The Thing’s timeless theme of paranoia and its uncompromisingly nihilistic vision gained traction as the years went by.
Much of the tension in John Carpenter’s first decade of work hinges on the theme of overwhelming invasion. Often pushing protagonists to hole up in tight spaces, these invading forces change form from one film to the next: a horde of vengeance-minded gang members in Assault on Precinct 13; a white-masked, knife-wielding maniac in Halloween; a phalanx of mist-shrouded ghost pirates in The Fog. But whatever the form, in his most iconic films, Carpenter drew inspiration from the human fear of encroachment by forces beyond our control. A box office bomb savaged by critics upon its release, Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) exists as the director’s purest distillation of this motif.
Released during the Cold War and featuring an alien invader that assimilates by perfectly replicating the organisms it encounters, The Thing draws heavily from McCarthyism paranoia found in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the bleak claustrophobia of Alien and the interpersonal clashes in times of incomprehensible crisis found in Night of the Living Dead. Themes of paranoid mistrust of fellow man, and even of one’s own body, run rampant throughout the film as the shape-shifting alien dug up in Antarctica by a doomed group of Norwegian researchers begins to wreak havoc on their similarly ill-fated American outpost neighbors.
Initially, the invaders are external: the Norwegians encroaching upon the Americans’ turf while frantically firing at the shape-shifting alien in the form of a fleeing husky; the hideous, tentacled alien hissing in the dog kennel as the men discover it mid-transformation; fellow crew members infected by the creature and running amok. But the terror at the heart of this film is ultimately far more insidious, as manifested in Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley), who comes unhinged by the knowledge that he cannot trust anyone and that the creature will ultimately consume the entire world population if its ever makes it to the mainland. Even before the Thing imitates its hosts, it infiltrates the minds of the unaffected men who can’t even be entirely certain of their own authenticity in a situation where, as helicopter pilot and de facto hero R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) puts it, “Nobody trusts anybody.”
Whereas Ridley Scott used the starkness of outer space as backdrop for his own rampaging, parasitic alien three years prior, Carpenter employs the austere Antarctic setting not only as a forbidding backdrop but as a vivid visual canvas. Collaborating once again with cinematographer Dean Cundey, Carpenter splashes the snow-enshrouded landscape (often depicted in the dead of night) with the bluish glow of floodlights, the pink radiance of burning flares and the bright orange blaze of the amply wielded flamethrower. The juxtaposition of fire and ice, of charred corpses in the snow, persists through this pyrotechnics-heavy film. But the star of the show isn’t these natural elements, of course, but the elaborately gruesome creature effects that consumed a full 10% of the film’s production budget. Read the scathing reviews the film received upon its release, and it’s clear that the extreme body horror and gore Carpenter employed in this film was so over-the-top (“You gotta be fucking kidding me!”) and ahead of its time that 1982 audiences simply couldn’t stomach it.
The icy reception to what is arguably Carpenter’s best film bears more significance than just a historical footnote. Universal Pictures, reveling in the afterglow of the lucrative E.T. released that same year, fired him from helming Firestarter and bought out his contract rather than keep him on for the multi-picture deal as intended. The director cites a deep personal impact by the film’s initial failure, one that ultimately affected his art, as he has claimed his career would’ve taken a far different trajectory (probably something a little more serious than Christine) had the film not been met with such initial disdain. Somehow its gloriously pensive, minimalist score by Ennio Morricone was even nominated for a Razzie. But The Thing’s timeless theme of paranoia and its uncompromisingly nihilistic vision gained traction as the years went by, to the point that this genre-fusion is now widely revered as one of the best horror and sci-films of all time.