There are two things that the majority of horror movies today lack – artistic flair and good writing. The Thing (1982) has both of these in spades. But how exactly did this remake of a classic movie establish itself as one of the giants in the genre?
The Thing is beautifully shot. Take a look at the image above. This one frame tells you all there is to know about what is to come, it creates suspense, it gets the viewer wondering what the hell the title is referring to. But what’s more, the scene has character, it has definition. It begins by passing through a few rooms, lit up but empty, completely devoid of human presence. The camera progresses through them carefully, before the shot changes and we’re suddenly in the hallway. The camera is on the ground. Then a dog’s head pops out through a doorway at the far end of said hallway and the camera begins to slowly back away from it as it approaches. No effects, no jump scares, just the distant sound of music somewhere else in the compound and the howl of the wind outside. No more than 30 seconds of screen time give the viewer the full picture and tell them all there is to know about the situation without so much as a single line of dialogue – loneliness, isolation and a hidden enemy that could be disguised as any one of our main characters. The enemy is fear itself. It stalks through the icy compound and finds shelter in the heart of each member of the group.
Few movies can create as immersive and haunting an atmosphere as that of The Thing. Once the monster is revealed in the first 20 or so minutes of the movie, the surroundings become claustrophobic. There’s nowhere to escape. The group is on Antarctica, with a storm coming up that puts any evacuation plans on hold. They soon discover that the alien can transform into any living being it devours. The subtlety and, in many cases, the nonchalance of the dialog is key to making every scene nerve-wracking and suspenseful. Who’s a real human, and who’s just an alien masquerading as one?
What’s intriguing about The Thing is that none of the characters are idiots. Whereas as most modern movies in the horror genre have you constantly marveling at the protagonist’s utter inability to think clearly and come to logical conclusions, most of the actions of the group in The Thing are based on sound reason. They come up with ways to protect themselves, they come up with ways to isolate those members of the group they suspect might’ve come into contact with the alien. None of what they do saves them, though, and that’s part of the beauty of this movie. When they hear the dogs frantically barking and growling in their cage, they immediately prepare themselves for any and all scenarios, not only do they bring handguns and a shotgun, but they also bring out the heavy artillery – a flame thrower. It’s realistic behavior, caution borne out of their claustrophobic and lonely environment, a response that the viewer can relate to and see themselves having in the given situation. That’s why the group’s plans falling apart and resulting in the death of yet another member each time is so terrifying – the viewer realizes that he wouldn’t be safe under these circumstances either. One cannot simply tell themselves that they’d be fine if they were in the movie because of X character’s ridiculous decision. It’s all realistic, it’s all tangible.
Another key component is the monster design. It’s a terrifying feat of practical effects that remains impressive to this day, despite the tremendous progress in the field of CGI. The alien, apart from having an otherworldy, almost incomprehensible look to it that makes it all the more hard to logically process and thus make less intimidating, exists in the world and is affected by lighting in the same way that, say, Kurt Russell is in the movie. It looks more present, more threatening, easier to interact with for the actors, meaning it creates an opportunity for more believable performances. With how prominent the green screen is in modern cinema, the art of beautiful practical effects and prop work is much easier to appreciate and enjoy. Rob Bottin really did an amazing job.
And how could one forget Enio Morricone’s cold, spacey theme that fits the movie like a glove. Morricone even mimicked Carpenter’s own synthetic sound, making the project seem like an even tighter package that it already was.
In the age of hauntings, possessions and all other sorts of ghostly and demonic activity in the horror genre, it’s important to remember that it’s not all about the jump scares and the shaky cam/found footage. Horror movies can be well-made. They can be suspenseful, atmospheric, beautiful artistically – just like any other film out there. Horror shouldn’t be allowed to turn into a basket full of cheap scares and uneven audio.