Considering how much its visceral, rubbery gore effects, electronic score, the niceties of its lighting and film stock, and especially its position in the center of a maelstrom of controversy about these goddamn violence-driven horror pictures with no characterisations beyond "this guy dies then that guy dies" all mark it out as a quintessential product of the early 1980s, it's going to sound like I'm being deliberately contrary when I say that John Carpenter's The Thing is a gloriously classical piece of filmmaking. But I swear I'm not. And of course, we have now the luxury of more than three decades to reflect on a film that was initially received not only by critics but even the biggest part of horror fandom as pure nihilistic, style-over-substance drivel, and there has been a hard, long fight that has ultimately resulted in the film's canonisation, more or less, as an iconic work of modern horror. If I had tried to claim that The Thing was "classical" or anything like it in 1982, I would have been screamed out of the room, not least because in 1982 I was a baby, and babies talking about films are just about the creepiest.

But classical it is: swooning, romantic classicism. It's no secret that Carpenter has spent most of his career in the shadow of Howard Hawks, cryptically re-making or pointedly reversing that director's Rio Bravo in, like, half of his movies. And with The Thing, he went so far as to explicitly remake the Hawks production of The Thing from Another World of 1951, a film whose authorship is much, much, much too complicated to say something as blunt as "it was directed by Howard Hawks" or the opposite. But at least as much as the spirit of Hawks informs The Thing, with its hotbed of masculine games of dominance and authority, it's a film in thrall to Alfred Hitchcock as well, for The Thing is something close to an absolutely perfect exercise in how to construct a thriller. A thriller, mind you, cloaked in the most thoroughly unnerving body horror that mainstream cinema had ever seen before body horror specialist David Cronenberg decided to mount his own '50s remake a few years later with The Fly.

But it is a thriller where the film's heart lies. Adapted by Bill Lancaster from a novella by John W. Campbell (much more closely than the '51 film, which barely resembles the source material), the scenario is blunt and basic: 12 men are trapped in a remote location with the awareness that some of them are deadly killers, but nobody knows who or how many. Cue the paranoia, which Carpenter elegantly spikes by occasionally punctuating his film with a showstopper sequence of some of the very best practical effects in the more than 100-year history of cinema special effects, which the gives the film an incredibly clever structure by which a steady rise in tension is jacked up at irregular intervals. If most thrillers are like being put in a pot of water being brought to a boil over a low flame, The Thing is a film in which the dial is turned up a few notches every now and then, and left there.

I have no better demonstration of the film's genius than in noting that the very nature of its tension shifts after the first time you've seen it, arguably increasing the film's impact rather than dissipating it, and when a genre film can do that... So the thing that happens - and if you haven't seen The Thing, please do stop reading and go see it. It's maybe the only heavily gory film that I think works so well as a piece of cinema that I'd urge on even the most squeamish and gore-averse with an unsympathetic "it's a masterpiece, you're just going to have to deal with it". Those who aren't squeamish, I surely hope don't need my encouragement.

So the thing that happens, is that the film opens with Norwegians chasing a dog across the Antarctic tundra, firing at it from a helicopter, and it's a marvelously disconcerting opening; eventually they both end up dead, and a nearby American research station ends up with the dog and no sense of what the hell is happening. Carpenter keeps bringing our attention to the dog, with low camera angles favoring its height and frequent cutaways to it simply mulling around, with a little bit more sobriety than typically seen in dogs. The first time you see the movie, the dog is a synecdoche of the first-act mystery: what happened to the Norwegians? What has that dog seen, what has that dog done? The second time, when we know what the dog is up to, it's completely different, but even more tense: what is the "dog" thinking, what is it plotting? Innocuous if slightly disconcerting moments of the dog jumping up on somebody, or following them into an empty room, suddenly become nerve-wracking instances of raw terror: GET IT OFF YOU! STOP TOUCHING THE DOG! If there was nothing better in The Thing than a first act that becomes so greatly deepened in its effect and complexity on second and later viewings, I'd already be prepared to call it a great and timeless thriller. Since The Thing is, instead, a movie where nearly everything is better than everything else, because everything is just that goddamn good, I am obliged instead to call it instead one of the greatest thrillers, on top of being one of the greatest horror movies.

