the aspect of The Thing that comes immediately to mind when most people think of the movie is the special effects. They are nothing short of brilliant, a complete mastercourse in practical creature visuals. The effects were done by Rob Bottin (The Fury, Maniac), who clearly went above and beyond to not only make everything look amazing, but to make it look like nothing that had ever been seen on screen before. Classic moments include a man’s chest breaking apart and turning into a row of teeth while CPR is being performed on him, and a disembodied head growing spider-like legs and prowling around the room. Bottin worked day and night for over a year on The Thing, designing and building each effect himself, with the rumored exception of the first dog transformation, which was reportedly done partially by uncredited legend Stan Winston (Dead & Buried, Something Wicked This Way Comes). Perhaps the most impressive part of Bottin’s effects is the fact that they are all practical, with no CGI. The effects in The Thing are the real deal.
For the cinematography on The Thing, Carpenter went with his go-to director of photography Dean Cundey who, in addition to having worked on most of Carpenter’s early movies, also shot everything from Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Invitation to Hell to Jurassic Park and Back to the Future. The Thing is a very cold movie, and Cundey’s lighting and camera work combined with the shooting environment communicates the elements to the audience. The external sequences were shot on a frigid location near the British Columbia/Alaska border. The Los Angeles sound stages that were used for the internal scenes were also kept at a freezing temperature. Cundey’s use of blue and grey light combined with selective shadows does a lot to make things look cold, but when the actor’s breath shows up on film, it’s because they were actually freezing; Carpenter kept his sets chilled, and the audience feels just as cold as the characters.
The soundtrack to The Thing represents the first time in his career that John Carpenter did not score one of his own movies. The music ended up in good hands, however, as Carpenter passed the reigns over to legendary composer Ennio Morricone (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Orca). Morricone turns in a score that is very minimalistic and…well, Carpenter-esque, full of stripped-down orchestrations and brooding rhythmic drones. It’s a bit different from a typical Morricone score, but it fits the film perfectly, and probably sounds pretty close to what Carpenter heard in his head when he imagined a score for the film, so it may just be a case of the composer giving the director what he wants. Whether Morricone compromised his style or not, the soundtrack to The Thing is full of great sounding music.
A few years back, The Thing was rebooted (again) into what ended up being a prequel, a feat which pointed out the circular plot of all three movies (the same situation at different bases, then the “thing” moves on). The remake/prequel didn’t quite have the oomph of the Carpenter version, however, and seemed like more of a pale imitation of a bona-fide classic. A remake and an inspiration, John Carpenter’s The Thing remains the best of the bunch.