The makings of a good horror movie can be subjective. Within multiple horror subgenres exists a consensus of “greats ones” or influential classics that made an undeniable cultural impact. When trying to examine my own love of horror films, I’ve found excitement to be a prime motivating factor.
Danger, mystery, and suspense coupled with a dark, brooding atmosphere are perfect elements of any effective horror film. The creative ingenuity displayed in horror from the past hundred years is a remarkable testament to the human spirit. The sheer talent behind and in front of the camera throughout the twentieth century is overwhelming to consider. Today, we’re fortunate enough to witness horror from its infancy in the silent era to the movies of today.
Different things scare different people. Some people don’t like to be scared at all. I’m naturally drawn to the macabre, most likely due to the wealth of ‘80s horror films from my childhood. The 1980s were, after all, when horror was perfected. It’s a known fact. Of course, this wouldn’t have been possible without the springboard of the preceding decade’s “New Hollywood” movement that saw a new generation of filmmakers shifting control of studio system to a more independent, artistically driven one.
Before such notable times, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) singlehandedly changed the suspense/horror landscape, and studios took notice. The ‘70s gave us The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Jaws (1975), and Halloween (1978), among others. These were serious films that made serious amounts of money, while leaving their mark as cultural milestones.
John Carpenter’s Halloween soon became the most successful independent film of its time. Carpenter followed with a string of hits that included The Fog (1980) and Escape from New York (1981). His next and most ambitious film would later stand as one of the greatest horror films ever made and a movie whose initial failure and unfair critical dismissal soured his career for years to come.
Carpenter was heavily influenced by the films of Howard Hawks, whose prolific, multi-genre career spanned decades. In 1951, Hawks produced a film adaptation of John W. Campbell’s 1938 science-fiction/horror novella Who Goes There? called, The Thing from Another World. This influence can be seen during scenes in Halloween, where black & white clips from the movie are shown on TV. Carpenter was initially reluctant to direct a new version of Campbell’s classic novella after being approached by Universal. But he soon realized the potential of updating the story for modern audiences and put his entire directorial forces behind it.
Much like the original story, John Carpenter’s The Thing takes place on an Antarctic outpost besieged by a shapeshifting alien monster unwisely unearthed from its frozen state by curious scientists. The alien has no known identify or feature. It simply consumes, absorbs, and replicates every living thing around it. Carpenter’s version focuses heavily on atmosphere, utilizing the isolated, secluded backdrop to its fullest. The ominous score by Ennio Morricone is also the first time Carpenter didn’t do the music himself, though he did contribute.
Kurt Russell leads a talented cast of twelve men as no-nonsense helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady, based on meteorologist McReady from the original novella. He’s joined by the great Keith David as Childs and Wilford Brimley as Blair, the chief surgeon. Fear and paranoia overtake the men as they soon realize that the alien has infiltrated their ranks. Anyone of them could be the Thing, and there’s no way of telling. The alien is relentless in its objectives. It also has the added advantage of fully existing within in a single drop of blood.
The Thing’s groundbreaking special effects were dismissed by critics at the time as nothing more than a grotesque spectacle. Carpenter had tapped Rob Bottin, a young, ambitious make-up effects artist known for his work in Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981). It’s said that Bottin spent an entire year creating the shape-shifting effects for The Thing. Such dedication shows, as the results remain some of the best and most horrific creations ever captured on film. Bottin would go on to work Robocop (1987) and Total Recall (1990), among other films before strangely disappearing from movies altogether.
After years of struggling with its initial failure, Carpenter has said that he considered The Thing his personal favorite of all his films. I agree, and I’m grateful that it has received the recognition it deserves. It’s a serious horror film. There’s little to no humor, the threat is real, and the nihilistic ending remains legendary. It’s also a work of art, created by a filmmaker in his prime. If you’re looking for a good horror movie, there’s no better place to start than this 1982 masterpiece.