The film sometimes gets shade thrown its way for being too concerned with surfaces, populating its remote station with a group of men no more distinctive than you'd find in any slasher movie of the era, and that's not a complaint that can really be argued against, except to point out that it doesn't matter: the specific men involved don't matter nearly as much as the dynamics between them, and these are precisely and obviously delineated by the uniformly terrific cast, headed up by Carpenter's most reliable actor, Kurt Russell.

I might even argue, in fact that The Thing finds Carpenter for once out-Hawksing Hawks: one of that director's most important recurring themes is his breakdown and analysis of codes of American maleness, and The Thing takes that theme to an extreme end. It is among the best depictions I can name about the group dynamics of men, where the individual psychological details of those men's lives (who has a kid? who is playing two women back at home? who secretly wants to play the violin?) are less important the psychology of the group as a group. And of course, The Thing games this by putting that group dynamic, almost from the beginning in a state of heightened tension and awareness, which gives way at a certain point to outright paranoia and violent mistrust. Carpenter and Lancaster depict the backbiting, misjudgment, and rank-pulling that comes out of such a situation with supreme clarity and force.

That being said, this is still mostly an exercise in pants-shitting terror, and it's a pretty good one. Its depictions of bodies splitting apart, and bodies betraying their owners, and being forced into constant, weary awareness with death lying a split second way if you don't pay enough attention are horror of the best, purest sort: this is a movie whose depiction of the deadly, destructive, and unknown invading the safe, secure, and routine (which is my basic concept of where the borders marked "horror" reside) could not be better, owing mostly to the Lovecraftian extreme of its design of the shape-shifting, body-snatching alien force picking off the men one by one. And owing to its depiction of that force less as a monster to be fought than as a disease exploding through barely-understood vectors and perpetrating foul violence on the carrier. Indeed, with its all-male cast (the entire list of women in the film includes a female-voiced computer program snottily dismissed as a "bitch", someone seen in a videotaped game show, and a drawing of a '40s-style pin-up girl), and its depiction of something inescapable and fatal being passed between them, with the in-group tension that creates, The Thing would be an absolutely irresistible metaphor for the early years of the AIDS crisis, except it was came out too early for that to be anything but a remarkable historical coincidence.

That doesn't necessarily make it "scary" (that has never been my response to it, anyway), but it's one of the highest peaks the genre has ever reached. This is what happens when you give a genius the right mixture of budget and freedom to explore, though I am sure that Universal, who took a bath on the film in 1982, wouldn't necessarily agree with me. What it is, though, is sublimely tense: doling out info just enough that we can see the shape of the next 10 or 15 minutes, but not the details, and letting us sit and wait in agony while the not-quite-predictable shock moment happens - there's a blood-testing scene that's paced with deliberately glacial emphasis, clicking from one close-up to the next with a jagged rhythm (Todd Ramsay's editing is pretty terrific throughout but it especially makes this scene), until you can barely stand it, and then it blows up when we're looking the other way. It's simply one of the great sequences in any thriller made since 1980.

And then we have Ennio Morricone's score, a very uncharacteristic piece of thumping, bass-heavy menace. It feels like one of Carpenter's own compositions in a lot of ways, and it adds to the film a tense, driving heartbeat that becomes terribly agitating as it moves on. And also - I'm cramming stuff in at this point, because with movies like The Thing, you don't run out of things to say, just space to say it in - there's Dean Cundey's brilliant Panavision cinematography, with its uncanny color-tinged lighting (Russell is introduced with a sickly green cast over half his face), its fearless use of negative space, and moments that capture the bleak blankness of the tundra as well as anything in cinema's greatest movie about how snow looks, Fargo. Like this beauty, our first establishing shot of the research station in the whole film, and one that as much as says "oh, and in case you were wondering, this film shall be about the raw hell of isolation and being trapped with your fate".
There's a tendency even among the film's boosters to dismiss The Thing as "just a really great horror/thriller". Which it is. Also, Singin' in the Rain is just a really great musical romcom. Perfection is perfection, wherever you find it. And The Thing? Oh my yes, it's perfect.

Body Count: 11, plus a Norwegian already dead when we see him, plus the corpse of a Thing, plus three dogs (onscreen) and several more (offscreen), plus the dog form of a Thing, which doesn't count, but it's the bloodiest moment in the film and it would feel wrong not to mention it. Also a number of individual Things that would be hard to quantify. And the survivors aren't looking in too good of a shape as things end...

TL;DR Body Count: All of them.