In the realm of horror movies, crafting a timeless classic can be a daunting task, often more so than in other genres. The challenge lies in the fact that horror films tend to carry elements of campiness or hokeyness that don’t necessarily stand the test of time. Many horror flicks from the past, once deemed realistic and terrifying, now elicit eye-rolls from contemporary audiences. Films like Sleepaway Camp or Slumber Party Massacre from four decades ago serve as prime examples.
However, when you delve into John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece, The Thing, you’ll quickly understand why it remains a pinnacle of horror cinema, even today.
A significant part of its enduring appeal can be attributed to the film’s storyline and its setting. Unfolding within the confines of an isolated Arctic research station, this harrowing tale possesses an intrinsic believability that transcends time. Whether you’re watching it in the early ’80s or today, the fundamental premise resonates—being stranded in the desolate, frozen wilderness, cut off from all outside communication, is a recipe for disaster. When you introduce elements of paranoia, mistrust, and a shape-shifting, otherworldly parasite hell-bent on destruction, the time period becomes irrelevant. In the world of The Thing, it’s a chilling, life-or-death struggle, no matter the era.
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Now, when it comes to The Thing, opinions on the ending tend to be rather polarized. Some view it as a perfect and fitting conclusion to the story, while others find it unsatisfying enough to cast a shadow over the preceding two hours of suspense. With this particular film, the ending’s ambiguity invites analysis, critique, and even praise. For some, it’s a straightforward resolution with no room for debate, while for others, it serves as a cryptic puzzle that hints at John Carpenter’s intentions.
To unravel the enigma of the ending, we should begin at the outset. The tale kicks off with a strangely familiar-looking flying saucer, clearly in distress, hurtling towards Earth. Fast forward to the film’s present-day setting, where we encounter an American research team stationed in the desolate, icy expanse of Antarctica. Their leader, MacReady, portrayed by Kurt Russell, delves into an investigation triggered by a helicopter incident at a nearby Norwegian research station. However, what they uncover goes far beyond a simple mishap. The Norwegian team has met a grim fate, leaving the station deserted. Amidst the frozen wasteland, they stumble upon the same alien spacecraft we saw careening towards Earth in the opening scene. After deciphering the Norwegians’ records, the American team realizes that this unearthed ship has been buried for over 100,000 years. Nearby, they also find a peculiar, charred creature that the Norwegians had incinerated. Alongside this bizarre discovery, there’s an abandoned husky dog, prompting MacReady’s research crew to bring the scorched creature back for further study, hoping to unveil its identity.
Now, as we return to the American research facility, we encounter Blair, the team’s scientist portrayed by the late Wilford Brimley (known for his role in helping your grandparents enjoy life during breaks from The Price is Right commercials). Blair makes a chilling discovery—the cells of the burned creature are still alive and active. However, the audience is clued into a startling revelation: that seemingly innocent husky is not what it seems. This canine has been replicated, mimicked if you will, by the alien entity, and it’s now roaming freely within the facility’s confines. To compound the crisis, this research station is marooned in the middle of nowhere, cut off from the outside world for over two weeks due to an unrelenting winter storm. The team is left to grapple with this ominous creature, which has the unsettling ability to assimilate and replicate any living being it consumes.
Blair, armed with his scientific analysis, calculates the horrifying pace at which this shape-shifting extraterrestrial could spread across humanity, potentially leading to a global catastrophe. His grim conclusion is that this malevolent entity must be contained within the confines of their icy prison. Driven by the urgency to safeguard humanity, Blair takes drastic measures by sabotaging any means of escape from the complex. This drastic act includes considering the humans within the facility as potential carriers of the threat. In a harrowing turn of events, the team has no choice but to locate the alien menace and eliminate it themselves.
