A masterpiece of unrelenting terror, nail-biting suspense & persistently looming paranoia, John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of the greatest films of its genre(s) that presents its esteemed filmmaker at the apex of his talents for the remarkable simplicity with which Carpenter succeeds in infusing the storyline with a chilling sense of dread, tension & uncertainty right from its opening moments and then effortlessly sustaining those vital horror elements throughout the film’s runtime is no mere achievement in itself.
The story of The Thing is set in Antarctica and follows the crew of an American research facility whose expedition is interrupted when a couple of seemingly delusional Norwegians barge into their station while pursuing & shooting a dog, and are killed in defence. But when the dog mutates and reveals its true identity, the crew deduces that they are being confronted by a parasitic alien lifeform that assimilates other organisms and in turn imitates them perfectly. As no one is sure of who’s human & who’s the imitator among them, paranoia develops within the group.
Directed by John Carpenter (the mastermind behind Assault on Precinct 13 & Halloween), The Thing is without a doubt my favourite film of his. The plot creates an atmosphere of impending doom right from the beginning as we can sense that something is definitely not right with the dog, and thanks to the minimal but menacing track that accompanies that sequence, the build-up is quick & effective. Bill Lancaster’s screenplay deserves a mention too for it retains the mystery from start to finish, keeps the premise unpredictable & although the characters aren’t fleshed out that well, they do have an identity.
The technical aspects further help in setting the film’s desired atmosphere & tone, starting with its isolated set pieces that have this sort of a raw, unrefined feel to it which, in addition to its remote location, cleverly brings the element of claustrophobia into the narrative. Cinematography makes excellent use of its camera for the wisely chosen angles, minimal lighting & slow but fluid movements encapsulate the whole picture with an unsettling vibe which only amplifies as the story progresses. Editing is carried out in a very methodical manner as it allows the suspense to settle in at its own pace and keeps the audience on the edge of their seats throughout its 109 minutes of runtime.
The work in the special effects & make-up category was groundbreaking at its time of release but it looks a tad dated now and at times, unintentionally funny as well and yet it fits & work in favour of this narrative for the most part. However, the most impressive aspect of The Thing in my opinion is its background score, composed by Ennio Morricone. What’s amazing about the soundtrack is that it sounds exactly the way Carpenter himself would’ve scored it, with simple, synthesised tracks that help enhance the sinister mood of the picture and elevate it to a nerve-wracking level. It’s quite possibly the best John Carpenter score that wasn’t composed by John Carpenter.
Coming to the performances, Kurt Russell spearheads the rest of the cast with a good show and plays the role of the research team’s helicopter pilot. The script doesn’t delve into the background of its various characters but it does give each one of these scripted people their deserving moment on the screen. There is much similarity to Ridley Scott’s Alien as far as its casting goes for each character has a role to play here and even if we don’t get to know enough about any of them, their predicament and the situation they find themselves in on the isolated continent is deeply felt. Also, both Russell & the rest of the supporting cast do well with what they’re given and deliver truly convincing performances.
On an overall scale, The Thing is as suspenseful as any cinema can get. It deserves to be ranked amongst the greatest horror films ever made, has aged amazingly well over the years despite its dated effects and still remains John Carpenter’s finest directional effort to date. It may not be scary on a visceral level but its tense ambiance, claustrophobic setting & the omnipresent danger of the unknown can run havoc on the senses plus it leaves enough pieces for viewers to put together once the whole story has concluded. Immortal for its contribution to cinema, absolutely living up to its legacy, and continuing to inspire & influence modern chillers, John Carpenter’s magnum opus is one chiller no horror fanatic should miss out on. Strongly recommended.