The Thing (1982)
I first caught 'The Thing' (a.k.a. John Carpenter's The Thing) part way through many years ago during a late night showing on TV. Just watching a few minutes was enough to get me hooked, and I was on the edge of my seat right till the end. I later enjoyed reading the excellent short story on which it was based, 'Who Goes There?' by John W. Campbell Jr. For some strange reason, I can remember eating pizza while reading it - maybe some weird association with the messy pizza topping like imagery of the film. Anyway, back on topic, I watched the film again recently and it is as brilliant as I remember.
'The Thing' starts off in enigmatic fashion. After a title sequence that depicts an alien ship entering Earth's atmosphere, it cuts to the Antarctic, where a dog runs through the snow while being shot at by a man on board a helicopter. This is all set to eerily hypnotic music by Ennio Morricone. The dog makes it to an American research station, where the helicopter lands and the occupants accidentally blow it up with one of their own grenades. The survivor of the explosion starts shooting wildly, trying to kill the dog, and is quickly shot and killed by one of the Americans. It turns out that the men were Norwegians from another Antarctic outpost. Two men from the American team, MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) head to the Norwegian outpost and find it destroyed. Even more disturbingly, they find a grotesquely misshapen corpse lying in the snow, which they bring back for analysis. The dog that was being chased, meanwhile, has the run of the compound, and it is immediately apparent that something is not right with it. This dog's performance, by the way, has to be one of the greatest animal performances of all time; it's creepy as hell. When the dog is finally put in the kennel, it undergoes a hideous transformation with its skin ripping apart and tentacles lashing out as it tries to 'assimilate' the other dogs. The men manage to kill the dog-creature, but they are understandably shaken up by what happened.
As Dr. Blair studies the corpse and the dog-creature, he realizes that they are facsimiles created via assimilation by an alien life form. His calculations project that if the alien were to get out into the world, it could potentially wipe out mankind. He also realizes that members of the team may have already been assimilated, and in a paranoid frenzy destroys the helicopters and radio equipment to prevent anyone from getting out. MacReady takes charge as best he can, but the men start to lose it as they begin to suspect each other of being 'things', and what ensues is 100 odd minutes of nerve wracking tension and horror as some are exposed as 'things' while others are killed in moments of chaotic confusion. The body count rises in graphic and bloody scenes, and it all builds up to a fantastic ending that is even more enigmatic and memorable than the opening scenes.
There are elements in the film that are admittedly dated - it's 25 years old, and the stop motion / puppet effects are noticeable. The funny thing is, it's still more effective than most modern CGI monster effects. I guess that's a testament to the fact that the effects are used to tell the story, and complement all the other aspects of film-making instead of overpowering them. It's also an indication of just how awesome the creature designs are. The film is very lean, there's no redundant material or wasted moments. Even the characterization is perfunctory, and really, giving these characters more depth would serve little purpose in the context of the story being told. When the shit hits the fan, there's enough to tell them apart without any cheesy contrived quirks, and the main characters are rendered distinctively enough. MacReady in particular is easy to root for, with his mixture of easy going pragmatism and steely resolve.
One aspect that really sets this film apart is in the way it doesn't adhere to a conventional structure; there is no steady build up towards a climax. People are offed unpredictably and the characters are barely given a moments respite before being forced into taking action of some kind. There's no 'big plan to slay the beast', and everyone improvises in order to survive, which makes the whole experience feel more organic and believable. Credit must go to director John Carpenter for constructing a film with a palpable sense of fear and paranoia. The moments of debate and discussion ring true as the team try and figure out what to do and whom to trust, and since the audience doesn't know who's still human and who has been turned into a 'thing', the revelations are always shocking. The shock factor is enhanced by the fact that Carpenter makes the reveals sudden, brutal, and chaotic, with all hell breaking loose as flamethrowers are unleashed and guns are fired. The moody music and stark visuals of the antarctic outpost enhance the feeling of utter desolation and despair. The final element to seal the deal is the acting, which while not exactly awards worthy, is spot on for the material. These guys basically have to act paranoid and scared, and they all do it well. Kurt Russell is note perfect as the heroic lead MacReady, and there's some fun conflict between him and Childs (Keith David) as the two vie for the role of de facto leader (when the actual team leader is suspected of being a 'thing').
I can't think of any other film that successfully maintains such a high level of tension throughout its runtime. 'The Thing' is horrifying, gripping, and nerve-wracking. It's a classic horror film, right up there with the likes of 'Alien' and 'The Exorcist', and is a must see for all except those with weak stomachs.