Ben Hibburd’s review published on Letterboxd:
John Carpenter’s The Thing: A Masterpiece in Tension.
* I’ve previously reviewed this film a while back, it was one of the first things I’d ever written so naturally I’ve covered most of what I wanted to say in that review. However I wanted to update my thoughts, and I’ll leave my old review in the comment section if anyone's interested.
John Carpenter’s "The Thing" is one of my favourite films of all time. It’s a film that I regularly come back to a couple of times a year and I’m constantly blown away by it. Each and every viewing is like a new experience. There’s always something new to discover or different characters that retain more of my focus as I relentlessly try to track every movement the Thing makes. Every wry smile or sideways glance evokes new clues and hidden tension. However, I’ve come to accept that there’s almost no way to figure out who is and isn’t the Thing in any given scene (excluding the reveals) and that’s what lays at the foundation of this incredible film.
Paranoia in film is extremely hard to capture. In my opinion seldom few films have been able to capture the feeling of unrelenting terror and the constant guessing as effectively or as consistently as “The Thing”. John Carpenter takes Howard Hawke’s cold war Sci-Fi B movie and wisely tosses out everything but the location. It doesn't get any more desolate than the Antarctic. Cut off from any form of civilization or authority, being unable to trust your friends and co-inhabitants whose cooperation is needed for the group's survival is a powerful tool. And as the days grow darker and colder with the lack of sleep you can feel the desperation radiate off the characters.
Add in the constant sabotage, characters with time unaccounted for, misplaced blame, plus the slow mental and physical deprivation only serves to pile on the pressure. By the halfway mark the paranoia is in full swing, any second the Thing can burst on screen and claim another victim. Neither the audience nor the characters dare take a moment to look away or rest for a solitary second. Not even the great Alfred Hitchcock was able to bring about the level of tension that encapsulates “The Thing”.
The script is brilliantly written and paced, it starts off quickly in an eerie manner as a Norwegian scientist enters a US research base trying to kill a dog. This instantly sets up the initial mystery as to why someone would do that. From there the film takes its time to slowly allude and build up the mystery as the characters try and understand what’s happening. Whilst most films have exposition dumps, here the screenplay allows the characters to figure out for themselves as to what’s happening through natural investigation. This also allows the audience to figure it out at the same pace, not resorting to insultingly painful exposition. Throughout the course of the film the stakes are gradually raised. First, they can’t trust each other, they then segregate certain members of the group they deem untrustworthy, then it becomes all about survival until they realise that it's not possible and they try to stop it from infecting the world. This gradual progression raises the stakes and as-well as the tension.
The creature doesn't make an appearance until the half hour mark. However when we do see the creature, oh boy do we! This film has some of the best special effects and puppet work ever put on film. It’s pure disgusting brilliance. Not only is the fear of the unknown a powerful tool, but making it as horrifying as humanly possible when it is known ups the ante for both the characters and the audience. Knowing that in a split second a character can mutate and take the form of another in the most vile, painful way possible only increases the paranoia.
What makes the creature even more effective is that throughout the course of the film we only see it react when it's being threatened or exposed. It leaves us with the two possibilities that it could either be a parasite that only wants to consume and replicate. Or, on the other hand there are scenes alluding to the fact that it’s a sentient being, and it’s trying to build a spaceship (to potentially leave Earth) whilst hiding amongst the group as the human characters relentlessly hunt it down in order to kill it. Whilst I don’t personally subscribe to that idea I do find it interesting, adding another layer of depth on an already great film.
John Carpenter is at the top of his game with this film. His use of steady cam allows the camera to situate on his characters; the fear, deprivation and anxiety they go through is almost palpable. Also his use of wide shots allow us to see everyone in the frame, and in doing so we can examine everyone’s personality and seek for any potential clues as to who’s the Thing. He also does a wonderful job on mapping out the geography of the film, allowing for a sense of where everybody is positioned throughout the course of the film (and where they’re not).
"The Thing" is a rare instance where every element of a film's production comes together in perfect harmony to create a memorable cinematic experience. From Ennio Morricone's heart thumping score to the empty wide shots of hallways and dorm rooms, grotesque creature designs and practical effects, tight editing and the brooding omnipresent atmosphere that suffocates this film, everything is crafted to perfection. It’s a shame that this film got shit on when it first released but it’s a testament to the strength of the film that it’s garnered a reputation of being one of the best horror films of all time.