IMDB #164 The Thing

Antarctica: is it ever any fun? It seems like with a few, penguin-related exceptions, every film that visits our forgotten seventh continent only does so to discover something horrifying buried in the ice. 1982's The Thing might just be the progenitor of this trend.

The Key Players:

Thriller maestro John Carpenter makes his only countdown appearance with arugably his least successful film- The Thing would gain cult status only upon the advent of home video. Still, not even Halloween?
Star Kurt Russell is another face we'll likely never see again (not even Stargate?), since his most notable roles are in Carpenter classics like Escape From New York and Big Trouble In Little China.

Among a small ensemble are grizzled voice for hire Keith David (Pitch Black, Platoon, They Live)and Wilford Brimley (Cocoon, spokesperson for the ADA, and of course mentor to Stephen Colbert via regular 3AM phone calls).

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The Story:

Pretty standard- a collection of scientists (like Brimley) and badass types (like Russell's helicopter pilot and David's...badass black dude?) are stationed at a research base in Antarctica, minding their own business doing science and all, when a krazy Norwegian from nearby crashes his helicopter, blows it up, and starts shooting at a sled dog that was running from him.

He wings one of the scientists during his crazy Norwegian rampage, so the base commander is forced to shoot him. Russell and another guy go to his base, but find only more dead Norwegians, evidence that they had dug something out of the ice, and a horrible, half-human looking burnt corpse.

Naturally, they haul the corpse-thing back to the lab, where Brimley discovers it has familiar organs but is clearly not all human. They put the sled dog in with their own pack, but it quickly turns into a horrifying nightmare monster and sends out tendrils to assimilate the other dogs- Russell breaks out the flamethrower just in time.

Brimley takes some samples or what have you, and discovers that it's some sort of organizism that can consume and imitate any host, on even a cellular level- and very rapidly at that. Realizing that he can no longer trust anyone, he promptly goes nuts and destroys the helicopters and radio equipment before the rest can tie him up in a shack.

After some more chaos and untimely demises (the half-human corpse thing? Totally not dead.), a harrowed half-dozen or so remain. Suspicion falls on Russell, but he holds the rest at bay with a stick of live dynamite and a blowtorch in his hands, and devises a blood test to see who's human and who's not once and for all.

The Artistry:

Alien parasite, isolated base- I settled in for an atmospheric, Alien style horror film. And The Thing is certainly that, in part. But it's also a full-on, gross out creature feature, and it boldly announces so 25 minutes in when that stray dog suddenly isn't a dog any more.

That creation, by Stan Winston and all of the subsequent partially-human monsters created by Rob Bottin, spend the film veering wildly across the line between Evil Dead II excessive hilatiry and genuine, Cronenberg-style horror. It makes The Thing a little dicey in tone- especially because none of the cast really has the time to create a character we might care for, with perhaps a couple exceptions.

Those would be of course Keith David's reactionary badassness and Kurt Russell's gritted teeth: Russell gets the lone character beat before the chaos begins as he loses to a computer at chess.

The Thing has a fun visual look, mostly full of flares illuminating the base at night in bright colors, and the score (by Ennio Morricone!) is a neat balance of 80's synth and histronic strings.

But what I liked most was the pod-person nature of the plot- much more the focus of the John W. Campbell, Jr. novella "Who Goes There?" upon which the movie was based. That's where Russell's improvised test comes from- taking a blood sample from each man and testing it with a hot wire- comes from. Since each part of "the thing" is a separate organizism that defends itself, provoking it should get a tell-tale reaction.

In the movie, Russell figures this out when he sees my favorite of the many disgusting images- a severed head sprouting insect-like legs to crawl away.


The test reveals one man to be an impostor, who then monsters out and kills another one before they can flamethrower him. This leaves four standing, though they realize they've forgotten about poor Brimley, locked out in a shack. David stands guard as Russell and the two others go to give him the test- instead they find an empty shack, and a secret tunnel under the floor leading to what looks like and alien craft made from spare helicopter parts.

They see David leave the base, just before the power gives out- the Brimley-monster has destroyed the generator. Accepting that they're never getting out alive, all three take some dynamite to burn the whole place down and prevent the Thing from reaching civilization. This is pretty much what happens, and you'll never guess which of the three survives and makes it out before the explosion!

David returns (he thought he saw Brimley out there, and got lost, allegedly), and he and Russell share a laugh about how they can't possibly trust one another as they wait to freeze to death. The end.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Definitely a solid effort, but not something that would make my top 250. It might be the overdone FX, or the lack of any sort of arc to the story, but I can't see revisiting The Thing in the future.

The Legacy:

Coming out two weeks after E.T. and on the same day as Blade Runner, The Thing fared pretty poorly at the box office, and was an afterthought in Carpenter's otherwise winning 80s career. But it found new, cult-status life after coming out on video and DVD. It's even been made into a comic book series and a video game.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Warning: severed-head-related discretion is advised.

Leftover Thoughts:

-Favorite part: Brimley's hilariously prophetic computer, which takes one look at a cellular animation of the Thing and types out things like "PROJECTION: IF INTRUDER ORGANISM REACHES CIVILIZED AREAS... ENTIRED WORLD POPULATION INFECTED 27,000 HOURS FROM FIRST CONTACT," while Wilford sits there with his face at its Brimliest.

Coming Up...

163. Stand By Me

162. The Terminator

161. Amores Perros

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