Monday Morning Movie Review: Portly’s Top Ten Best Films: #3: The Thing (1982)

As we get into the final three of our picks, I find myself thankful that Ponty and I are doing an “Hono[u]rable Mentions” post, because this point is where it gets hard.  How do you pick the best three films?  Ten is hard enough, but there’s some margin for error.

That said, I know my #2 and #1 picks.  But #3 was giving me a time, until Ponty mentioned this film in one of his comments.

John Carpenter is my favorite director, up there with Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson, and similar directors.  These are the guys that have a distinct style, even when making films in vastly different genres.  That uniqueness of directorial tone seems to be fading in Hollywood, in favor of homogenized, corporatized sameness.  That’s not an entirely fair assessment, but I have a sense that the phenomenon of the “director-as-artist” is fading.

What sets Carpenter apart for me is not just his uniqueness; his movies are fun.  They’re not dumb fun, either (for the most part)—his shots are deliberate, and make sense for whatever scene he is shooting.  He is a strong visual storyteller, in addition to being a great composer and musician.  There’s a reason his films will appear twice in my top three.

This picture is arguably his best, but for personal and sentimental reasons I’m putting another of his films higher.  That said, Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing is a masterpiece of tension, horror, and suspense.

The film opens with a dog running across the wastes of Antarctica, a Norwegian helicopter in hot pursuit.  Why are they chasing a dog across Antarctica?  Why are they so intent on killing it?

Immediately, we’re thrown into a bizarre mystery—as are the characters.  They have about as much information as we do, and they struggle to understand what is happening around them.  They shoot one of the Norwegians and take in the dog, and then terrible things (no pun intended) start to occur.  The escaped dog absorbs the other dogs into itself, and the American scientists quickly realize that something is wrong.

What is wrong is that they have encountered an extraterrestrial organism that can perfectly replicate the DNA of any other organism, taking on its appearance.  They soon realize that any one of them could be The Thing, and suspicion and doubt set in.

Rather than rehash the entire plot—which would ruin much of the suspense and fun—I’ll focus on what makes this film so incredible.

Firstly, the setting is perfection—it’s Antarctica in the winter.  The very atmosphere is dangerous and isolated.  The weather itself becomes a threat and an unlikely ally, as the extreme cold is a danger to our heroes, but also might explain how The Thing has laid dormant for so long.  You can feel the cold as you watch this movie, and I find it makes for great viewing on a dark, wintry night.

Secondly, the cast is incredible.  I’m a sucker for Kurt Russell, a perennial actor in Carpenter’s films.  Russell here portrays R.J. MacReady, a helicopter pilot, but for our purposes, we might as well think of him as Kurt Russell—he’s playing the kind of character he tends to play.  Anyone who has seen the flick will remember the famous computer chess scene:

That one scene tells the viewer everything he needs to know about the character.  It’s the only example I can think of in which cutting the proverbial Gordian Knot involves dumping Scotch into a chess computer.

That computer is also the closest thing to a “female” character in the entire film.  There are no women in this movie, which apparently made the production much easier, as none of the male cast members were trying to show off in front of the babes (it’s interesting how that dynamic never really changes, even among adult men).  It doesn’t matter much otherwise, but it’s clear that there’s no romantic subplot or the like—it’s all about a group of increasingly contentious men struggling for survival.

Thirdly, the creature effects make this flick worthwhile.  At the time, they were considered too gory, and they still hold up.  The head of one of the team members turning into a spider-Thing is particularly chilling, and demonstrates just how dangerous The Thing is (warning for those with sensitive stomachs—it’s a gruesome scene):

That clip also features the defibrillator paddles descending into a belly-turned-mouth—truly horrifying stuff.  The ever-shifting nature of The Thing makes it a source of constant terror.  It becomes virtually impossible to kill.

The Thing was a flop upon release, but has since become a cult classic.  I think it deserves better than mere cult status—it’s a cinematic masterpiece.  While it’s ostensibly about an alien menace, it’s really an exploration of paranoia, fear, and hopelessness in a desperate situation and environment.

It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s a must-see.


