The Thing from 1982 is a true genre classic and often cited as a sci-fi horror masterclass. The movie is a tautly paced, paranoid, claustrophobic movie with a cast of people we like and don’t want to see die, even though we know it is certain. John Carpenter’s masterpiece isn’t merely a great example of monster horror, it’s a perfect example of the Lovecraftian “cosmic horror,” a notoriously difficult subgenre to represent onscreen.
The Thing is about an invading force that is ultimately beyond our understanding and has the capability to completely destroy life on Planet Earth in a staggeringly short amount of time. An isolated American team of research scientists in Antarctica are one day suddenly alarmed at their base camp in by a helicopter shooting at a sled dog. When they take in the dog, it brutally attacks both human beings and canines in the camp and they discover that the beast can assume the shape of its victims. A resourceful helicopter pilot (Kurt Russell) and the camp doctor (Richard Dysart) lead the camp crew in a desperate, gory battle against the vicious creature before it picks them all off, one by one.
The film stars Kurt Russell as the team’s helicopter pilot, R.J. MacReady, and features A. Wilford Brimley, T. K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, Joel Polis, and Thomas G. Waites in supporting roles.
What makes the movie really great is the paranoia, that the scientists find themselves in the presence of an alien capable of seamlessly assimilating any human form, anyone can be a treat, no one can be trusted, and, in a kind of inversion of the tension-ratcheting of Jaws, the threat is introduced early and remains a constant source of terror throughout. That’s what makes this scene so good; the tension and the suspense are unbearable, increasingly so as each name is checked off the list.
The alien’s blood, Macready (Russell) reasons, will instinctively resist physical harm as a byproduct of the alien’s makeup and nature, meaning that it will visibly react to being prodded with a burning-hot wire. And so Macready begins systematically touching hot wire to name-tagged petri dishes of blood, a flamethrower pointed at each man as he has his turn.