"Alien" in Antarctica? One could make that argument. But John Carpenter's remake of Howard Hawks' 50's sci-fi classic is deliciously squirmy, disgusting and campy in ways that would never interest Ridley Scott or his aforementioned, pretentious intergalactic haunted house pic. One of Hollywood's most inventively gory creature-features, and one of its more respectable remakes of a 50's pulp science fiction movie (along with "Body Snatchers" and "The Fly"), "The Thing" is also blessed with Carpenter's usually spooky atmospherics. It's a ghost story that erupts spontaneously into melty, slithery, bloody f/x that rival "The Evil Dead" in gruesomeness and ingenuity. By 1982, Carpenter had shown what he could do on a shoestring with "Halloween", the Indie phenomenon that introduced the world to indestructible "bogyman" and slasher mainstay Michael Meyers. With "The Thing", you can see the studio money lining the frame, but "selling out" certainly didn't dilute the stylishness of this genre virtuoso -- even if it did inspire him to amp up the gore.
The bogyman in "The Thing" doesn't need a knife to do its bloodletting; the alien that crash lands its UFO into the tundra of Antarctica is far more ostentatious -- and messy. While Steven Spielberg's stranded extra-terrestrial was gobbling Reese's Pieces and phoning home that same year, Carpenter's was devouring scientists, absorbing their DNA, and then shapeshifting into their exact replicas. At a remote facility in the South Pole, Kurt Russell's MacReady -- a tough-guy helicopter pilot -- and a bunch of researchers turn on each other when a stray German Shepard carries the insidious beast into camp underneath its fur. Pretty soon the poor wolfie bursts open to reveal a snarling, hairless, limb-sprouting, all-around nasty monstrosity of alien horror. The thing spreads like wildfire among the unwitting cadre of isolated nerds, and it's up to MacReady to separate the humans from the celestial charlatans, barbecue the impostors and save the day.
Russell plays the same steely, bum-with-fire-in-his-eyes that he played in Carpenter's own "Escape From New York". He and all the others -- that include Keith David, Wilford Brimley, and Donald Moffat -- are one-note appetizers for the hungry parasite, the true star of the film. Yet, Carpenter never lets us forget the vastness of their surroundings, the tightness of their lodgings or the frigidness of a climate so uninhabitable survival there would be a difficult proposition even without a ravenous space carnivore on the loose. The camera flies through claustrophobic tunnels in moments of panic and lies still, taking in the eerie emptiness, during scenes of agonizingly quiet calm. The potent combination of Carpenter's patient build ups and the f/x team's brilliantly repulsive pay-offs (including a decapitated head that grows spider legs and then scurries off down the hall) achieves a balance of style and exploitation that defines Carpenter. Even at his most commercial and derivative, he's still a unique and powerful supplier of cinematic bogymen -- of all shape-shifters and sizes.