From the opening shot of a helicopter strafing a wild dog, the snowy wastes are alive with danger, mystery and terror. John Carpenter’s remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (1951) is one of the greatest sci-fi horror extravaganzas.
The helicopter is from a Norwegian polar base and the chase takes them to Outpost 31 – a camp belonging to their American counterparts. The Norwegians meet their end before they can harm the pooch and the Americans are shaken and confused by this unexpected drama over what appears to be a harmless dog.
The original movie’s paranoia is matched with gruesome special effects given added impact by the surroundings of the remote Antarctic research centre. Bloody icicles hang from the wrist of a suicide victim, UFOs are buried in the snow and the titular alien inhabits every living creature.
Dr Blair (Wilford Brimley) calculates that after 27,000 hours from first contact with the civilised world, the entire planet will be infected by the extra-terrestrial shapeshifter. MacReady and the others must now determine – and quickly – who is a “thing” and who is a real human. They arrange for a blood serum test to help them identify the interloper (or interlopers) hiding in their midst.
Carpenter’s film is scarier than the original and he uses misdirection very skillfully in some of the alien transformation scenes. The alien in Hawks’ version, when revealed, was just a large man lumbering around like Frankenstein. Not terribly scary to modern eyes. Here the alien is far more frightening and dangerous.
The process by which the thing invades and infects the men of the ice station is never explained, but the process by which it splits open their anatomies – like cows being hacked open in a slaughterhouse or hogs being bled for bacon – is graphically and lovingly detailed in stomach-churning close-ups.
The amazing effects were accomplished on set by Rob Bottin, with no digital tinkering or CGI involved. The result is nothing short of incredible.
Kurt Russell is the lead (as bearded chopper pilot R.J. MacReady) and there are some great supporting actors like Wilford Brimley, Donald Moffat and Richard Dysart.
The film was a flop on release, with Universal dumping it into theatres just a fortnight after the E.T. publicity juggernaut had steamrolled into towns.
Carpenter was persuaded to shoot an extra ending for The Thing as a contrast to his original downbeat, ambiguous one. This “happy” ending was never used in the end and the film is stronger for Carpenter sticking to his guns.
Slowly but surely, it has taken up position as one of the seminal horror films of the 80s, and no matter how many times you’ve seen it, the defibrillator sequence alone still has the capacity to shock and awe.
T K Carter
Thomas G Waites