John Carpenter, a reputable filmmaker whose name has become quite synonymous with anything that frightens or anything that emanates a feeling of pure unsustainable terror, is a man who crafts each film--while under his directorial monitoring--with a universal foundation of fear and paranoia. Just take the 1982 horror gem entitled "The Thing" for starters.
Much like Carpenter's previous indulgences (including "Halloween" and "The Fog"), here is a picture that relies heavily on its setting--which in this particular instance--becomes that of a United States research base on the remote continent of Antarctica; an environment characteristically designed to evoke a mood of isolation and claustrophobia. This remarkably uninviting atmosphere is not only comparable to the likes of "The Shining" in regard to its form and external surroundings, but it also creates this inescapable sense of stillness; a somewhat indefinable quality that pervades another masterpiece in science fiction infused horror: "Alien." (This tone generates suspense in the most flattering manner, and certainly comes in handy when our resident alien, or "thing" if you will, begins to invade our cast of characters.)
Although "The Thing" tends to cater to audiences with an apparent need to become physically nauseous (in addition to several grotesque mutations, there are a number of malformed creatures that appear on-screen, including a human head with the body of an arachnid), it is this poignant mood that grasps our attention the most. Additionally, it is the eerie score of Ennio Morricone, an Italian composer who has worked on countless cinematic triumphs, including Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven," that heightens this anxiety-filled ambiance. We are fearful of the unknown, as well as any subsequent appearance of this unearthly entity, which in part is due to its rather stomach-churning forms.
The plot simply revolves around the discovery of an extraterrestrial being and its ensuing infiltration of this research station, in hopes that it can infect the Earth's population. (It absorbs any living organism that it can find and can mimic its behavior and look thereafter.) This brings us into contact with a large ensemble cast, headlined by Kurt Russell as the resourceful, yet drunken, R.J. MacReady. Russell, who seems to take on a resemblance to that of rock star Jim Morrison, is unforgettable in a role that would normally be deemed inconsequential. He is the centerpiece to this mysterious and heart-pounding sequence of human commandeering, which culminates in an ending that has been the source of an innumerable amount of discussions and debates. (Our ambiguous resolution has sparked much speculation as to which remaining human being is the "thing," and although it is a fascinating topic of study, it is evident that we are destined to form our own opinions fruitlessly.)
John Carpenter's "The Thing" will always be characterized by the aforementioned conclusion and by an untimely box-office run that was financially unsuccessful to say the least. Of course, this is largely due to the release of "E.T." two weeks prior--a picture that certainly provides more of a charming portrayal when it comes to the otherworldly--and the release of Ridley Scott's timeless science fiction masterpiece in "Blade Runner," which just so happened to debut on the same night.
Also not helping the cause were several mediocre reviews of the film, most notably that of the renown critic Roger Ebert, who thoughtlessly dismissed the picture for a plethora of reasons, none more disturbing than a criticism of its lack of dramatic irony. The mere fact that the audience is unaware of who the "thing" actually is, seemed to, in his words, "take the fun away." Yet, that is exactly where the enjoyment comes in. It is this level of uncertainty with regard to the attacker, which has certainly become a staple of the horror genre, that ultimately makes this film an achievement in its own right. Without it, we would simply be asking ourselves, "who is going to get it next?"