Kurt Russell is a man with a beard stationed at a research outpost in the Antarctic. It is a good beard and Kurt Russell is a good man, a man’s man, with balls of brass, a working knowledge of Chess, and helicopter skills. Kurt and his compatriots, including a gleefully against type Wilford Brimley, find themselves called out to another research compound, one run by unfortunate Norwegians who have found something terrible in the ice. That something is a flying saucer.
The passenger is a shape shifting alien with no sense of personal space. John Carpenter’s best film since Halloween is a suspenseful, claustrophobic, testosterone-filled nightmare that sticks with you when you find yourself having to take your obnoxious dog out at two o’clock in the morning, looking in the bushes for the source of every little sound that may want to eat your face. I found myself humming Ennio Morricone’s weird synth score, hoping to God and the angels I was alone.
Let’s make it all for one… and all for love!
The 80s were the halcyon days of gross out horror and the titular Thing is a creation of slime, blood and goo that lends itself to what can only be described as tentacle dogs and crab heads, all the creations of special effects guru and KY enthusiast Bob Bottin. The Thing inhabits lifeforms, imitating them some of the time with blank-eyed weirdness and twisting them into Lovecraftian sexual nightmares the rest of the time. When it rears its ugly head(s) it’s a thing of wonder, a grand masterpiece of physiological wrongness that will scare the beejesus out of anyone with a sense of bodily integrity.
God, Alien, why are you such a GD drama queen?
Carpenter knows how to use these effects sparingly; we don’t see the backassward alien biology unless we have to and when we do it gets displayed in all it’s glory, a grimy, pustulating mess of teeth and appendages that defy logic and decency. The rest of the time we are left with a bunch of very paranoid, probably sexually frustrated men living in isolation with an enemy they cannot see, much less understand. The character dynamics reveal a group of friends who want to trust each other but can’t once they realize that they actually don’t know each other all that well.
It is a strange thing to be able to compliment the performances in a horror film, but the acting here is downright respectable. Props go to Russell (Carpenter’s masculine muse) playing a man who is failing badly to utilize Old West skills in a situation that goes beyond the solar system and down into his fearful reptile brain. But truly, the film belongs to Wilford Brimley. The man who could be your grandfather, who sells you dye-uh-beat-us supplies, and who wants you to know about the healing benefits of oats, here plays a man on a slow trek into the depths of madness. By the time our Wilford finds himself confined to his quarters and telling his colleagues in his best impression of a walrus, “I promise not to harm anyone; I just want to come back inside”, The Thing has worked its gory magic as an apocalypse writ small.
These men, at this tiny way station of civilization in the freezing white are not only fighting for their lives, but for humankind as well. Given that, the ending will not make you feel better. It’s ambivalent and permeated by a deep sense of irony. A kind of “let’s just wait and see” view of armageddon that manages to be chilling and sort of funny at the same time.
“Damnation. I burnt my flapjacks.”
It simply doesn’t get much better than this. The Thing is a haunted house in the Arctic, filled with worse ghouls that you could imagine. This is horror that occupies your brain and settles in your gut. It is intense both in its quiet moments and in its money shots. If you have to watch a man’s arms being eaten by another man’s stomach, this is the way to do it.
Buy a guy a drink first, will ya?
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Wilford Brimley says or does something that murders a little piece of you childhood
Pour Whiskey into your Hard Drive: when Kurt Russell does the same because he’s pissed off at the Chessbot (actually, maybe don’t do that)
Take a drink: every time a character utters the phrase “the thing!” with absolute fucking urgency