If someone was to ask me to make a list of all-time favourite horror movies, it's a good bet that 1982's 'The Thing' would be somewhere near the top, if not the very top itself. Regarding personal taste, 'The Thing' encompasses just about everything that makes the horror genre worth dipping one's toes into. It's certainly one I would recommend to anyone who is interested in any sort of horror classic that also happens to be a remake of another classic! We can't say many of those exist out there, but here's living proof that they're out there.
Just to bring up what this modelled itself after, 'The Thing from Another World' is a bit more of your classic alien monster movie. It was only really due to budget restrictions, but the creature in the 1951 film is much more of a simple, humanoid, plant-based monster. This leaves out the whole shapeshifting aspect of the creature, which is really what makes the '82 version here (and the book) so damn good. By the way, in case any part of you is wondering about the 2011 version, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton... it's lame and full of CG and only serves as proof that the practical effects of the '82 movie stand out much better. When it comes to horror, I'd generally vote practical over CG ANY day of the week!
It all starts with a curious scene involving a Norwegian helicopter in pursuit of a sled dog. We see this guy shooting at the poor dog, as both approach an American research station. One blows himself up, and one is killed in self-defence by the American station commander, Garry (Donald Moffat). But a curiosity remains about this dog and why these Norwegians were so freaked out about it. This sends Dr. Cooper (Richard Dysart) and our film's hero, R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) to investigate the Norwegian base. There, they find a whole lot of death, and one big clue as to what the hell happened there - a strange, twisted humanoid blob that seems to have been burned to death.
The oddity is brought back to the American base to be researched by their biologist, Blair (Wilford Brimley). Meanwhile, we do find out what was up with that dog, as when it's put in a kennel with other dogs, it attacks in some pretty gruesome ways. By the way, I need to offer a fair warning that if you are a dog lover, this scene IS pretty hard to watch. But what follows that scene is an exercise in horror based on trust. Eventually, Blair does determine that the crew is now dealing with an extraterrestrial being that can imitate anyone or anything living, perfectly.
So, it's the idea that the creature can replicate someone else on the crew, and I haven't even mentioned how big the crew is. Apart from those I've already listed, we also have Nauls (T.K. Carter), Palmer (David Clennon), Childs (Keith David), Norris (Charles Hallahan), Bennings (Peter Maloney), Clark (Richard Masur), Fuchs (Joel Polis), and Windows (Thomas G. Waites). So there's no shortage of bodies for this "thing" to take over. And while the crew is all the while trying to figure out who they can and can't trust, so is the viewing audience. And we're kept guessing right until the bitter end - still a personal fave for yours truly, ending as any good horror movie should; with pure uncertainty about something.
So, going back to what I mentioned earlier, about this movie hitting every note I feel a horror movie should, accurately, let's cover a bit more about what I mean. I've already mentioned the themes of mistrust, and the killer practical effects, but with those effects comes a little dose of something else I love in good horror - otherworldliness. While a lot of these practical effects are really gruesome, a lot of it is stop-motion animation. One can certainly choose to see this as cheesy, and I can't say I'd fully disagree. But one has to appreciate the creepiness that stop-motion offers to something like this.
That otherworldliness combines with the dark, cold desolation of the Antarctic, and gives the film such a creepy and helpless atmosphere. Especially knowing these characters can't even go as far as to trust their best friends here. I've always had a real appreciation for how strangely claustrophobic this movie makes the viewer. And the score from Ennio Morricone is superb in its slow, eerie execution, helping set the viewer right on edge. It all combines together to make this damn-near-perfect horror soup. Hell, I almost left some of the camaraderie of the crew itself, and great one-liners like MacReady's "Yeah, f*ck you, too!" (which makes a little more sense in context).
It's hard to believe, but this was actually originally quite panned by critics and audiences alike upon its arrival. It was often considered "too gruesome", and it happened to be competing with another alien movie made a little more for the family, 'E.T.' Really, I think its timing was just a little off. 'E.T.' finally offered a friendly perspective on the alien creature, and horror was probably best left to the slashers of the era, or perhaps even films on the occult. Eventually, however, the film did find its cult following and has since exploded as one of the greats of the genre.
It's crazy how this seems to cover several types of conflict in storytelling. At the very least "man vs man", "man vs unknown", "man vs nature" and I might even argue "man vs himself" can all be accounted for here. To watch this as a first-timer now, things may look a touch tacky, and a lot of the technology is seemingly outdated (it was the beginning of the 80s, to be fair). But I do sincerely think this deserves a spot on just about any horror fans "favourites" list, even if it's not at the top, like it is with mine. As a horror fan, this is one to be respected.