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Picture Perfect: Paranoia, isolation and logic make ‘The Thing’ one of the best horror movies

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 14, 2021

By Paul R. Sell For The Spokesman-Review

The season of witches, fun-sized candy bars and pumpkin spice has engulfed us once more. But one aspect of the early fall season that gets overlooked are the great horror movies to watch around Halloween. There’s nothing quite like putting on a classic scary movie to get your adrenaline pumping and put you in the mood for some tricks and treats.

There are so many memorable horror movies to watch around this time of year. The Universal monster movies are classics, especially “Dracula” and “Bride of Frankenstein.” Some spectacular supernatural entries include “The Shining” and “An American Werewolf in London.” In fact, a lot of great horror films came out of the 1980s, including “Poltergeist,” “A Nightmare on Elm Steet,” “Evil Dead 2” and “Friday the 13th.”

But if I could only watch one horror movie around this time year, it would undoubtedly be John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece “The Thing.”

This film is paranoia incarnate, where every little action makes you second guess everything you thought you knew, creating this beautiful atmosphere of fear and suspense. And unlike most other horror films, every single character behaves logically and thinks before they act. But what makes this even better is that, as smart as the characters are, the monster is smarter.

Surprisingly, this 1982 film is a remake of a 1951 B-movie titled “The Thing From Another World,” though both films are based off a short story by John W. Campbell titled “Who Goes There?” But Carpenter takes the same basic story as the original and the short story while giving it an even more sinister edge.

All three stories start with the same setup – an arctic research team stumbles across a crashed UFO and a surviving alien frozen in the ice. Upon taking it back to their base, though, they accidentally unthaw the alien, and it starts to attack the researchers. But that is where the similarities end.

In the original film, the alien was a big lumbering monster not unlike the Frankenstein monster that may have actually been a plant. But in the 1982 film, the alien is a shapeshifter, able to take on the form of any creature it assimilates, even nonhuman creatures, to the point it becomes a perfect imitation. It could even be multiple people or creatures at the same time, having already assimilated everyone you love, and you’d never know the difference until it’s too late.

Rather than the typical movie monster of the 1951 original, this monster is indistinguishable from anyone trapped in this frozen arctic research lab. The true fear comes from these 12 men who have to figure out which of them is already the alien and trying to stop it before the thing kills them and gets to civilization, where it could take over the planet.

The paranoia sets in immediately for the crew and audience. How can you trust what anyone is saying when they could be an alien in disguise? How can you tell if someone is a fake when they’re a perfect imitation?

But despite this looming dread, these men try not to be led by their fear and act as rationally as anyone would in this situation. Some characters, like R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), isolate themselves in a tower with only one entrance, while Cooper (Richard Dysart) suggests blood tests using their uncontaminated blood.

And others like Blair (Wilford Brimley) see the threat the creature poses to the world and plans to lock it away from everything by killing the radio and all their vehicles so that it can’t escape even if it means everyone else is stuck there, too.

Yet despite all their preparations, the alien is always a step ahead of them. It sabotages the blood samples while pinning it on someone else, knowing the crew will turn on themselves. This, combined with the intelligent crew, makes for one of the most well-thought-out horror movies ever made. Every action, whether from the crew or the alien, makes sense.

What amplifies the fear and dread even further is the arctic setting. The isolation and the cold of being in Antarctica only makes the paranoia even more intense when you’ve got a cellular shapeshifter in front of you and subzero temperatures behind you. No way to call for any help, and the closest rescue is months away. This film is a masterpiece in claustrophobia.

I could go on about how groundbreaking its practical special effects are, especially the many forms the alien takes, as well as how the film breaks from traditional trends in horror movies with its lack of jump scares. But “The Thing” is better enjoyed when you don’t know what’s going on, causing the best moments to take you by surprise. That makes it the perfect horror movie to watch this time of year.

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