An article by Denver Grenell
When it comes to my favourite films from years past, there are some I revisit more than others. These films are like comfort food, that you can put on at any time and be transported to a familiar world you know inside and out. Then, there are others that don’t get re-watched that often but are equally revered, and one of those films is my ‘all-time-favourite-horror-movie’ – John Carpenter’s The Thing.
As a child of the ’80s, my exposure to horror remained relatively slight until near the end of that hallowed decade. At that point, the closest thing to a horror movie I had seen was Jaws at the tender age of four. Not only was I understandably traumatised by the film, but it instilled in me a deep mistrust of the ocean and all its toothy inhabitants that remains with me to this day. Other than the other Amblin-Esque dark-hued fantasy/sci-fi films of the ’80s, my introduction to real horror wasn’t to come until the year of our (Dark) Lord 1988.
I was eleven years old, and my brothers and I were at a friend’s tenth birthday party. The birthday boy’s older brother* had chosen a couple of movies for us to watch: the original Mad Max and John Carpenter’s The Thing. I knew Mad Max. I had seen the PG-rated Beyond Thunderdome in the cinema a couple of years prior, so I figured I could handle that. As for The Thing, all I knew was that it was a “horror film”, and Rated R. The Betamax videotapes came housed in nondescript yellow covers with no poster art to hint at what terrors lay coiled within that soon to be archaic video technology.
We decided to warm up with Mad Max as that would surely be a relatively harmless action film. Needless to say, I wasn’t prepared for the raw, anarchic energy and lawlessness of George Miller’s seminal Ozploitation classic, but that is another story altogether. So let’s say I was fairly shaken at this point, the warm-up movie disturbing my young mind and putting me on edge.
Then the next cassette was placed into the VCR, and The Thing’s cosmic horrors were unspooled before our tender young eyes. There and then, the world changed for me as my friends and I were sucked into an icy abyss of unrelenting dread and unimaginable body horror. I had never been so thoroughly scared and thrilled in all my life. Not since my early viewing of Jaws had fear felt this all-consuming and the threat seemingly inescapable (even more so in this film). If you don’t want to get eaten by a shark, stay out of the water. Easy. But the inhabitants of the American Antarctic research station not only couldn’t trust each other but were trapped in Antarctica, with no real impetus to escape, as doing so could spread the alien infection to the rest of the world. As a viewer, I was trapped right alongside the characters, forced to watch as, one by one, they were taken over and destroyed in increasingly gory fashion by the alien parasite. The tension didn’t let up for 109 stress-filled minutes, and our inpatient sugar-addled minds didn’t have to wait long before another body was twisted into unspeakable shapes or a severed head would sprout legs and crawl across the floor. You’ve got to be fucking kidding indeed!
The movie ended, and we all staggered outside to play a game of spotlight in the dark. I felt woozy. I felt drunk, even though I didn’t know what drunk felt like yet. What was wrong with me? I couldn’t concentrate on the game. I didn’t want to be there. I felt sick. Was I infected? Had the movie infected me via some sinister alien signals that had somehow been encoded onto the film?
It may sound like I didn’t enjoy my first proper horror film experience. But just like your first sip of alcohol is a strange and discomforting taste, the movie eventually wrapped me up in its slime and blood-covered tendrils. The feeling of being taken somewhere dark and terrifying for a couple of hours was just as exhilarating as the Indiana Jones movies I had been watching on repeat up until that point in my life. Thus I was set forth into the world with a new set of eyes. Eyes plucked from the skull of an older version of myself and jammed into my small eleven-year-old eye sockets.
The next step on my journey into the world of horror was when I made friends with an older kid at school who read Fangoria and had seen a lot more horror movies than my ‘one’. Those last two years of the ’80s were a whirlwind of renting movies, making dubs with our two VHS players and travelling an hour into the city at the start of each month to get the latest issue of Fangoria. But for some odd reason, the ground zero of my new found love affair would be left behind, ignored in favour of Freddy, Jason, Pinhead and Ash.
Despite The Thing being the instigator of my love of horror, it was another ten-plus years or so before I revisited it. With the rise of DVD in the late ’90s, many of the classics started getting re-released, and this was when I finally caught up with Carpenter’s masterpiece again. By now, I had been not only a seasoned horror watcher but also a somewhat lapsed horror fan. Once Reservoir Dogs came along in 1992, the film world changed again for me, and now I was obsessed with seeking out indie and world cinema, the weirder and more obscure better. I still went to horror movies during this time, but there was little I latched onto in the early ’90s apart from Candyman, Scream and a few other titles. There were some classics in that decade, but nothing that scratched that oozing, pus-filled itch like my favourites from the ’80s.
