“Somebody in this camp ain’t what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us. By spring, it could be all of us.”
There have been plenty of successful director / actor parings over the years. People who worked together again and again, building a legacy with each movie. There was Billy Wilder and Jack Lemon, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant. All prestige film makers and prestige actors, making prestige product. But in the 80s, there was a tag team making brilliant B-pictures. The kind of action, adventures and horror that doesn’t really exist anymore. That tag team was John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. When I was a kid, their work together on Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China was on TV constantly. And I watched them, constantly. But there was another team up between these dudes that had escaped me until now, the classic horror, The Thing.
A Norwegian helicopter chases a husky across Antarctica’s desolate, snow covered surface. Taking pot shots at the dog, the chopper eventually lands when the dog runs into a camp occupied by American scientists. Ignoring the people, the Norwegian gunman gets out and continues to pursue the dog. When he mistakenly drops a grenade, his helicopter is destroyed, but he survives and keeps going after the dog, As stray bullets get closer and closer to the Americans, their commander (Donald Moffat as Garry) put s a bullet in the Norwegian’s head.
Trying to get to the bottom of what just happened, Garry dispatches helicopter pilot Mac (Russell) to find the Norwegian camp. He does, but all that’s left is a burnt out shell and some smoldering corpses with two faces. He bags them up and heads back. On is return, Mac learns that the hunted dog has mutated into some weird monster and had to be destroyed. Between the freaky deaky dog and the freaky deaky corpses, it seems that something is taking over the bodies of people and animals. Now, isolated in the Antarctic, none of these men can be sure the others are who they claim to be.
There’s a real skill B-movie and low budget directors are forced to learn, a skill for economy and a total lack of vanity and indulgence. When you have no time and no money, there’s no chance for a movie to get bloated or self involved or over stuffed. Those limitations of time and money mean that Carpenter gets to the business of The Thing at break neck speed, and never lets up. The nature of the monster is revealed within the first 15 or 20 minutes, then it’s a rollercoaster for the next hour until the credits roll.
But that alone isn’t impressive. What’s impressive is Carpenter’s ability to make his characters stand out as real people amongst this crazy story and insane pace. Exposition is given through action and the characters are developed through their decisions. I know it might sound a bit high falutin’ for a horror movie about shape shifting monsters, but that’s the beauty of The Thing and John Carpenter on general. He’s always been proof that B-movie doesn’t have to be lazy or dumb.