Since 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list is updated regularly and is currently more than 1700 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.
I don’t recall when I first heard about The Thing, but it had to have been a decade or more ago. I’ve known more about its reception than about the film itself; I knew that it wasn’t a major success initially, but that it is one of a number of films to have its stature grow over time to the point where it’s considered a classic of science fiction. Of course, I did know some details. I knew it was about a shapeshifting alien beast in the Antarctic. I knew it was directed by John Carpenter, who directed the horror classic Halloween. And I knew it starred Kurt Russell and Wilford Brimley, who are among my favorite actors and character actors, respectively. All of those seemed like perfectly valid reasons to check the film out.
The Thing is sometimes classified as a horror film, and this is a reasonably accurate description, if incomplete. With an alien slowly killing everyone inside the Antarctic base, and many of the kill scenes being rather gory, it certainly has its horror credentials on display. But unlike most horror films, it’s not the kills themselves that are truly frightening about The Thing. No, it’s the shapeshifting aspect… for this isn’t a monster that changes shape to kill. It’s a monster that kills to change shape. It infects animals — any animal — with its cellular structure, and eventually takes over the body. It can then mimic the animal perfectly. Appearance. Movements. Instincts. Memories. Voices.
Yes, memories and voices. Soon after the Antarctic research team uncover the existence of the thing, Wilford Brimley’s character realizes the ramifications of the creature’s abilities. It doesn’t just imitate lower lifeforms; humans are as susceptible as anything else. He soon realizes he can’t trust anybody, and goes mad from the fear. The rest of the crew slowly realize the same thing. Helicopter pilot MacReady (Russell) is put in charge of the team, but he has to figure out who he can trust, and how he can make that determination.
The result is a horror film that doesn’t rely on the startling nature of the deaths to frighten the audience. Like the alien creature, The Thing only seldom acts that overtly, and instead gets under the skin of the audience. It’s paranoia in celluloid form. The creature is nearly unkillable. It’s patient. And it can hide, nearly perfectly, in anybody. And just because somebody is human now doesn’t mean they will be later. The characters and the audience alike are unable to completely trust anybody in the film… not even the protagonist.
The effect is heightened by the setting. The Antarctic is chosen as the location for the story because it provides a convenient place for the alien to be lurking before discovery, and because it keeps the heroes isolated from the rest of mankind — thus giving both an element of danger (no calling in an airstrike) and an element of hope (if it can be stopped here, it won’t wipe out the world.) But there’s a little more to the setting than that. The isolation MacReady and his team face as a group is echoed in their individual isolation; none of them can trust each other. Ultimately, they’re all on their own, even as they’re forced to team up in order to avoid being caught alone by the alien. And the danger of the creature is reflected in the danger that Antarctica itself presents. An infected human looks the same as a healthy one. The Antarctic landscape looks virtually the same at any angle; the safety of camp is easily lost in the climate. One alien cell replicates into millions and spreads throughout its host. The freezing climate of Antarctica means that millions of years of snowfall — in terms of annual precipitation, the continent is a desert — all remain and accumulate into a treacherous landscape. Being caught alone with the alien means assimilation. Being caught alone in Antarctica means freezing to death. The Thing is set in a location that bears a strong thematic resemblance to its threat.
It’s that symbolism, coupled with the psychological aspects, that elevate The Thing above being a mundane horror film. It’s a classic of both the horror and science fiction genres, and deservedly so.