So, eager to revisit my formative horror experience, I rented The Thing DVD to watch on my $1000 DVD player (!) and my 4:3 CRT TV. And like a lot of the R-Rated films I’d never got to see in the cinema in the ’80s, it was truly eye-opening to get the widescreen experience I had previously been denied, seeing new details in the director’s intended frame. Just as he had done a decade before, John Carpenter (re)invigorated my love of the genre. The film hadn’t aged a day and crystallized Carpenter and leading man / BFF Kurt Russell at the height of their powers.**
After this viewing, I revisited my other favourite horror films – The Shining; An American Werewolf in London; The Howling; Evil Dead 2, to name a few. I was back in the groove and just in time for the next wave of horror that arrived in 1999, including films such as The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, Stir of Echoes; Sleepy Hollow and – ahem – The Haunting. I even bought my first Fangoria issue since the early ’90s (issue 189 – the one with Ghostface on the cover).
Strangely enough (or not – you may detect a pattern starting to form here), it was to be another decade or so before my next visit to Antarctica with MacCready and Co. Once again, in the new millennium, my horror obsession was in flux again. There had been a glut of remakes – some good (Dawn of the Dead, The Hills Have Eyes), and a lot of bad (The Fog, A Nightmare on Elm St). There was also the rise of the so-called torture porn sub-genre (Saw, Hostel etc.) and the ascent of Asian horror (The Ring, The Grudge and their remakes). Again, there were some I liked and some I didn’t. But something was missing in my life – I hadn’t visited the doomed Arctic Research Station in ten long tentacle-free years.
Now that Blu-Ray and HD Widescreen TVs had arrived, it was time to get a fresh re-appraisal of my favourite horror film. This viewing was again a glorious affirmation of Carpenter’s well-deserved crowning as ‘The Horror Master’. This time I was acutely aware of the buildup of tension between the gross-out horror moments and how integral these were to make the film work so well. Without the thick atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust, the film may have just been a series of escalating monster FX and gore. Now, When I think of The Thing, it is the sublime claustrophobic atmosphere that first comes to mind, before all the mutating dogs and chest cavities biting off hands. There are few horror films that so successfully marry the tension, story and character work to such unabashed gleeful destruction of the human form, brilliantly realized by the young makeup FX legend Rob Bottin.
Around this time, The Thing 2011 was released, the prequel that told the story of what happened at the Norwegian base prior to Carpenter’s film. While not terrible (the movie had a good cast and got the tone right), the film’s greatest sin (apart from covering Studio ADI’s practical monster FX with average CGI) was not having a valid reason for existing. Like most prequels, to explain everything, such as how that axe got stuck in the Norwegian base wall, is unnecessary at best and cringe-inducing at worst (see how Han Solo got his surname for a recent egregious example). The movie came and went with a shrug, whilst the original only grew in stature, finally given the classic status it was unjustly denied back in 1982 (whoever thought it would be a good idea to release this movie two weeks after E.T. probably had no business working in Hollywood).
This brings us to 2021, a new decade and high time to revisit my favourite horror film. I’m 44 now with a family and find myself wrestling with what it means to be a horror fan still. While I don’t question my love of horror, I am interested in exploring what it is about the genre that speaks to me more than any other. There are non-horror films that I love more than The Thing. But there is no other genre that makes me want to immediately search out the next fix straight after watching it the way horror does. I didn’t want to watch another sci-fi right after watching Star Wars – I would’ve just watched Star Wars again. After watching a good horror movie, I am instantly on the hunt for the next one. And if I watched a terrible one? I would still be on the hunt for the next good one. And sometimes the hunt can be as enjoyable as the films themselves, such as poring over old Fangoria articles and reviews, scrolling through various streaming services and horror websites, listening to podcasts for recommendations and looking for that elusive lost classic or undiscovered gem.
I’ve come close to re-watching The Thing several times over the last few years. It has often been a part of my Halloween stack of movies, but something kept me away. The movie didn’t want me to watch it during a 30-day horror binge. It deserved more than that. A night of its own, separate from the low-budget slashers of yesteryear and the more modern ‘misery horror.’ The Thing never really felt like a Halloween movie to me anyway. But the time might be nigh. Thirty-plus years since my first encounter with The Thing, I am ready to feel its cool embrace once again. To have my stomach churned buy Bottin’s still incredible FX work. To marvel at Kurt Russell’s amazing beard. To hear the Ennio Morricone’s throbbing, unhurried score, while Carpenter orchestrates the tension and terror like the horror maestro he is. To be swept away on an icy Arctic breeze to a place where hope is spent, your body is not your own, and death is the only escape.
* Let’s hear a hearty round of applause for all the older siblings out there for tirelessly exposing their younger brethren to all manner of inappropriate but life-transforming material.
** While Russell has never really given a bad performance, I had suffered through the pair’s woeful Escape from LA in the cinema only a couple of years prior.