When "The Thing" can be in anyone, the fear is in everyone!
Now considered a classic, our next Horror of the Decade selection, 1982’s The Thing, was certainly not received as such upon its release. Both critically and commercially, this film soured many viewers who deemed it as being too dark, too gross, too cold, and just overall lacking. An examination of external factors leads to the conclusion that this film was just released at a time when audiences were not likely to be tuned into its particular frequency. Among other considerations, the U.S. was in a recession at the time, and E.T. had just been released two weeks prior and was beginning its ascent towards becoming the highest grossing film of all time by the end of its run. A fantastic film for sure, but as a comparison point it is much warmer, friendlier, and human in reassuring ways when compared to The Thing, and its success at the time is a display of what audiences were looking for and responding to in the summer of 1982. Under these conditions it is understandable that people were not looking to be induced with the paranoia, isolation, and tension that is on display here.
Kurt Russell as R.J. MacCready in The Thing
It is these very elements that initially repelled audiences that have since been lauded as some of its greatest strengths and that went on to inspire subsequent generations of filmmakers and audiences alike. As a piece of effective horror filmmaking that also transcends many of its genre-specific trappings by tapping into relatable and universal themes such as distrust and fear of the unknown, The Thing’s strongest calling cards are all tied right into the amorphous, shape-shifting nature of its title creature. Far from lazy, nonspecific titling, the marriage of title, creature, and theme combine immensely to enhance the mysterious, fear-instilling formlessness that wreaks havoc throughout the film. As the Antarctic researchers, ostensibly our heroes, initially attempt to take a dispassionate, scientific approach to their predicament, it becomes increasingly difficult to appropriately apply rationale and reasoning as they are unable to get a firm grasp on what exactly they are dealing with. We see various versions of horrific, mutated beings, and both the audience and the crew are left with way more questions than answers as to what this creature is, how it operates, and how they can protect themselves from it.
Stan Winston's dog-thing from ‘The Thing.' c. Stan Winston School of Character Arts.
As this tension builds, one of the strongest elements of the film is illustrated: fear of the unknown, and its impact on the human psyche. As the title creature (or is it creatures?), continues its assimilation, the researchers are legitimately forced to question the very nature of their reality and humanity. What makes a human a human? Even more fundamental, what makes you you? These are the questions The Thing forces its characters, and in turn the audience, to consider, and it becomes increasingly unnerving the longer the scenario plays out with no clarity in sight.
In the film, when people are “turned”, there is no big moment, no big speech, and in many of the instances it simply happens offscreen. The characters as we’ve known them are dead, whether we’re able to tell initially or not, and replaced by something entirely new. Just like in real life, irrevocable change usually happens in an instant and we aren’t given time to prepare. We must face our truths and adjust on the fly, carrying on as best as we can in our new realities, usually without the dramatic flair, or grandstanding speeches and exposition so many lesser films feel the need to feed us. This relatable, and infinitely malleable, concept of how one deals with fears and obstacles is what is at the heart of a film that many initially claimed had no heart at all.
The Thing transforms as it subsumes each victim.
While a surface inspection may lead one to view the proceedings as bleak and nihilistic, actually watching R.J. MacCready (Kurt Russell) and the other researchers, rise, and fall, and rise again in their resolve to both eliminate their enemy and survive each other and themselves comes across as ultimately hopeful in the manner of their sheer force of will and determined perseverance in the face of incredible odds. The slimy, oozing, crackling, dripping grossness of it all adds another primal layer to the film’s horrors, and when packaged altogether it is no wonder The Thing has morphed from its ugly and derided initial reception to the lofty status it holds today as a true horror masterpiece.