The Thing (1982; dir. John Carpenter)—A sled dog, pursued by a pair of rifle-toting Norwegians in a helicopter, runs across a frozen landscape. So begins John Carpenter’s starkly beautiful, nauseatingly suspenseful song of ice and fire about a shape-shifting alien that sneaks into an Antarctic research facility and turns it into a polar inferno. If you still haven’t seen The Thing, consider yourself warned: this is Olympic-caliber horror that gags your throat so you can’t holler none, sets you in the water and doesn’t stop until the bubbles come up. It’s bad like Jesse James, and it gives new meaning to the words “I had a friend one time/’least I thought I did.”
Yet for all its malevolent bluesman cool, Carpenter’s big-budget remake of 1951’s The Thing From Another World has its flaws. When it comes to transforming laconic male bonding sessions into meaningful cinematic philosophy, Carpenter falls far short of his idol Howard Hawks. He also slathers on an unnecessarily thick coat of mystery by prematurely punctuating many early scenes with narcoleptic fades to black or white. And most of the time, the cast runs around outside in the Antarctic cold without hats and jackets like it’s a brisk autumn day. (Take it from me: shoveling 10 inches of snow in sub-zero temps merits its own circle of hell, one that the rugged men of The Thing have never visited.) But such misgivings gradually evaporate over the course of the film, and they disappear altogether during an extended blood test sequence that features a half-crazed, half-frozen Kurt Russell, a hot metal wire and a bunch of pissed-off, panicky dudes tied up together on a rec-room couch.
The Thing is a film of nerve-roasting stillness and deliberation whose last half-hour pierces you like a giant falling icicle; its long-simmering set pieces are capped by flourishes of special effects so disgusting they trigger a visceral, almost preconscious revulsion. The film is smart, but as film critics Devin Faraci and Amy Nicholson pointed out on a recent episode of their podcast The Canon, the men in The Thing are pretty smart too. They suffer none of the logical lapses and commit none of the boneheaded errors that doomed hundreds of dumb teenagers in hundreds of inferior ‘80s horror films.
It’s also worth noting that, in a harsh, whited-out world exclusively populated by manly men of all ages whose death throes nonetheless retain an element of Marlboro manliness, the most expressive onscreen essay in mercenary masculinity comes from a malamute named Jed. Grade: A-