We’re back in 1982, in Antarctica. There’s an American research team stationed there, although what research they do isn’t really explained. We mostly see them lounging around, drinking, smoking and playing pool or cards. It’s a fairly easy life for these people, although they can’t manage to get communication with the outside with their radios.
One day, they hear gunfire. We see it. There’s a man in a helicopter shooting at a dog. He’s a terrible shot, missing the dog each time. Eventually, the dog runs to our Americans, and they shoot the gunman dead. It turns out, he’s Norwegian, and he was stationed at a base not too far from them. The dog is adopted by the Americans, while a couple of them head out to see what’s going on with the Norwegians. They’re all dead, we learn, and they’ve discovered something near their base. Whatever it is, it created a giant crater when it landed.
After some events that are fairly easy to see coming but I’ll skip over regardless, a creature is unleashed on our Americans. The doctor (Wilford Brimley), who is a whole lot smarter than you would initially think, tells us that it can assimilate and imitate any life form it wants to. That dog from earlier? Yeah, it was one of these creatures. The doctor also has some pretty amazing computer software, as he is able to simulate how this creature works, as well as determine that there’s a 75% chance that a crew member is infected.
We spend most of the time of The Thing watching the characters try different methods of determining whether or not another member is infected. They go through multiple ways of attempting to figure this out, although most of the time, we’re just waiting for a character to wander off alone so that they can be picked off. This is a slasher film in its most basic form, except for the fact that it occasionally gives us characters that make intelligent decisions.
I say “occasionally,” though, as far too often, they’ll wander off alone even though we’ve learned that the titular Thing doesn’t like showing up when there’s a group of people. Why then, would you separate from your fellow researchers? I’d probably end up chaining myself to a couple of them just to be safe. Or, at the very least, I wouldn’t wander around dark corridors by myself, something I would think a bunch of researchers would also figure out. Maybe not.
For the most part, tension continues to mount as the film progresses. As we watch characters try to weed out the imposter, our stomachs turn as they get closer, because we realize that if they do find out who it is, one of two things will happen. (1) The creature will attack and will be killed, possibly killing one or many of the remaining humans, or (2) no humans will be killed, but there will be more imposters waiting to stab them in the back. Either way, we don’t want it to happen because our beloved humans will be eliminated.
This feeling in our stomach only occurs because we do care about the characters. It’s true that I liked them and didn’t want to see them die, even if they were just archetypes without much real characterization. Still, I’ll take them as opposed to the creature that we learn could infect the entire human population within 3 years if it gets to a populated area. This disdain of it is also reinforced when we actually get to see the creature, which is an ugly mess of blood, guts, dogs and tentacles.
It’s also all done through animatronics and puppeteers, and having the creature effects done without the use of CGI allows it to not seem as dated as it might have. Considering that The Thing came out in the year it was set, 1982, the CGI would have looked horrible and you wouldn’t be able to believe that the creature is actually there. But when it is actually there, at least, for the actors, and it looks real enough for us, it’s easy to believe that there is a menacing creature that is going to terrify these humans. And since we believe something’s there, we can project emotions toward it. In this case, that emotion is hate.
But hatred is not the same thing as fear, and while The Thing is a horror movie, I didn’t find it particularly scary. It certainly builds tension well, and some of the scenes in which that tension is released work really well, but on the whole, I found myself yawning during many of the attempts to frighten me. Here’s a film that was probably more successful when its creature effects were groundbreaking and would make audiences cover their mouths by themselves. Nowadays, while still holding up, that’s about as good as they get. They’re still repulsive, but we’ve seen this more frequently and we’re not instantly scared of or nauseated by them.
The Thing ultimately works, but it wasn’t all that scary. In fact, it was more interesting watching the characters try to figure out who might be infected than it was terrifying, even if that nauseous feeling in your stomach was ever present. Watching the paranoia set in and seeing everyone suspect on another was actually quite fun. Still, the characters often make stupid decisions and they’re not all that well-developed, which means that there isn’t much to absorb while watching. It’s a fairly entertaining film, even if I wasn’t scared as often as I would have hoped for. Worth a watch, but I’m not prepared to call it one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen.