Best For Film’s Favourite Flicks #5 – The Thing
Picking a favourite film is next to impossible. Can any one film ever really encapsulate everything you love about cinema? Probably not. But it’s an eternal question, and in light of that, I narrowed it down to what are probably my three favourite movies, of which I have selected one. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans will have to wait for another day, because as much as I could rant on about how great they are, on this day I will be ranting on about the greatness of John Carpenter’s The Thing.
For those not aware, The Thing is Carpenter’s seminal sci-fi horror, set deep in the Antarctic, as a team of isolated scientists discover something buried in the ice that really ought to have stayed buried. What they discover is an alien creature, buried under the ice for millennia, and which is able to absorb the DNA of other beings and then replicate them perfectly. As the creature moves through the compound, impersonating the skeleton crew of the station, paranoia sets in and nobody is sure of themselves or their fellow man, and it’s down to Kurt Russell to outsmart one of the most terrifying creatures ever seen on film.
What’s so incredible about the titular Thing is that it was achieved without a single pixel of CGI – something unthinkable today. But it worked! As scary as the Xenomorph from Alien was, there are still moments when you can’t get away from the fact that you’re clearly watching a man in an alien suit. A very scary alien suit, but a suit nonetheless. Where The Thing triumphs is that its various forms are so undeniably alien, and the models and stop-motion used to create them so horribly believable. When the actors are actually faced with these grisly, impossible creatures, dripping with gore, viscera, and cartilage, it shows in their reactions. Much like the infamous chest-burster scene in Alien (in which the actors didn’t know what was going to happen and their shock and horror is genuine), CGI can be very effective, but there’s no substitute for the real Thing.
There are just so many iconic moments in The Thing. Take the fabulously daring opening sequence, where two Norwegians in a helicopter are inexplicably chasing a helpless and handsome Alaskan Malamute dog (yeah, that’s right, we know the breed) and frantically trying to gun it down. For a film to open with attempted and unexplained animal slaughter is an instant hook. What do these monsters think they’re doing?! Of course, they turn out not to be the real monsters at all, and instead we’re faced with the most intensely sinister animal performance ever captured on film. Cujo has nothing on this guy; Jed the Malamute’s cold, calculating eyes are TERRIFYING.
And as for the performances, Kurt Russell has never been better than here, playing grizzled, world-weary helicopter pilot MacReady. Russell, complete with cinema’s greatest beard, takes control of the situation as the group begin to turn on one-another, and his no-nonsense, logical and realistic approach to the situation make him a hero worth rooting for. He’s also dryly, wryly funny and the script manages to ring humour out of the terrible scenario the characters find themselves in. “I don’t know what’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off!”
And then there’s the test sequence. Arguably the single most nail-biting sequence in cinema history. Having concocted a rudimentary test to discern who is and who isn’t an alien masquerading as a person, MacReady – trusting nobody else – holds everyone at flame-thrower point, straps them down, and administers the test. The logic is that the blood of the creature is alive, and will react when a hot needle is introduced. Having taken blood from everyone, MacReady administers the test, and everyone is silent, with only the wind whistling through the frozen compound to be heard. The genius is in the ambiguity of the reaction shots. Are people looking nervous because they know they’re not human and are potentially about to be revealed? Or are they just regular humans, nervous that they might be strapped down next to someone who isn’t? And with each dip of the needle into blood, the tension ratchets up to almost unbearable levels, only compounded by the fierce locking-of-horns between MacReady and Keith David’s Childs. It’s an incredible sequence; the epitome of nail-biting cinema.
Often, when it comes to horror, it’s in the sound-effects that much of the terror is derived. The scariest films tend to be the ones with the scariest sound-effects (Regan’s screams in The Exorcist, the moan of Romero’s zombies shuffling around a corner), and sure enough the hideous alien screech of the bestial Thing will etch itself onto your brain. A lot of the heavy-lifting in terms of tension building, however, comes courtesy of the soundtrack, which was not – as many retroactively believe – scored by Carpenter himself, but instead by none other than Spaghetti Western legend Ennio Morricone. His synth-led score, which pulses menacingly throughout, perfectly encapsulates the cold isolation and rising paranoia of the crew. (Listen to it here)
Of course, let’s not forget that much of the kudos has to go to John Carpenter himself. Utilizing clever camera-work, Carpenter shoots many of the scenes from corners, from behind shelves, from just outside doors… all of which give the impression that there’s always somebody watching; that the characters are never truly alone. And then there’s that ending.
The surviving characters openly admit and make peace with the fact that none of them are going to get out of this alive long before the film ends. After all, better to die in the cold and take the Thing down with it, than to escape and risk letting it reach civilization and subsume the whole human race. Ultimately, it comes down to just two; MacReady and Childs (who else?). At loggerheads throughout the film, they’re the only two that remain after Mac has “destroyed” the creature. But are they really them? Neither can be sure of the other. “Well, what do we do?” asks Childs, as they sit in the ruins of the destroyed compound, slowly freezing to death. As he cautiously passes his whiskey to his only companion – human or otherwise – MacReady replies, “Why don’t we just… wait here for a little while. See what happens.” It’s surely one of the most provocative closing lines in cinema history. And, for an added kick-in-the-teeth? Enter that foreboding synth one more time, just to highlight exactly what could happen as the camera cuts away…