An American scientific expedition to the frozen wastes of the Antarctic is interrupted by a group of seemingly mad Norwegians pursuing and shooting a dog. Only the dog survives the crash but the scientists soon wish they hadn't taken it in.
In 1982 a generation was entranced by a thing from another world. Kids of all ages thrilled as E.T. waddled through Elliot's back yard; chortled as he followed the trail of Reese's Pieces before sobbing helplessly and having to be carried out and placated with Maltesers at the bit where the little bugger fell in the river and turned grey. But there was another kind of alien movie playing on the screen next door. And it seemed to be very, very, different. You could tell. Because through the rubbish multiplex-not-invented-yet soundproofing, you could hear the screams.
John Carpenter's The Thing began its protean life as a short story by John W. Campbell entitled Who Goes There? published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1938. It raised little interest then, being just another of the pulpish sci-fi yarns that filled the fantasy fiction mags of the time. But its star, a creature from outer space that could perfectly disguise itself as another human being; as your wife, husband or best friend, was perfectly suited to the burgeoning paranoia of the Cold War. Terror of reds-under-the-bed, that your neighbour could be one of them set an eerily prescient background for infiltration themed sci-fi.
Producer Howard Hawkes was sharp enough to recognise a zeitgeisty story when he saw one and The Thing From Another World was made in 1951. A well made but bog-standard monster movie, it caught John Carpenter's attention when he was five years old. Thirty-five years later and by now a Hawkes devotee he nodded to the movie by having it play on a TV in his seminal slasher Halloween. But it was the short story that captivated him and he returned to the material for his, very different, remake.
The Thing breaks the rules from the get-go. A pre-credits sequence shows a futuristic saucer flaming in Earth's atmosphere, but we are in the distant past. The film will turn out to be intensely claustrophobic, yet the opening shot is of the wide open spaces of Antarctica. And for a monster movie, it shows the beast ridiculously early, in fact it is the first living thing we will see. Only we don't know that yet, because it is in the form of a cute dog ruthlessly hunted from a helicopter by unnamed bad guys. Half an hour later, when the audience (but no character) sees the dog's face peel open like a banana and issue oodles of gore drenched tentacles, we will reverse our opinion and wish that the guy in the chopper had got a better shot on the dog.
Carpenter's film is about men in isolation and he peoples the Antarctic station with a cast of bored, bickering blokes comprising some of the finest ensemble actors around at the time (standouts are Richard Dysart, A. Wilford Brimley, Donald Moffat and the late Charles Hallahan) plus Kurt Russell, a criminally underused hero of the old, gruff school prevalent before all these pretty boys came along, as McReady the reluctant, taciturn leader. One by one the men are relentlessly whittled down in a crimson haze of flying gore, disembodied limbs and helpless screams with the permanent paranoid question of which of them is still human hanging over them all.
But if the plot of The Thing is a compelling exercise in suspense, Rob Bottin's groundbreaking prosthetic make-up effects provide release, albeit for some a release of their lunch. The first time we see Bottin's (an obscenely precocious 23 year-old) handiwork it is inanimate on the surgeon's operating table. A distorted, screaming human face pokes out from a mess of insectoid leg and undifferentiated flesh and slime. It's a clever way of nodding to the forthcoming horrors. If this is the aftermath, we wonder, what the hell does this thing look like when it's in action? We find out, properly anyway, one hour and 12 minutes in.
There are a few sequences in films that transcend the movies they're part of and take on a life and reputation of their own: Robert De Niro's "You talkin' to me" in Taxi Driver or the ape flinging the bone heavenwards in 2001. When Copper pushes the defibrialator paddles against Norris' chest for the second time, his arms crashing through the flesh before being severed by a giant set of jaws (the figure who staggers backwards shrieking and armless is in fact an amputee double wearing a mask) we know we are in the presence of such a scene. And just as we think that things simply cannot get any more extreme his head slips off the table and sprouts legs.
In six words Palmer (David Clennon) expresses the feelings of the slack-jawed audience: "You've got to be fucking kidding". It's a sequence that any ordinary film would have trouble recovering from. How do you provide an ending that will in any way live up that kind of excess? Brilliantly Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster go in entirely the opposite direction, continuing his rule breaking. There's no happy ending, and no tragic one. In fact there's no conventional ending at all, just two men, alone in the icy dark of Antarctica one, or both, of whom may not be all they appear.
Back in 1997 Carpenter told Empire that "You'll never, ever, see anything like The Thing again." Like MacReady and Childs we're still waiting. We might be for a long time yet.