Kurt Russell in THE THING (credit: Universal Pictures)

Movie Review: The Thing (1982) ****

In THE THING, an alien shapeshifter emerges from the antarctic ice and takes the form of people stationed at an outpost to kill them one by one.

You wanna talk beginning in media res? This is a movie which begins in media res, and then some. We begin with a Norwegian scientist failing to kill a Husky from a helicopter, only to accidentally blow himself up instead. It’s too bad none of the Americans who witness this speak Norwegian. Surely the Norwegian pilot was warning them not to let the Husky spend all day wandering the base. Monolingualism loses again!

I’m used to horror, like most stories, beginning with some amount of “normal world.” It’s a common story mechanism. The Thing has no time for this. Our filmmaker, John Carpenter, doesn’t waste time trying to set up the movie. We’re in Antarctica, on a base, and it’s cold. There are Huskies. (For sleds?) Is it weird that I’m surprised to get so little exposition about the base’s intentions and the milieu of the outside world when we don’t *need* it? We already know what Americans get up to in Antarctica (SCIENCE), but many modern movies labor over clunky dialogue making sure the most basic assumptions are spelled out.

The reason I wonder if this is truly a “real world” setting is because some of our humans feel like aliens are a given. Of course, these kind of people do exist in reality. Carpenter just wasn’t worried about clarifying things. The closest we get to exposition is visiting the Norwegian base to see how badly they got rekt by the alien first.

I was delighted to jump into this one feet-first. That gives us ample room in its 100-ish minute run time to show everyone being suspicious of one another, trying to figure out the “rules” of the alien, and attempting to survive one another. There are times when I almost thought they’d already killed off the alien and they were just going to kill each other out of suspicion. Kind of like The Mist making humans the greatest enemy.

I love most of the tropes at play here, but it’s a bit frustrating when horror depends primarily on the hysterics of humans to sustain itself. It’s not unrealistic. I wouldn’t be level-headed in such a situation. Would you? And it’s not like anyone in 1982 had been playing Among Us enough to have preset strategies for making sure you’re never vulnerable to an imposter. Even so, it’s maddening to see them determine beyond a shadow of a doubt who isn’t an alien…then go off out of sight from one another, immediately isolated again. I wanted to jump into the tv and shake them. Then carefully step out of the tv again, because NO THANK YOU, alien.

I also never enjoy dogs in peril. I know, I know. Give me all the bloody effects in the world if they’re adult humans. But have a couple dogs in danger and I’m thiiiis close to quitting the whole thing.

Nonetheless, the effects are a hokey delight. They’re filmed in such a straightforward way, you can really appreciate the art design. The alien Thing is incredibly unnatural. Mouths will form out of the side of humanlike noggins. What looks like dripping veins can quickly turn into ropey tentacles. Did someone just lose his head? Well, now the head is crawling away like a spider. It’s all extremely slimy. For some reason it doesn’t bother me like the body horror of the Hellraiser movies, and I like that! I like how it’s just gross and amazing and sprawling. The stop motion is wonderful. The miniatures are fabulous, especially when they burn.

They can do realistic effects though — what bothered us most was simply seeing people cutting deeply into their own thumbs to draw blood. Clearly Carpenter et al were entirely in control of what we were experiencing the whole time. I know a masterpiece when I see one.

I always love movies where someone comes in with a vision and executes it with skill. The Thing is just a roller coaster of slimy fun, emphasizing the emotionality of humans as a major weakness, and it gives us Kurt Russell with gloriously fluffy hair through the whole thing. They really should have checked his fabulous hair to see if it had a life of its own. Maybe it could have saved them all.

(image credit: Universal Pictures)

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