The Thing

The Thing ★★★½

100 Films by 18 Directors: John Carpenter

I mean, The Thing is good, but the best horror film of all-time? Hardly. A great exercise in paranoia, the film feels like a precursor to Carpenter's They Live. Anybody could be imitated by "the thing", making everybody a prime suspect and under investigation. This makes for a largely fun horror film, but hardest the greatest of all-time. Compared to The Fog, which I watched yesterday, The Thing lacks the same omnipresent dread and it is never nearly as scary. That said, watching Kurt Russell fight aliens, the cool special effects, cool premise, and the killer score, do establish The Thing as a good. Unfortunately, it may just suffer from far too high of expectations for an otherwise solid horror film from director John Carpenter.

Set in Antarctica, The Thing opens with a scene that only becomes haunting later on in the film. It is truly an odd opening with a Norwegian man trying to shoot a dog from a helicopter. Initially, we have no clue, but it is only later when we see the madness and paranoia that descends on the American camp heading by MacReady (Kurt Russell) that we understand what happens to this Norwegian man. This same paranoia permeates the American camp in no time once we learn that "the thing" can imitate anybody and anything. Hidden inside dogs, people, or anything else, "the thing" could be anything around you. This paranoia is what the film really feeds on, complemented by a nervy and anxious score by Carpenter. What the score reminds me of is the opening few notes of a great theme song from an action movie, except in perpetuity. Ennio Morricone's score just plays, with each new piece of music, the same opening chords over-and-over. Though the chords differ from piece-to-piece, they are all generally the same in that it plays the opening notes more than is comfortable, as the audience expects it to simply be a quick lead in to the music. This alone creates incredible anxiety and is a great testament to how a great score can make a horror film even scarier.

This paranoia is really the primary emotion of the film as the horror too often goes into gross out territory. It trades fear for gore to middling impact, which is a shame because the special effects are incredible. A head ripping itself off a body and walking away is no small feat, yet Carpenter's film makes it look seamless and easy to do. Thus, these gross out effects are greatly appreciated from aesthetic stand point and I did get great enjoyment out of watching a dog (though I love dogs) somehow split in two and reveal this "thing" living beneath its fur. It is an incredibly cool effect to watch unfold. Similarly, the fire from the flame throwers - a great tool to use in this film - always looks incredible. Honestly, the whole production design is great and only adds to the paranoia with the various hiding places within this metal trap. However, as I said, the gore is simply not scary. It is cool and occasionally thrills, but it never really scared me if I am being honest. Considering the gore is the big pay-off here, it is clear why this one sort of flew past me.

A slow burn science fiction horror film, one of the greatest assets of the film is the mystery and the investigation into what "the thing" is capable of doing. As none of the characters know what it is, they are all in the dark as to the signs that somebody has been killed and is merely being imitated. As such, scenes of them discovering information regarding "the thing" and the confusion as to how it got there and how long it was there are all incredibly compelling and truly engaging.

However, the film is bogged down by lazy writing. While a compelling film, its characters are pretty disposable. Similar to many war films, The Thing lacks any character development for such a large cast of characters. Carpenter does not focus on developing the characters, but it is still a concern as a film such as this demands pathos and compelling characters to give the film stakes and the audience anxiety as we worry which beloved character will die next. Other than the dogs, which is inherent, I never felt these stakes or concern.

The Thing is a good film, but it is hardly the masterpiece it has been heralded as. Though well acted with great special effects, score, and paranoia, the film simply lacks scares. Instead of well earned scares, it opts for campy gore that entertains from a special effects standpoint, but is hardly scary and it kills the tension of the moment as a result.

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