John Carpenter’s The Thing has the same basic premise as The Thing from Another World (a very cold group of researchers discover a very deadly alien life form) but moves the action from the North to South Pole and sends the tone south in the process, replacing the original’s snappy banter with pure, relentless horror.
Led by Kurt Russell, the characters in 1982 behave much more realistically than their 1951 counterparts (who view the rampaging creature as little more than a minor interruption to their flirting schedule) by turning their suspicions on one another as we’ve seen viruses cause people to do. Making the alien inhabit host bodies adds another layer of political paranoia; this strain of “they walk among us” horror runs through much of Carpenter’s work, from Halloween (in which the characters watch The Thing from Another World) to They Live.
Thing 2 (as Dr. Seuss might call it) begins Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy of cosmic horror, appearing on some level like a more sincere version of 1987’s Prince of Darkness. There are some Carpentery quirks (including a character on roller skates) but this is an usually serious effort in his eccentric filmography, perfectly balancing psychological suspense with effects-enabled viscera. Where the original kept the creature in the dark for budgetary reasons, this makes liberal use of the monster because Rob Bottin’s trendsetting special effects are more than up to the task; a Lovecraftian mass of shapeshifting nightmare-fuel.
But it’s still the build-up that gives the effects sequences their impact, letting us hear the alien before we see it and making effective use of Ennio Morricone’s brilliant score (and there’s an interesting irony in getting the world’s greatest composer to make what sounds like a John Carpenter soundtrack). The atmosphere is tightly coiled like a snake; we feel the cold, see the breath and smell the burning flesh. Carpenter proves himself a master craftsman, with certain scenes (ie. the blood-test, defibrillation and dog transformation sequences) ranking among the finest in the genre.
The Thing is an almighty combustion of a movie, fiercely original despite being a remake and using its body horror to expose in horrific, terrific detail the way ideas take root and mutate inside us. Essentially Alien meets The Hateful Eight, it was despised upon its release but has been vindicated as the second-best version after Lee Hardcastle’s.