Movie: The Thing
John Carpenter’s 1982 reimagining of The Thing is overflowing with ghastly horrors and delights, including some of the greatest (and nastiest) practical effects work of all time, not least in the famous blood test and defibrillator scenes. However, it is the first brief appearance by the Thing itself, seen in its true form by the Antarctic research team, that stands as the most memorable scene for me. After a childhood filled with Universal monster movies and other less extreme spooky fare, this was my introduction to true horror.
At this point in the movie, we’ve already seen the Lovecraftian nightmare that is the remains of the Norwegian research base, but that was a charred, inert corpse that, monstrous and unnatural as it certainly appears, presents no apparent threat. Our scene begins as Clark (Richard Masur) leads the sled dog the team has rescued from the apparently mad Norwegian at the beginning of the movie into the kennel with the other dogs. It is a bit of a slow build, as all appears well until the lights go out. The other dogs regard the newcomer calmly until Clark leaves and the change begins.
As the new dog begins to hiss, a strange sound that seems to come from deep inside it, the other dogs bark wildly. Their fear is far from unfounded, as the newcomer’s face suddenly bursts open like some hellish flower in bloom (a major visual inspiration for the Demogorgon in Stranger Things) and its body begins to mutate, sprouting tentacles that whip wildly around as horrid, insectile legs break through the surface of the Thing’s torso. One of the dogs frantically bites holes in the fence containing the kennel, and the Thing sprays some awful fluid at it, seemingly a part of the transformation/absorption process that ensues.
This nightmare fuel is briefly interrupted, in order to maximize the intensity of the rest of the scene, by the slow return of Clark to check on the commotion. All is quiet as he enters the kennel area (too quiet…) until the sudden jump-scare as several of the terrified dogs escape when Clark opens the kennel door and gets the first glimpse of any human on the base at the writhing, hissing monstrosity they have taken in. Though panicked at the horror he has seen, he manages to contain it within the kennel until MacReady (Kurt Russell) and the others arrive to back him up.
Interestingly, it is the essential human decency of the crew, in the form of Clark trying to stop MacReady from killing any dogs that haven’t yet been transformed by the Thing, that allows the monster to escape and ultimately dooms everyone. The Thing itself is a masterpiece of practical effects in all its forms throughout the movie, but it was this first glimpse of its canine form that scarred me in the best possible way, and made me a horror junkie for life. I cannot remember if it was shortly before or shortly after seeing this movie as a child that I first saw live birth (my cat having her first litter of kittens) but the visceral horrors of that natural event and the highly unnatural events in this scene are forever linked in my mind.