The heart of the narrative unravels into a labyrinth of paranoia and distrust, as no one can be certain if they’re still themselves or have fallen victim to imitation. A power struggle for leadership ensues between MacReady and Childs, portrayed by Keith David, each advocating their own strategies to combat this uniquely horrifying menace. As tension escalates amidst gruesome encounters, it culminates in one of the most intense horror sequences ever filmed. Team members find themselves restrained to chairs, subjected to blood tests to root out potential infections.
With most of the team either dead or presumed lost, including the once-suspected sage Blair, MacReady resorts to using TNT charges not only to obliterate the creature but also to decimate the majority of the research station. In a bittersweet victory, though severely injured, he takes refuge in an isolated shack, only to find Childs already waiting there. They appear to be the sole survivors, setting the stage for the movie’s enigmatic final moments.
At first glance, when you watch the final moments of the movie, it appears to be intentionally open-ended. MacReady and Childs are the lone survivors, but their mutual suspicion runs deep, as they still cannot definitively distinguish friend from foe. Stranded in a one-on-one situation, their lingering paranoia makes it quite evident that they’re both still human and have successfully vanquished the alien menace. The film concludes with them sharing a bottle of scotch inside a freezing shed, seemingly resigned to their fate—awaiting the inevitable chill of death. It’s a familiar cinematic trope, where the protagonists have made the ultimate sacrifice for humanity, and we witness their final moments, knowing their story will remain untold. They’re simply savoring a moment, verifying the victory. The movie ends, and it seems that’s that. Or is it?
Well, it might have been. MacReady and Childs, two once-conflicting alpha figures, have now embraced each other as (hopefully) human compatriots, commemorating their last moments on Earth. That would be a perfectly satisfying conclusion to this intense, nerve-wracking horror film. However, the movie’s creator, John Carpenter, has never officially confirmed this interpretation of the ending. This lack of definitive closure has led to various theories and interpretations of what The Thing’s ending truly signifies.
One explanation of the ending, subscribed to by some, proposes that Childs may have been assimilated by the alien and is now a replica. He mysteriously disappears off-screen during the film’s climactic events when MacReady incinerates the alien along with the research station. Childs only reappears after the fact, claiming he had ventured out in search of Blair and managed to return unscathed. But what transpired during Childs’ off-screen absence? The events of the past few hours in the narrative strongly suggest that he might have been killed and replicated by the creature, much like other members of the team. Upon reevaluating the ending, this theory does have some merit. If Childs is indeed a replica at this point, there’s no immediate need to eliminate MacReady. There’s no hope for MacReady’s rescue, no outside help, and no means of communication. MacReady is destined to freeze to death. If Childs is the creature, this is a rather peaceful moment for a civil conversation with his human adversary, MacReady. There’s no urgency to kill or replicate him—at least not right away. In this scenario, the film concludes with viewers left to speculate that MacReady will ultimately meet his demise at the hands of the creature, leaving the door wide open for its potential global domination.
As with most mysteries, there’s often another side to consider, and some astute observers of the ending entertain the notion that MacReady might be the creature. If the creature successfully mimicked MacReady, this is precisely how it would behave in this final moment. The Thing impersonating MacReady has no motive to immediately harm Childs.
As mentioned earlier, John Carpenter has deliberately refrained from providing an explicit explanation for the ending, and he hasn’t given his “stamp of approval” to any fan theories. The closest he’s come to addressing the matter was by indirectly dismissing a camera trick conspiracy suggesting that all the human characters in the film have a literal glimmer of light in their eyes. However, this theory has since been debunked by astute viewers who have highlighted its inaccuracies. But aside from that, Carpenter has chosen to remain silent on the topic. And perhaps, that was his intention all along.
Regardless of the ultimate meaning of the ending, one undeniable fact remains: The Thing is an exquisitely gruesome and profoundly terrifying science-fiction horror film. As long as aficionados of the genre can collectively appreciate the spine-chilling fear of being trapped with a relentless monster in an isolated, frozen wasteland, the film will undoubtedly continue to endure.