The Antarctic, winter, 1982, and a Norwegian helicopter is flying over the snowy wastes, following a dog which flees in the opposite direction. The passenger produces a gun which he uses to take aim at the animal and opens fire, but he keeps missing so resorts to throwing a grenade at it. The American scientific research station nearby appears to be the dog's destination, and as it reaches the men there the copter lands and the gunman gets out, but accidentally blows up the vehicle in his attempts to get the dog... so what's the problem?
John W. Campbell's story "Who Goes There" had already been adapted for the big screen as The Thing From Another World in the nineteen-fifties, a version many regarded as a classic of its era, so when John Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster took the original idea of a shape-shifting alien rather than the vegetable man of that incarnation, there were grumblings about this upstart messing with one of he best-loved sci-fi thrillers of all time. As it was, there was not much of an audience for the remake, but that could be because with its paranoia so perfectly pitched, the brash eighties were not in the mood.
If anything, this was better suited to the uneasiness of the previous decade as the film it most resembled in tone was another remake, Philip Kaufman's redesign of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers; same update to the current times, same downbeat tone, same lament for humanity. The isolated research station, surrounded by an icy, white landscape, becomes claustrophobic here much as San Francisco in the Kaufman movie had no hiding places. Audiences may not have liked it in '82, but that paranoia of the story was one of its main advantages as the alien becomes the spitting image of anyone it reaches, leaving them and you spending the whole movie trying to work out who's been infected and who's not - even after the movie has finished. It kept you guessing.
The Thing itself is mysterious throughout; the only certainty is that it wants to take over at any cost. Aside from a quaint by modern standards computer simulation the exact nature of its modus operandi is never entirely clear, and it is obviously equally as intelligent as its human prey: it outwits them at every turn, though whether it was brought to Earth by an infected alien a hundred thousand years before or it is the actual alien planning colonisation is a mystery. You'll see mystery was the main engine Carpenter, in one of the finest, most skillful works of his career, applied to keep the tension at near-snapping point: if the fear doesn't eat the characters alive, the Thing will.
Rob Bottin's special make-up effects are terrific, the scenes where the Thing creates mayhem are the real highlights ranging from the rubbery to the gooey, all of them wonderfully tactile, queasy and convincing, especially in this age of computer graphics which were by and large none of those. Perhaps it was ironic in the period where David Cronenberg was producing his best work in the genre of body horror that Carpenter should be beating him at his own game, but then there was a lot of this about at the time. Curiously, for a film which should be championing individuality, the characters are largely interchangeable; Kurt Russell stood out in his tough, whispery-voiced mode as the leader, but everyone else was largely either older and slightly stuffy or younger and full of bluster as only Keith David was truly memorable otherwise (for good reason).
And they are all, except for Russell's resourceful MacReady, reduced to panic by the Thing's antics at one or more points in the narrative, proof that they are still human for what it was worth, though the protean villain did have a tendency to use that humanity against them. See the concern Donald Moffat's ostensible leader feels for the man he had known for ten years, but is now reduced to a smoking husk by the flamethrowers which are the best line of defence as the men quickly discover, or the sorrow the death of the station's own dogs generates. The fact the Thing looks like one of us makes it all the more dangerous, and with such unbeatable sequences as the blood test and more subtle gestures towards menace - there's a light on in MacReady's cabin! - this could take its place as a genuine cult favourite, not to mention an excellent film for re-watching so you can try and work out who's been infected and when - the "uh-oh" ending will fox you, however. As Ennio Morricone's sinister score over the credits left you as disquieted as the splashier gore effects, it really was a great job all round.
Skillful American writer-director of supense movies, often in the science fiction or horror genres. Comedy Dark Star and thriller Assault on Precinct 13 were low budget favourites, but mega-hit Halloween kick-started the slasher boom and Carpenter never looked back.