The Thing is helped and hindered by the decade it was released. The eighties have become such an iconic time for movies, with everything from Ghostbusters to Back to the Future to the beginning of the Alien franchise (this film’s cousin). It also means you can forgive the movie some of the effects flaws and if anything, actually become endeared towards them, impressed with how well they still hold-up today.
There are some errors with The Thing that seem to be the worse of the eighties. Effects weren’t that good so movies often had to rely on atmosphere and suggested threat. The Thing doesn’t do this very well so the beginning of the movie is both void of terror, fear and interest. The film could use the time before the horror starts, to build characters and make the audience care for the people in peril. Unfortunately, the characters in The Thing only become interesting when the alien starts to kill them off and by that point it is too late.
Luckily, the movie saves itself with it’s second act. When the alien starts to attack and the crew are aware that they have a shape-shifter and that anyone could be The Thing, the film gets very interesting. The idea that anyone could be the monster and nobody is sure who to trust isn’t necessarily an original idea but it is one that is utilised very well here and director John Carpenter uses it to good effect, ramping up the tension in some scenes, before unleashing the culprit and the gore.
The effects, although clearly dated, actually add to the charm of the movie. For 1982 they are fantastic and still effective enough that you grimace as the alien attacks. The scene involving the defibrillator paddles will make anyone jump and then cringe at the gruesome results. The head with spider legs that follows is not laughable but creepy, probably just as Carpenter imagined.
That leads to another issue with The Thing: it isn’t scary. Whether Carpenter intended to make a horror or was going for a gruesome sci-fi movie instead, it feel like he missed an opportunity to really create an atmospheric tense horror. Instead, this is more about the lack of trust between characters rather than the horror the alien can inflict.
This is also why it mattered whether we cared about the characters. The crew do begin to become individuals once the killings start and the scene where Kurt Russell’s MacReady is uncovering the The Thing is a great one but the movie would have more impact had we actually got to know the crew better before the carnage began.
Overall, The Thing is most effective when it is playing with the idea of trust and paranoia than as an actual horror movie. It lacks the scares but makes up for it in gruesome effects that will still churn your stomach, even with the 1980s design. Unfortunately, the movie loses it’s edge because of the generic crew who are subject to such horrible deaths.
Rating – 3.5
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)
This was part of my Greatest Film Directors Blindspot series. To see the rest click here!