20 thoughts on “Monday Morning Movie Review: Portly’s Top Ten Best Films: #3: The Thing (1982)

  1. Superb, Tyler. 🙂

    I nearly wrote a review for this myself, intending to put it in at number 4 but I decided against it. It’ll feature in my honourable mentions instead.

    The creature effects are brilliant and I love how exacting Carpenter was in making the corpses so visceral; when you look at the skin and the fluids, it looks like it could be real. You don’t mess about with that sort of stuff and he made damn sure that the effects guy got it right.

    But you’re correct in saying that the main aspect was the isolation. These guys are completely cut off so they have to deal with this thing in house, so to speak, and not knowing who or what it could be makes the suspense even more thrilling. This is Body Snatchers done to perfection.

    There’s another horror where the isolation plays a key part to the film at large. 30 Days of Night. A completely different type of film, this one focusing on vampires rather than shape shifting aliens, but in the very isolated town they’re in, escape is completely moot. They have to deal with the creatures themselves and watching as they hide and make plans is nervy, knowing that any sound could direct the monsters into their path. Like I said, a much different film but the isolation is claustrophobic.

    Liked by 1 person

      • It’s a great review, mate, for a film that Tina and I watch annually. Carpenter’s early work was great and I’ll be interested to read your review which The Critical Drinker also rates very highly.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. For me, Thing 1 and Thing 2 are great movies. Although, as suggested, 2 was rough watching – and listening to! That squishy, slippery, moist sound just disgusts me, lol! I didn’t know whether to cover my eyes or my ears!!! I love the original – I was immediately caught up in the ‘feeling’ of the place and time and black and white can be, oftentimes, more effective than color (Lon, on the other hand, can’t fathom why anyone would watch black and white movies. Sigh)

    But I had a brain bust somewhere in your review of the movie and now have to run over to your email to write a review of a movie I bet has only one viewer – me! Gotta dash – reviewer juices flowing …

    Liked by 2 people

    • Black and white works better for certain movies. Tina and I watched a weird movie recently about the effects of long periods of isolation. It was called The Lighthouse, starring Willem Defoe and a surprisingly good Robert Pattinson. Again, not a film for the faint hearted but for me, it just wouldn’t have worked in colour.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. There’s another thing about this film which I know Audre will have spotted. Carpenter’s soundtrack sounds very similar to the one used many years later in a series entitled Stranger Things. The slow tap of the heartbeat, the 80s synth. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the Duffer Brothers, who created Stranger Things, were big Carpenter fans.

    Liked by 1 person

    • See??? That’s the kind of brilliant connection you make that would simply never occur to me unless I read it from you! But I think you’re exactly right!

      Liked by 1 person

      • There are loads of influences the Duffer Brothers took for Stranger Things but it’s an amalgam that works well.

        I’ll discuss that more in the Stranger Things review I’ve been writing. In fact, I should be able to submit it when I send in my number 3.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Probably Tyler. I’ve not heard of that film though I do like Sam Elliot. His voice is like silk. Strangely, Tina and I had the impression that DA spoke like him – gravelly voice, Stetson tipped forward, ‘ma’am’ coming through his Marlboro toting mouth. Dave would probably laugh at that description but I’m keeping hold of it! 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • You know … I have no idea! He ‘claims’ to not have a camera or microphone or anything of that nature that would enable me to actually see him or talk to him. But if you’re right about what you imagine his voice to be like – it’s just as well cuz, I’ll tell ya what … Sam’s voice puts that zip in my hip, lol!!!

      Liked by 2 people

      • 🙂 🙂 🙂

        He always said that if we made it to Nebraska, he’d have a big steak ready for us. Me, that is, not Tina – she’s not a veggie but she’s not a fan of steaks. We reciprocated that offer and said he’d be welcome to try one of Tina’s full English’s or Sunday roasts. I do hope we get the opportunity for one of those things in the coming years. He’s a good bloke, Dave.

        Liked by 2 people

      • He absolutely is and if you ever doubt it, consider that he’s allowed me to pester the heck out of him for two years!!! The man deserves a medal!

        Liked by 2 people

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