by Mark Greig
I've always considered The Thing to be John Carpenter's best horror film. I know Halloween is the one that usually gets all the acclaim, but I've never found Michael Myers' killing spree to be scary in any way. It's just hard to take someone seriously as a killing machine when you know they're walking around in a lousy William Shatner mask. The alien of this film, however, is a far more terrifying creature.
While the 1951 version, The Thing From Another World, featured a lumbering Frankenstein wannabe that feeds off blood, Carpenter’s film went back to John W. Campbell Jr.'s original novella, Who Goes There?, and made his alien a shape-shifter. Brought to life thanks to the brilliant effects work of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston, Carpenter’s Thing is a memorably grotesque creation. The scene where it first reveals itself, peeling back its canine face like a banana so it can assimilate the base’s huskies, is a real jaw dropper.
Carpenter takes full advantage of the creature’s shape-shifting ability to ramp up the paranoia. With the likes of Michael Myers, Jason and Freddie you know who the killer is, who you should run from and who you can trust. You don't have none of that with the Thing. It could become anyone: your family, or your friends, or your faithful pet or, if it ever got loose at a Star Trek convention, actual William Shatner.
Its imitations are perfect. This is not some emotionless pod person, there is nothing to ever give it away. Worse still, it multiplies as well as imitates, so even if you think you’ve killed it, there still no assurance that someone else hasn’t been taken over. Everyone around you is a potential enemy waiting for the right moment to strike. Everyone is suspect and no one can be trusted.
Scratch that, there is one man we can trust and that man is Kurt Russell. The Thing was the third collaboration between Carpenter and Kurt Russell, one of cinema's great actor/director partnerships. Every time these two have worked together they have struck gold. What's that? Escape from L.A.? I thought that was just a really bad nightmare we all had back in 1996. Oh well, four times out of five they struck gold, which is still pretty impressive.
With Russell around we know we will be safe. No alien is going to be a match for him. He’s Snake Plissken, Jack Burton, one half of Tango and Cash (although I can never remember if he was Cash or Tango). No way he could be taken out (or taken over) by some stinking alien. Carpenter may plant doubt in our minds (as well as the other characters) that he may not be who he claims to be, but that's what that incredibly tense testing scene was about. To prove beyond all shadow of a doubt that MacReady is 100% human. I mean, sure, he could've somehow rigged it in his favour, but that's unlikely, right?
Four out of four reasons to always have a flamethrower nearby.
Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011. More Mark Greig.