The Best Horror Movie of 1982: The Thing

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The Best Horror Movie of 1982: The Thing

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

Like the last few years in the first half of this decade, 1982 is bolstered by the presence of a few unassailable classics at the top of the bill, with a lineup that is then filled in by kitschier slasher sequels and stranger fare, for a pretty strong lineup overall. The films here range from the genuinely disturbing, ‘ala the ghostly sexual assault present in The Entity, to shameless gimmickry, as seen in the 3D third installment in the Friday the 13th series, which might be the least subtle 3D horror film ever made. But hey, at least it gives us the source of Jason Voorhees’ hockey mask, which is worth something. Rarely has such an inessential (but charmingly dumb) horror film contributed such a recognizable element of pop culture as this.

The Thing, being the masterpiece it is, has a death grip on the #1 spot, but if any film could challenge for the throne, it would have been Tobe Hooper’s classic Poltergeist. Fast moving and charming from start to finish, it’s one of the genre’s most accessible and well-characterized paranormal stories, with a cast of characters who each get their individual moments to shine … with the exception of that older daughter, who just sort of walks out of the film halfway through. The presence of Spielberg in the producer’s chair—and occasionally the director’s chair, to listen to the way some people tell it—imbues the film with that particular brand of suburban whimsy that is the director’s trademark, very much in the mold of E.T., but Poltergeist is also a harrowing horror film whenever it makes the decision to turn up the intensity level. It’s hard to imagine Spielberg would have masterminded that horrific sequence where the researcher peels off his own face into the utility room sink, for instance—but for Hooper, the director of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it’s perfectly on brand. It’s a well-calculated balance between gallows humor, emotional sincerity and serious horror that sequels in the series found difficult to replicate without descending into absurdity.

1982 also gives us one of the genre’s most oft-cited anthology entries, in the form of Creepshow, a movie that has seen dozens of attempts at replicating (or just shamelessly ripping off) its overall dynamic. Certainly, there had been plenty of horror anthologies before Creepshow, but this particular film’s collaboration between director George A. Romero and writer Stephen King made for lightning in a bottle. It contains a slew of classic segments, all of which go out of their way to visually pay homage to the gaudy, schlocky EC Comics series such as Tales From the Crypt or Vault of Horror that so inspired both men in their youth. It’s hard to choose any favorite segment, although we’re partial to “Something to Tide You Over” for its rare villainous turn by the always wonderful Leslie Nielsen.

Beyond the classics, 1982 plays host to a bevy of slashers, from the perennially divisive Halloween III: Season of the Witch (which is more of a supernatural/sci-fi horror film), to the effective but underseen Alone in the Dark, to choice bits of schlock like The Slumber Party Massacre.

1982 Honorable Mentions: Poltergeist, Creepshow, Tenebrae, White Dog, The Entity, Alone in the Dark, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Basket Case, Friday the 13th Part III, The Slumber Party Massacre

The Film: The Thing
Director: John Carpenter

As a 30-something horror geek who dove headfirst into the genre in college, there was never a time for me when cultural appraisal of John Carpenter’s The Thing was anything other than as a universally lauded masterpiece of the horror and science fiction genres. That’s the reality I’ve always existed in, which makes it all that much stranger to read about how much critics sincerely hated Carpenter’s film upon its release in 1982. They hated its unflinchingly gross gore and morphing effects. They hated its cold indifference toward humanity, and its distrust of authority. They hated the way its characters failed to band together in a cohesive or satisfying way to repel an alien invader. They hated it with such verve, in fact, that the magazine Cinefantastique ran a cover story on The Thing with the following caption: “Is this the most hated movie of all time?”

It’s incredible, then, to think of how utterly the film was reappraised over the course of the next three decades. How many classics in this genre really end up that way after being not just “overlooked” in their initial releases, but widely condemned as abominations? The consensus on The Thing reshaped itself with an alacrity not unlike its titular, shape-shifting monster.

One thing the critics certainly weren’t wrong about was the film’s emotional temperature—everything about The Thing is icy cold and remorseless. It is ponderous when it wants to be, but Carpenter’s slowly panning shots tend to hide nuggets of information meant to give audiences the tools they need to pick apart its central mystery. The question of any given moment—who is The Thing, and what is its aim?—can often be deduced by following Carpenter’s careful clues, although some meetings, such as the final one between MacReady and Childs, are purposefully left ambiguous to stir a never-ending debate. It’s the stuff that armchair YouTube film essays are made of.

From a purely technical standpoint, The Thing is clearly a triumph. Every shot conveys vital information. Its score, from Ennio Morricone, fuses the talents of the Italian master with Carpenter’s own ear for electronic-driven soundtracks, amplifying the film’s sense of apocalyptic detachment. Its visual FX, largely from Rob Bottin and with an assist from Stan Winston, are perhaps the greatest collection of horror film practical effects sequences ever assembled. Each transformation or assimilation sequence outdoes the last in pure, nightmare-inducing shock value, making the film’s antagonist into cinema’s most insidious alien presence. Say what you will for the Xenomorph in Alien, but at least that thing is brutally straightforward in its intentions to kill you. The Thing, on the other hand, operates with an alien intelligence that is utterly emotionless and unknowable. It’s never even completely clear if those who are The Thing know whether or not they’ve become The Thing—perhaps it simply sits in one’s system at times, idle, letting you live out your life until it’s time to emerge. You could be The Thing right now, in fact …

Ultimately, the 1980s proved to be a good decade for remakes of 1950s science fiction horror films, as The Thing, The Fly and The Blob all reappeared in forms that were either genuinely masterful or simply entertaining, but universally gore-centric. They make for the most fitting of 1980s horror triple features—but The Thing will always be the crown jewel.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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