My Dad introduced me to the films of John Carpenter, and this is one of my favourites, a tense, gripping sci-fi horror.
Set almost entirely on a remote Ameeican research base in the Arctic it deals with a group of scientists and their support team who must confront a shapeshifting alien beast that assumes the appearance and mannerisms of anything it devours.
The unease starts right at the top when a sled dog races across the icy wilderness, pursued by a helicopter. The pilot is killed in an accidental explosion and the passenger begins firing at the dog only to be shot by Garry (Donald Moffat) the commander. The dog is put in the kennels and after they ID the man as being from a Norwegian base they investigate.
Right away you have questions about what the hell is going on and why they wanted to kill that dog so badly, and then the plot thickens as they find the Norwegian base in disarray, with a burnt grotesque humanoid form outside in the ice.
It turns out the Norwegians found something in the ice and when it woke up it made short work of them and they tried stopping it. The alien being could change shape, hence the weird body, and escaped. Disguised as a dog.
At this point animal lovers might want to look away as the dog-Thing snacks on the dogs. It’s all pretty grizzly and they only stop it when one of the team blasts it with a flamethrower.
This member of the team, MacReady is played by Kurt Russell and that’s an indicator that this is going to be a good movie as the Russell and Carpenter team was dynamite (Escape from New York, Big Trouble I’m Little China). Russell is on great form here as the tough, quiet MacReady who is way out of his depth and not entirely sure how it all works, but who endures through grit and common sense.
It’s his simple reasoning that leads to the blood test that sets up one of the film’s best sequences. Working out that every tiny part of the creature can live separately he comes up with a test. Using blood samples and a hot piece of metal he will work out who’s human and who isn’t.
The whole scene is grippingly tense with the characters eyeballing each other and the unease growing. The final jump scare still gets me out of my seat after repeated viewings and it’s this, not the gleefully gory physical effects that I remember.
That’s not to say the effects aren’t great. I’m a big fan of old school effects that look like you can reach out and touch, and the grizzly creations here are very well done, especially a scene where the chest of one opens up to sever the arms of the man trying to revive him. My Dad is not a fan of this scene, possibly because he’s a doctor himself.
The alien is gory and with no distinct shape it appears as mutant, horrifying blends of the forms it has devoured.
While the creature has an ick factor that holds up the film’s real success is the atmosphere of claustrophobia and paranoia that Carpenter creates. Just as the characters aren’t sure of who they can trust, the audience is never sure of who’s still human. Even MacReady’s movements can’t be accounted for.
It means you never know who is going to turn on who and it keeps you on edge for long periods.
This all builds to what I think is one of the greatest endings of all time. With the base in ruins after a massive explosion MacReady sits alone in the snow. And then Childs (Keith David) appears. Childs went missing a short while earlier and the two sit opposite each other, neither trusting the other, when asked what are they going to do MacReady delivers the last line of the movie; “Why don’t we just wait here a while? See what happens.”
It’s a remarkably bleak ending, but works extremely well and leaves lots of questions. Is the beast really dead? Is Childs human? What will happen if/when a rescue team arrives?
It’s a great movie, with solid performances from all involved this is an unsettling thriller that sticks with you and rises above the gore to be a genuinely clever thriller. And it can be rewatched over and over without losing it’s appeal.
This is the first John Carpenter movie I’ve included on my favourites list, but it won’t be the last.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.