“If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?”
The question was posed by Keith David, as the character Childs in the 1982 John Carpenter film, The Thing (starring Kurt Russell).
Based on the novella, Who Goes There? By John W. Campbell, Jr., the horror film opened in more than 800 cinemas in June of 1982, competing with another movie about alien visitation – Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was released on the same day as The Thing. Roger Ebert gave the film a lowly 2 and-a-half stars and wrote, “The Thing is a great barf-bag movie, all right, but is it any good? I found it disappointing, for two reasons: the superficial characterizations and the implausible behavior of the scientists on that icy outpost.” Although The Thing slipped down to #8 in its first week, it gained a tremendous following as a cult film, and today is considered one of the best horror films ever made.
The film opens with a helicopter pursuing a lone Alaskan Malamute (played by Jed, a wolf/Malamute dog) across the Antarctica terrain to an American research base. The pilot lands and shouts something in Norwegian to the American researchers, but accidentally drops an explosive which destroys the helicopter. The second person in the helicopter points a rifle at the group, presumably to kill the dog, and is shot by the station commander.
The American pilot, R.J. McReady (played by Kurt Russell), and Dr. Copper (played by Richard Dysart) fly to the Norwegian camp to find out what happened. They discover the burnt remains of an alien corpse, and take it back to their station for an autopsy.
Big mistake. Never move the body to a second location.
But another alien is already there – the fleeing Alaskan Malamute has been assimilated by an alien, which takes the exact form of its prey. Blair, played by Wilfred Brimley (sans moustache), performs autopsies on both alien bodies, revealing that the dead bodies are still alive at a cellular level. The blood is alive and able to manifest into other creepy shape-shifting alien life forms.
Shout! Factory generously sent Big Purple Marble a copy of the 35-year-old film to review.
After all these years, it holds up as one of the scariest body horror films ever (horror that involves body parts, parasitism, or disfigurements). And it still made us jump out of our chairs when McReady tests samples of blood to determine who is human and who has been assimilated.
Adrienne Barbeau is the single female presence in the entire film, and her role is merely the voice of a talking computer ( At the time, Barbeau was the girlfriend of John Carpenter. He didn’t credit her for the role). But the characters are flawed and real, and often frail in their own attempts at courage.
All good horror films are layered with subtle clues, and this one is no different. The commentary included with the Shout! Factory’s DVD set explains the creation and filming of the cult classic, including some inside information on ways you can find the alien inside the characters. We won’t spoil it for you.
Watch the movie, then the commentary – and then you’ll want to watch the movie again. Take the time – it’s worth it.
Feature photo courtesy Scream Factory