By Tom Kapr
In the opening scenes of John Carpenter’s The Thing, two men in a helicopter are chasing a husky through the Antarctic wilderness, shooting at it with a rifle and lobbing grenades at it. When I first saw this film, my initial reaction to this introduction was one of disgust toward the men in the helicopter, and some hesitation about the film in general. I have a deep and abiding love for dogs, and something approaching a deep and abiding hatred toward anyone who would commit senseless acts of violence against dogs. In cinematic terms, I tend to hate movies that show dogs meeting gruesome or violent deaths. For example, I hate Tony Scott’s film Revenge, in part because it is a silly film, but mostly because of a graphic close-up of the “hero’s” yellow lab being blown away with a shotgun, a consequence of his affair with the wife of a mobster (the “hero’s” affair, not the dog’s). (On the other hand, I am a sucker for Independence Day and always get a thrill from that ridiculous slow-motion shot of Boomer the golden retriever jumping to safety just in the nick of time as a fireball roars past behind him.)
So, getting back to my inaugural viewing of The Thing, when the husky reached the American scientific research compound and Donald Moffat’s character blew the rifleman’s eye out with his pistol, in effect saving the life of the dog, I felt relief. The dog was safe. (A man was dead, but we can save a discussion of the moral implications of valuing the life of a dog over that of human being, however despicable, for another time.) It is not until twenty minutes later that we learn the truth, in the kennel, as the mysterious husky’s face suddenly splits open, revealing the true nature of the beast beneath, and an entire team of huskies has to suffer the consequences; the truth, that our heroes have quashed what was in fact a last-ditch, desperate attempt by the now-pitiable, eyeless-and-dead rifleman to stop a violent and cunning alien life form from further invasion of our planet.
Kurt Russell and company spend the remainder of the film wondering who is still human and who might be the alien in disguise. The Thing is unquestionably the masterpiece of John Carpenter’s science fiction filmography, a perfect blend of alien terror, body horror, and psychological suspense as the characters try not to turn on each other while knowing that no one can trust anyone, because anyone could be the monster. And this monster is one of the best in history, terrifying in both idea and execution. The creature effects, created and designed by Rob Bottin (with a crew that included the late great Stan Winston), still hold up after nearly three decades, putting to shame most current science fiction films and all their computer-generated imagery. Truly great practical, or in-camera, effects will almost always outlast CGI, which, even when done well, usually has an aura of un-reality about it.
I can sum up the horror of the monster in The Thing in one sentence: Nothing in cinema ever was or ever will be quite like a human head scurrying across the floor on spider legs.
On a final note, the “husky” in the beginning of the film is one of the best performances by a dog in the history of movies. Played by Malamute-Wolf mix Jed (who also starred in The Journey of Natty Gann and White Fang), every movement seems deliberate, every facial expression full of thought and meaning. The human cast is fine, and Kurt Russell is one of the greatest, but performance-wise, Jed steals the show. Rest in peace, Jed (1977-1995).
Next on the countdown: “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next, you’re next…!”