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The Thing review – horror classic makes a profound case for practical effects

John Carpenter's grotesque 1982 thriller about an alien invasion at a remote base remains a triumph of prosthetic filmmaking

John Carpenter needs little introduction as one of the most celebrated figures to arise from America’s bold period of new cinema in the 1970s. The Thing, part of the director’s self-proclaimed “Apocalypse Trilogy” and now on re-release to coincide with its 40th anniversary, brilliantly fuses elements of sci-fi and horror, its altogether unique form delivering something at once real and yet entirely removed from our world. Adorned with practical effects, a menacing score, and profound speculations on human existence, its ruthless observations about man's struggle against the power of nature confirms it as a classic of the horror canon.

Carpenter's long-time collaborator Kurt Russell stars as R.J. MacReady, a savvy helicopter pilot stationed with a group of scientists in remote Antarctica. He's an alpha male and an astute pilot who is more concerned with consuming whiskey alone in his hut than engaging with his colleagues. The group are shocked when their quiet existence is disturbed by two rogue Norwegian scientists frantically chasing down a husky dog in their helicopter. When they're both killed, the Americans take the husky in, only to discover the creature is not everything it appears to be on the surface. One by one, the team fall victim to a series of attacks and begin to question what truly makes them human – or if they still are.

Following in the footsteps of Alien, another seminal work that fused elements of horror and sci-fi three years prior, The Thing now stands as one of the most impressive arguments for the use of practical effects over CGI. Rob Bottin’s detailed make-up and grotesque creations are expressed in a surrealist mode, heavy on contorted faces, with limbs and bones explicitly featured. Such high disturbing creations tap into the dark and often unknowable complexities of living organisms, dressed with oozing blood and fleshly sinews, pushing the film into the realms of body horror.

For Carpenter and Bottin, then, The Thing is an exercise in decomposing the self as to unearth the inner workings of human nature. Nevertheless, the emphasis on body horror does not distract from a narrative of skilfully controlled tension, especially during the now infamous “Blood Test” sequence. Accompanying such gruesome vistas is Ennio Morricone’s synth-heavy score – actually a collaboration with Carpenter and comparable to his own work on Assault on Precinct 13 – that deploys deep bass notes to nurture an even greater sense of isolation and fear.

As a remake of the 1951 B-movie The Thing from Another World, Carpenter’s bold reimagining builds on the source material to create a profound exploration of the fragility of life in all its freakish wonder. It's topped off by one of the cinema's finest last lines, not to mention one of its eeriest closing shots, leaving us stranded in the frightening cold of night wondering what's next for our heroes – and the human race at large.

The Thing is re-released in UK cinemas on October 28.

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