WolfmanOz at the Movies #53

Man is the warmest place to hide

1982 was a seminal year for science fiction movies, of which there were three outstanding films of the genre released, all of which were quite different in style and audience engagement.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was on its way to becoming the highest grossing film of all-time; Blade Runner was perplexing audiences with its unique future vision of androids in Los Angeles, but my personal favourite was the third great science fiction film released that year.

I am referring to John Carpenter’s superb version of The Thing, which failed to find a popular audience on release but subsequently found it when released on home video and has now been reappraised as one of the best science fiction and horror films ever made.

The Thing was based on the novella Who Goes There ? by John W. Campbell and had been filmed before as The Thing From Another World in 1951 (which has not aged well IMO). Its story follows a group of people trapped in a scientific research outpost in Antarctica with a shapeshifting alien monster who can absorb and imitate any living being.

The film ominously starts where we see a Norwegian helicopter pursuing a sled dog to an American research station.

This scene is brilliantly shot and has maestro Ennio Morricone’s haunting and foreboding score in the background. The film was principally filmed in Juneau, Alaska, and back in 2019, during a family holiday to Canada and Alaska, we actually visited the same glacier via helicopter. It was simply an awe-inspiring and breath-taking experience.

Three of the Americans decide to investigate the Norwegian base where they find charred ruins and frozen corpses including a malformed humanoid which they transfer to their station.

The sled dog is kennelled with the other dogs and it soon metamorphoses and absorbs several of the station dogs. This disturbance alerts the team and a flamethrower is used to incinerate the creature.

An autopsy is performed on the Dog-Thing and it is surmised that it can perfectly imitate other organisms. Data recovered from the Norwegian base leads the Americans to a large excavation site containing a partially buried alien spacecraft, which is estimated to have been buried for over a hundred thousand years, and a smaller, human-sized dig site.

Paranoia now becomes rampart amongst the group, not knowing if anyone else has been assimilated by the alien.

MacReady, the helicopter pilot (played by Kurt Russell) hypothesises that every part of the Thing is an individual life form with its own survival instinct. He has everyone tied up and sequentially tests blood samples with a heated piece of wire. The result is more than what he bargained for.

The ending is deliberately ambiguous as the two survivors, MacReady and Childs, exhausted and slowly freezing to death, acknowledge the futility of their distrust and share a bottle of whisky, but are they both still human ?

It’s one of cinema’s great understated endings, especially given the mayhem that preceded it.

The film’s special effects are still lauded today for being technically brilliant and serve as a stark contrast to the CGI effects that were used in the much inferior 2011 prequel The Thing which proves modern CGI is no match for old-school practical effects.

Unlike E.T., which offered an optimistic take on alien visitation; The Thing presented a nihilistic view with a dark atmosphere of dread and was the total opposite in tone to Spielberg’s film. Director John Carpenter has always asserted that audiences rejected The Thing for its bleak and depressing viewpoint compared to E.T., and, in addition, when it opened, it was competing against the critically and commercially successful E.T..

The central theme of The Thing then concerned paranoia and mistrust. Fundamentally, the film is about the erosion of trust in a small community, instigated by different forms of paranoia caused by the possibility of someone not being who they say they are.

In the years following its release, critics and fans have reevaluated The Thing as a milestone of the horror genre. I have the film placed alongside Alien and Aliens in the unholy trinity of the three great science fiction horror movies.

The film is screened annually in February to mark the beginning of winter at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station . . . anyone fancy going there to watch it ?


and the tease for next weeks post . . . A real tough guy.