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Happy Halloween: John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) review

Updated on October 16, 2013

Director: John Carpenter

Cast:Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, Keith David, David Clennon, Richard Dysart, Peter Maloney, Charles Hallahan, Richard Masur

John Carpenter's 1982 remake of The Thing From Another World (both films are adaptations of John W. Campbell's novella Who Goes There?) received much critical scorn during its initial release. Roger Ebert labeled it as a “geek show,” saying that it was “a gross-out movie in which teenagers can dare one another to watch the screen.” Gary Arnold of the Washington Post dismissed it as “wretched excess,” and Leonard Maltin criticized it for its over-reliance of gory monster effects.

Now, the movie is considered in many circles to be one of the best horror films ever made, if not the best. What's funny is that neither the haters or the defenders are necessarily wrong. John Carpenter's The Thing is indeed a very effective horror film, but it's also burdened by thinly drawn characters (who often behave foolishly) and a slight over-reliance of gory effects. It certainly gets the job done, but when compared to Carpenter's previous films (as well as other genre films, like Ridley Scott's Alien), it can't help but feel like a letdown.

Pretty impressive for an 80's movie!
Pretty impressive for an 80's movie!

The movie takes place on an American science base in “Antarctica, 1982.” The scientists there go through the motions of daily routine until a half-wolf/half-dog appears with a Norwegian chopper right on its tail. Both of the Norwegians in the chopper are killed (one is blown up by his own grenade; the other is shot dead after shooting one of the scientists in the leg), and the dog is taken in by the American scientists. Unfortunately, the dog turns out to be an alien creature with the ability to digest and imitate any being it comes into contact with. By the time the humans figure it out, it's already too late. The alien creature has already infiltrated some of the humans on the base, and no one seems to know who can be trusted.

Perhaps the film's greatest strength is its paranoia-fueled mystery. Like the characters on screen, we are never entirely sure who's still human and who's an alien. Even the go to Alpha dog of the group, R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), can not be trusted it seems, as the movie drops out little hints here and there to suggest he might not be who he claims anymore. This leads to many suspenseful interludes, the best involving the famous blood test sequence, where MacReady uses a hot needle and a sample of everyone's blood to discover who among them is still human. Once the mystery subsides, the movie climaxes with lots of gory alien attacks, but even then Carpenter creates some effectively chilling set-pieces, and that's largely due to make-up effects that, while a little dated, still have the power to shock and disturb.

To top it off, there are scenes in the film that are really quite frightening, and not just for the gory creature effects. Perhaps the most disturbing moment in the film involves a character named Bennings (Peter Maloney), whom the others find just as an alien is taking over him (the look on his face and the alien like howl he lets out remain forever cemented in my brain). Carpenter, along with ace cinematographer Dean Cundy (who creates a number of spell-binding images in the film), succeed in establishing a sense of dread and isolation. Some of the night shots of the base alone are enough to curdle the blood, as are the long, quiet, vacant tracking shots of the dark hallways of the base. The sparse, low-key musical score by Ennio Morricone adds considerably without ever drawing attention to itself.

Peter Maloney singing opera in "The Thing."
Peter Maloney singing opera in "The Thing."

John Carpenter's The Thing works so well as a horror film, that it's more than a little disappointing that more work wasn't put into the Bill Lancaster's script. While the actors all play their roles well enough that the characters never become tedious, the characters overall are never developed in to people we can really root for. That may be the point (growing too attached to any character may have hurt its paranoia rich atmosphere), but it also makes it a little difficult to care about the outcome. And while the creature effects are well done, there comes a point where the movies shows you too much. Carpenter goes for the jugular over and over here, and while it is often times effective, it eventually becomes numbing after a while.

Those quibbles aside, the thumb is ultimately turned up for John Carpenter's The Thing. It may not be a great film, and it may pale in comparison to other genre films. But taken on its own terms, it's still a scary and very well made horror show.

Final Grade: *** (out of ****)

What are your thoughts on this film? :)

5 out of 5 stars from 3 ratings of John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)


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    • priley84 profile image

      priley84 4 years ago from Warner Robins, Ga

      @ Titen-Sxull I do agree that as far as remakes/reboots go, The Thing is among the best, if not the best. As far as favorite horror films go, for me it's a coin toss between the original Psycho and Repulsion.

      @Mark Lees I felt like they were deliberately thin as well (as I mentioned, it worked for the film's paranoia filled mystery), but in the same time, I guess I felt a little bit distant from the action on screen because of it. It's certainly a solid horror film, I just had a few more reservations with it than most I guess. :P

    • Mark Lees profile image

      Mark Lees 4 years ago

      One of the greatest horror movies ever made and one of Kurt Russell's finest performances.

      The characters are, I feel, designed to be thinly drawn- the only thing we need from them is the growing paranoia and the suspicion and fear. It has to be remembered that they were already in an isolated, stress driven scenario without the alien ( much the same as the film Alien) and I think they captured the stress of that wonderfully.

      A very good hub reviewing a classic film.

    • Titen-Sxull profile image

      Titen-Sxull 4 years ago from back in the lab again

      The Thing is my favorite horror movie of all time and probably the best remake/reboot cinema has ever produced. The practical creature effects are absolutely top-notch, both grotesque and eerie and the plot is pretty straight forward rather than being overly complicated.

      I'd say the only horror movie that comes close for me is Evil Dead 2, unless you want to count ALIENS as a horror movie (I think of it more as sci-fi action).