John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) is one of the peaks of sci-fi horror cinema, comparable only to Alien (1979). Its premise is simple and effective. A group of American scientists working in Antarctica are stalked by a shape-shifting alien, which kills them one by one and then assumes the victim's physical and mental identity. This extraterrestrial creature has lain dormant for centuries, buried in the Arctic ice, until a team of Norwegian scientists defrosts it. The originality of Carpenter's film, otherwise quite conventional as regards character development and plot structure, stems from the shape-shifting abilities of the alien. Suspense is consistently maintained throughout the film because the creature's nature makes it impossible for the audience to predict the shape it will take next. Intense horror is achieved by each new manifestation of the Thing, based on the truly scary designs of special effects wizard Rob Bottin.
The Thing is actually a double adaptation. Its main inspiration is Christian Nyby's 1951 film The Thing (from another world), an adaptation of "Who Goes There?," a short story by John W. Campbell Jr. which was also the basis of Carpenter's version. Nyby's Thing is one of the many monster films produced in the 1950s, a vogue fueled by terrors related to the Cold War and its feared alien—that is to say, communist—invasion of America. The first Thing failed to truly frighten the audience because the horrific potential of Camp-bell's original shape-shifting alien could not be adequately realized on the screen. Producer Howard Hawks wanted to achieve what would be achieved thirty years later by special effects artist Rick Baker and director John Landis in An American Werewolf in London (1982): a complete on-screen transformation of human into horrific non-human creature. The rudimentary special effects available to Nyby and his crew made this utterly impossible and they had to rely on the traditional man in a rubber suit, shaped in this case—its detractors claim—as a rather unimpressive giant carrot.
After the success of Ridley Scott's Alien (1979)—a story loosely based on another sci-fi pulp tale about a hostile alien fond of invading human bodies—the time seemed ripe to face the challenge Hawks had failed to meet. By 1981 special effects had progressed far from the poor 1950s standards under the guidance of make-up pioneer Dick Smith. Two of his disciples, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin, had discovered the wonders of latex foam, a new, supple material invented by George Bau, which enabled them to turn their wild flights of fancy into actual sculptures and models. Baker and Bottin commenced a fierce competition for the position of king of special effects, beginning with a werewolf film on which they worked together, Joe Dante's The Howling (1981). Baker won the first round by reaping the first Oscar for Best Make-Up thanks to his work in An American Werewolf in London, but the quality of Bottin's work for Carpenter's The Thing certainly did not lag behind Baker's.
The Thing is now a cult film. Its original release, however, was badly timed, for it coincided with that of Steven Spielberg's E.T. Audiences charmed by Spielberg's cute, homesick alien found little to enjoy in Carpenter's grim tale, which, in addition to horrific scenes of mutation, offers one of the most pessimistic endings on record. By the late 1990s, The Thing had been fully vindicated by devoted fans who carved a niche for Carpenter's film in the roll call of top horror films. Its new-found popularity could be accounted for by two main factors: one, no doubt, the quality of Bottin's extraordinary work, which aged well and is hailed by many contemporary monster-makers as seminal inspiration. The scene of the post-mortem that reveals the bizarre, nightmarish shapes the alien can assume is one of the most terrifying metamorphoses ever filmed.
The other factor that contributes to the cult status of The Thing is the atmosphere of despair that surrounds Carpenter's doomed heroes. Unlike countless monster films which conclude with the victory of humankind and the destruction of the alien monster, the end of The Thing suggests that the monster is alive as one of the only two survivors—either the sensible black scientist Nauls (T. K. Carter) or McReady, the rugged white hero played by Kurt Russell. Suggesting that the monster might find its last refuge in an African American man may have come to seem provocative enough with the onset of political correctness; but even more provocative is the suggestion that it is perhaps the hero, with whom our sympathy has lain throughout the film, who is the monster. Very little hope is left for trust among human beings or for the survival of humankind. This bleak prospect awoke an echo of sympathy in the more pessimistic late 1980s and 1990s, when fears of nuclear annihilation or alien conquest were superseded by fears of more subtle invasions, such as that by the AIDS virus. Fortunately for the admirers of Carpenter's masterpiece, no trivializing sequel followed—doubtless because of its downbeat conclusion and poor box-office returns.
Salisbury, Mark, and Alan Hedgcock. Behind the Mask: The Secret of Hollywood's Monster Makers. London, Titan Books, 1994.
Timpone, Anthony. Men, Make-up and Monsters: Hollywood Masters of Illusion and FX. New York, St. Martin's Griffin Press, 1996.