Classic monster movies: The Thing showing on Monday
Adam Scovell discusses 'a film of rare tension and isolation', John Carpenter's The Thing
16 May 2014
The late 1970s saw a revival of the pulp and splendour of traditional sci-fi cinema that lasted well into the 1980s and beyond. The monster movie and the creature movie, so prominent in the 1950s with films such as Them! (1954), Tarantula (1955) and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), became on-trend again largely thanks to Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) and Ridley Scott's Alien (1979). Another syndrome of these trends would be a small group of remakes of the 1950s monster films, notably, The Blob (1958 and 1988) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978).
Perhaps most famously (and successfully) of these remakes was John Carpenter's The Thing (1982); a film of rare tension and isolation, fused with groundbreaking gore and a staunch sense of the macabre. It seems the benchmark film for creature flicks but its critical success can also be measured by it almost drowning out discussion of the original Howard Hawks film (from 1951), seemingly now only a high quality blip in the catalogue of a cinematic classicist of the highest calibre.
Carpenter's The Thing is at once a different beast. It removes any sense of melodrama and instead focuses on the harsh, brutal reality of contact with a creature who cares very little about who it destroys and which angle it chooses to tear from. Carpenter had already redefined cinematic tension in his 1978 horror masterpiece, Halloween, and brought its sense of constant, ubiquitous dread to the science-fiction setting with ease.
Carpenter had already made four science-fiction films by the time he reached The Thing, yet none of them shine a light into the dark, sadistic territory that it ventured into. The film is a far cry from the comedy of Dark Star (1974), the gothic romp of The Fog (1980), and the dystopia of Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). It instead occupies its own realm, partly Herzogian exploration into the icy rural abyss, part Kafka-esque metamorphosis which few of the characters have little choice but to become part of, being torn literally from the inside out.
Though Carpenter would excel in the cinematic set-piece, The Thing holds his personal record for most memorable. From the sapping, almost orgiastic demise of the hunting hounds by the ambiguous creature to the infamous "spider-head" mutation, this is a film chocked full with dark, deeply metaphorical transformations that would set the benchmark for gore in science-fiction. The Thing also boasts a brilliant ensemble cast, from Kurt Russell's increasingly paranoid MacReady to Wilford Brimley's creepy Dr Blair and David Clennon's desperate Palmer, all of whom bring a sense of the real to what could be quite schlocky narratives.
Perhaps most brilliantly of all, Carpenter brings all of these separate elements together and makes them work well with each other. It's clear, especially from the recently made prequel in 2011, that it's a difficult balancing act to pull; managing horror, science-fiction, tension, realism and almost avant-garde gore to create something that seems coherent as well as brilliantly entertaining. Carpenter and his team not only manage to achieve this in a basic way but in an all-encompassing net of influence too; showing the true power and intelligence of genre cinema while still scaring the living daylights out of the viewer.