Take a bunch of people who must depend upon each other for survival, even though they might not like each other very much. Stick them in an environment that is hostile, inescapable, and perhaps even a bit claustrophobic. Add to it an unstoppable monster or predator or killer, and sit back and watch the bodies pile up. That formula works so well that any number of movies have successfully run with it. But plenty of movies have tried the same thing and failed because they don’t get how to sustain suspense or any of the other fundamentals to good storytelling. As winning as the formula may be, making it work is easier said than done. So when John Carpenter first released his science-fiction horror opus The Thing in 1982, its was panned by critics who wrote it off as just another half-hearted schlockfest. And those reviews were very tough for Carpenter to swallow, as he endured a kind of negative blitz over the movie that was fairly unprecedented for an era without the internet. But over the years, people came to appreciate The Thing for what it is: a tense, well-done story about some doomed folks in a doomed place fighting a doomed battle against a supremely tough monster. Eventually, some folks wised up and said that this is probably one of the best horror movies ever made. And they would be right.
The story takes place in a U.S. Antarctic research station manned by a dozen or so people, most of whom are scientists, with a few support staff doing maintenance, security, piloting the helicopter, what have you. Our hero is MacReady, the chopper pilot, a guy whose lack of enthusiasm for cold temperatures, isolation and research makes one wonder exactly why he took this gig in the first place. He’s the kind of fella who plays chess against the computer and when he loses he just pours his glass of Scotch in the hard drive to get even. In Antarctica. Where the nearest computer shop is twelve hours away by plane. This is a guy who clearly does not have a problem making command decisions he has to live with.
Things get interesting when some Norwegians from the next station over show up unannounced. They basically crash their chopper at the U.S. station while chasing an Alaskan Malamute, shooting at it with assault rifles. When the U.S. security chief fires back and kills the Norwegians, we’re left wondering why they wanted this dog dead so badly. As MacReady and a few others go pay the Norwegian station a visit, the new dog gets kenneled with all the other station dogs, where it promptly reveals itself to be an infectious, parasitic, shape-shifting alien monster. The station folks immediately torch the Thing with a flamethrower, but the creature appears able to break into smaller, independent parts, so there is no telling if they got it all. Meanwhile, MacReady discovers the Norwegian base has been burned to the ground, everyone one there is dead, and there is a half-buried, ancient alien spacecraft in the ice nearby. It doesn’t take long for everybody to realize they’re up against a very nasty intruder, to put it mildly. The alien can impersonate anybody within the station, so just as the team decides to pull together to kill this beast, they all suspect each other could actually be the Thing. Paranoia runs rampant as again and again, survivors turn out to be alien wolves in sheep’s clothing. Before long, the question isn’t whether or not anybody is going to survive. It’s whether they can kill the Thing before it somehow gets off Antarctica and infects the rest of the planet in what is likely to become an extinction-level event.
By the time I finally saw this movie, a good 10 years after its release, I had known it was a kind of under-the-radar classic, as a lot of John Carpenter’s films tend to be. He’s a guy who punches above his weight with interesting movies that somehow stretch their relatively meager budgets to the breaking point in the name of telling a wild yarn. The Thing is no different. Here and there, the stretch marks really show, and the visuals don’t exactly age gracefully. But what has always made this movie work wasn’t its gore or premise, but the people in the middle of this mess. This was the first movie I ever saw where paranoia was the central challenge. Yes, our heroes are up against a hideous, crafty monster. But if they can work together, it’s really not that tough. Once everybody starts spending half their time sneaking glances at their colleagues out of the corner of their eye, it’s hard to give anything your full attention, especially exterminating a hostile monster from outer space.
The moment of truth for this movie comes at the very end, when we’ve had a pretty climactic battle between MacReady and the Thing, and we’re not really all that sure how it turned out, to be honest. As MacReady sits with a fellow survivor under what can charitably be described as challenging circumstances, we are left to wonder if either of them are the Thing. We’re pretty sure MacReady isn’t. But is his friend? As the credits begin to roll, we realize that there’s no point in fearing each other anymore. There are much bigger fish to fry, even if MacReady isn’t gonna be one of the ones frying them. Never before had I seen a movie end on such a particular note; it’s easy to focus on the nihilist elements of it. But humanity might have been given a foe so terrible it might just be what brings us all together at last. Too bad it’ll be to die a horrible collective death, but I guess you can’t have everything.