And so do a lot of horror movie fans, despite critics’ less than enthusiastic reviews at the time.
I’m talking about the 1982 sci-fi/horror classic John Carpenter’s The Thing. I was about 16 or 17 when I first saw it, so that might color how I feel about it, teenagers not necessarily being the most sophisticated of film connoisseurs. After all I thought Porky’s was hilarious when I saw it at roughly the same age. I haven’t watched Porky’s in a very long time, but I watched The Thing again just two nights ago.
And, for me, it still holds up.
It’s a terrific, if very intense and gruesome, popcorn movie!
Film critic Roger Ebert was bothered by the lack of character development and lack of intelligence of those characters. He wondered: If the creature prefers to attack individuals out of sight of the others, why did the fellows keep going off on their own? That is a good point, but I didn’t let that bother me. Good popcorn movies get a pass on such deficiencies. And, in recent years, the attitude toward this movie by critics has been changing. More and more it’s being lauded as one of the 80s’ best sci-fi/horror films.
The story involves a group of American men (no women!) stationed in Antarctica to do science or whatever they do down there, whose day is interrupted by a dog being chased by a couple of crazed Norwegians in a helicopter. The Norwegians, along with being crazed, are pretty bad with their weapons as they attempt to kill the dog. One couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with his high-powered rifle and the other manages to blow himself and the helicopter up with a mishandled hand grenade.
Come to think of it. Why would scientists in the Antarctic need high-powered rifles and hand grenades? Ah, never mind. Where’s that popcorn?
So, the dog is taken in and it is quickly discovered that it ain’t no ordinary dog. We learn that it is a parasitic creature from another world that creates exact duplicates of other living creatures. It duplicates members of the American team so well, right down to being able to talk and act just like the original, that it’s impossible to tell the difference until it’s too late. Well, Kurt Russell’s character, McCready, the hard-drinking, cynical, world-weary, helicopter pilot does devise a way to tell the difference. I won’t say anymore than that.
Ebert mentioned that Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) handled the same basic story (a group of people in an isolated area with a powerful creature hunting them) much better. I agree. The suspense of Alien is more intense than the suspense generated in The Thing, still there is plenty of suspense as no one knows who can be trusted to not be the alien.
Let me praise the special effects of The Thing for a moment. They were excellent 35 years ago and they still look pretty damn good today. (There is a moment where the alien is clearly stop-motion animation, but it’s a fleeting glimpse.) The effects are all practical. There are no computer generated effects in the film. In fact, in the film (set in the year it was released) we get to see that time period’s level of computer graphics sophistication in a scene with McReady playing chess on a computer. How far we have come in 35 years!
There is one particularly spectacular creature transformation scene. It is completely unexpected. It’s shocking, gruesome, frightening, and hilarious all at the same time. The alien might not be bothered by the intense cold or bullets, but it does burn, so the men use flame throwers to destroy the monster, which still manages to be able to escape. Well, part of it does, as we see in that exciting sequence. And the reaction shot as the men see the alien’s method of escape is terrific. It has to be one of the greatest “you gotta be kidding me” moments in cinematic history.
Hang on. Why would scientists in the Antarctic need flame throwers? Ah, never mind. Where’s that popcorn?
The ending is bleak. (Sorry if this is a little bit of a spoiler for you, but the movie is 35 years old.) The survivors realize that there is no chance of any of them getting out alive. And they certainly can’t let that creature anywhere near civilization, so they have to flush it out and destroy it once and for all. McReady determines they need to make the area as hot as possible in order to keep the alien from just allowing itself to freeze again and wait for the unsuspecting rescue team to arrive.
They gather up all the dynamite they can carry and blow up the compound.
The survivors, exhausted and not sure if the alien is still among them, decide to wait and see what happens…
Ummm. Why would scientists in the Antarctic need dynamite? Ah, never mind. Where’s that popcorn?
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