Given its status as one of the most popular and prolific genres, it is far from surprising that horror cinema is awash with influential figures. Commencing with Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks) in the 1930s, a number of filmmakers have made their mark with the macabre side of the medium, including George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies) and Daria Argento (Suspiria, Tenebrae), Wes Craven (Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Drag Me To Hell), and Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist) and David Cronenberg (Shivers, Scanners).
Of course, when contemplating the frightening films of the last four decades, one writer / director immediately springs to mind. That his fearful feature output includes genre-defining staples Halloween, The Fog, Christine and They Live simply solidifies John Carpenter’s creepy credentials beyond the realm of the expected and ordinary; however it is in the permeating, potent sci-fi hybrid The Thing that his mastery is perhaps best epitomised.
First emerging in John W. Campbell Jr’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? (under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart), the narrative that underscores one of the greatest genre efforts initially made its way to cinemas in 1951. Courtesy of Charles Lederer’s script and Christian Nyby’s direction (with an uncredited Howard Hawks also in the mix), The Thing from Another World focused on the science fiction aspects of the story.
Although highly regarded at the time and since, the mixture of fantasy and thrills diverted from the source material slightly, leading Carpenter to contemplate his own interpretation. After including considerable footage of the film in Halloween, he crafted the second adaptation of the tale in 1982, one that would endure as the ultimate embodiment of Campbell’s prose in the years that followed.
Commencing with an Alaskan mammal eager to avoid extermination at the hands of a hovering Norwegian helicopter, the film charts the activity within an American research station in the Antarctic. For the many men that man the base, the excitement emanating from the dog chase and resulting human casualties is an unfortunate but almost welcome distraction from the mundanity of their isolated daily routine.
When the aircraft explodes, MacReady (Kurt Russell, Escape from New York) and Copper (Richard Dysart, Being There) abscond to a nearby camp in search of answers. In the absence of signs of their Scandinavian colleagues, they bring back a deformed corpse, with its mysterious appearance the first in a long line of strange occurrences. Indeed, the canine that sparked the situation is soon revealed to be anything but a normal pet puppy, sparking a fight for survival as the creature infiltrates and eliminates their numbers.
Imbued with a deep sense of dread from the enigmatic outset, The Thing provides a probing portrait of paranoia, aptly illustrated by the potentially apocalyptic scenario within the contained environment. As the alien life form attacks and adopts the guises of the camp inhabitants, their avenues of escape are limited, just as assumed allegiances fall by the wayside. Instead, it’s the classic every man for himself situation, as the film pits its protagonists against each other as well as the outsider. However, in pondering internal and external invaders, the claustrophobic effort evokes an air of existentialist uncertainty, heightened by Bill Lancaster’s (The Bad News Bears) smart script and Carpenter’s unflinching direction.
Accordingly, the feature becomes more than a mere thriller film, surrounding the relentless suspense and riveting contemplations with excellent special effects and an affecting yet ethereal aesthetic. Although the unexpectedly impressive 2011 attempt at the action may be fresh in film-goers memories, it is unable to better its predecessor, with Carpenter’s inventive and atmospheric offering rightfully earning the director his place at the forefront of the horror genre.