It's the boogeymen who frighten us when we're young, the unseen, innumerable creatures that go bump and slump and slither in the night. We imagine them beneath our beds, in our closets, crouching right outside our windows. And it's these creatures, the ones that we quickly outgrow, that most of us believe are the real villains in scary movies. But as any good horror writer knows, monsters are mostly the means by which we explore the frightening parts of humanity and the world, the universal truths that make our skin crawl long after we get rid of our nightlights. So while John Carpenter's 1982 creature feature The Thing features a splattery, shape-shifting denizen from outer space, it's also addresses an equally terrifying theme, that of isolation.
Life is dull and cold in Outpost 31, an American research center smack in the middle of the Antarctic. Dull at least until a lone sled dog trots into camp one day, followed closely by a seemingly crazed pair of rifle-toting Norwegians in a helicopter. One accident with a stray thermite charge later, the Americans are left with two dead madmen, a flaming chopper and a new pet. Oh, and also an extraterrestrial ... parasite or infection or something. The men aren't exactly sure what it is or how it spreads. But they do know it can perfectly mimic any creature with which it comes in contact and messily dispose of those who try to harm it. Fear flashes into full-fledged paranoia as the men understand they're up against a nearly undetectable, indestructible enemy -- and that they themselves may already be infected.
The Thing doesn't scrimp on stomach-churning scenes, a hallmark of those late-seventies and early-eighties genre pieces. And they work pretty darn well despite the dated special effects. Indeed, one particular shock moment that transpires during a defibrillation attempt made me recoil from the screen. But the sense of loneliness and alienation is what really gets the gooseflesh going. With no solid idea of how the creature assimilates its victims, the Americans soon break out into open aggression against one another. Then any hope of outside intervention disappears when a blizzard slams into Outpost 31. That sense of alienation, of constantly having to navigate shifting loyalties and master fears that your friends are about to erupt into eldritch horrors, suffuses the entire film. And when the ending rolls, an ending both sublimely subtle and unsettling, you realize it's just as frightening to be isolated from the certainty of the truth as it is from friends and home.
(Picture: CC 2009 by orvaratli)