In Antarctica, a Norwegian helicopter is seen pursuing a sled-dog to an American research station. The Americans watch as the Norwegian passenger accidentally blows up the helicopter and himself. The pilot is shooting at the dog and shouts at the observers, and the American station commander, Garry (Donald Moffat) shoots the pilot in self-defense. The American helicopter pilot, R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Doctor Copper (Richard Dysart) investigate the Norwegian base. In the charred ruin filled with corpses, they find the burned remains of a malformed humanoid, which they bring back to the American base.
Blair (Wilfrid Brimley) puts the sled-dog in the kennel, but it metamorphoses into a creature that absorbs the other dogs. Childs (Keith David) incinerates it with a flamethrower. Blair autopsies it and realizes it can perfectly imitate any organism. Using data from the Norwegian base, they investigate an excavation site containing an alien spacecraft. Norris (Charles Hallahan) estimates it was there for 100,000 years. Blair’s computer suggests the alien, if it got out, could assimilate all life on Earth in a little more than three years.
Bennings (Peter Maloney) is assimilated, but Windows (Thomas Waites) interrupts the process and MacReady burns the Thing. Blair sabotages all the vehicles, kills the dogs, and destroys the radio so the Thing cannot escape. They lock him up in the tool-shed.
Doctor Copper suggests a blood-test for all against uncontaminated blood, but the blood supplies have been destroyed. The men are not sure about Garry, and MacReady takes command. MacReady, Windows, and Nauls (T.K. Carter) find Fuchs’ (Joel Polis) burnt corpse and believe he committed suicide. Nauls abandons MacReady in a snowstorm, thinking he has been assimilated. MacReady breaks in and holds them off with dynamite.
Norris has an apparent heart attack. As Copper attempts to defibrillate him, his chest becomes a huge mouth which bites off Copper’s arms, killing him. MacReady incinerates the creature, but its head detaches and tries to run away on spidery legs until MacReady burns it. Clark tries to stab him and MacReady kills him. He thinks every part of the creature is an individual lifeform. He makes everybody line up and submit to a blood-test in which he touches a blood sample with a hot wire. Palmer’s blood jumps from the heat.
Palmer morphs into the Thing and absorbs Windows, and MacReady kills them both.
Childs is left on guard and the others go to test Blair. He has escaped and is assembling a flying ship. When they return, Childs is missing, and the generator is destroyed.
MacReady, Garry, and Nauls decide to blow up the station and go about setting explosives. Blair comes back and kills Garry, and Nauls disappears. Blair turns into a huge creature and destroys the detonator, but MacReady uses a stick of dynamite to set off the explosion, destroying the creature and the base. Macready sits sipping Scotch and watching the fire. Childs appears and they share the Scotch and watch the base burning. They wait to freeze to death.
The film was directed by John Carpenter and written by Bill Lancaster, the son of Kirk Lancaster, based on John Campbell’s 1938 story “Who Goes There?” and the 1951 film The Thing from Another World. Several directors and writers bit the dust in the process. It was filmed in Alaska, British Columbia, and a refrigerated warehouse in Los Angeles. It got very negative reviews and audiences were not impressed. It had been described as junk and called repulsive, and audiences who had just seen the charming and uplifting ET reacted negatively to the unpleasant and nihilistic Thing. But later, after becoming a hit on home video, it became a cult horror classic, as often happens. Carpenter’s wife Adrienne Barbeau was the voice of the chess computer, the closest thing to a woman in the cast. The cameras kept freezing in Alaska, and when they were warmed, they fogged up for hours.
Ennio Morricone received a Razzie for the score, and when the same music was used later for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, it received an Oscar. The creature was often quite disgusting and kept changing as it could morph into anything. Stan Winston refused the credit for it, insisting that Rob Bottin had done most of the work. He was only 22 at the time. The nihilistic, paranoid, gruesome film is admired by Guillermo del Toro, J.J. Abrams, Neill Blomkamp, and Quentin Tarantino, who said it influenced Reservoir Dogs. Every June 21st, British Antarctic Research Stations watch it as part of their Midwinter Feast. The movie opened the same day as Blade Runner, which was also panned by the critics. There is a vast archive of speculation on when assimilations were telegraphed and who, if any, of the last survivors were the Thing.