A classic for a reason, this 1980’s horror film boasts some of the best and most gruesome practical effects in cinema. It also has a wonderfully tense atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion that feels oddly prescient. Not to mention an ending that will keep you thinking long after the movie is over.
Kurt Russel stars as MacReady, he’s a rough around the edges helicopter pilot working at an Antarctic research station. Russel is so good here in spite of his very silly looking hat. He just inhabits the role and really anchors the film. The film starts with a sled dog being pursued through the snow by a helicopter. The helicopter team is trying desperately to kill this dog. The dog and helicopter team approach the American research center and the helicopter is soon destroyed.
The dog is taken in, and I haven’t yet forgiven this film for making me afraid of strange dogs. MacReady and a couple others go to investigate the base where the helicopter team came from. Once there, they discover a horrific scene. This is one of the best set pieces in horror movies. The atmosphere is so thick with the icy weather, the ruined base, and the horrific special effects displaying the remains and ruins of what must have been an unbelievably awful to this place. I love this scene. It’s short and quiet, and it serves as an icy portent of things to come.
Back at the research station things begin to get creepy and gross. They come to realize that there is an alien life form that can take on the appearance of any living thing. The team descends into chaos as they try to determine who is the monster. The special creature effects used to create the monster are some of the best and most stunning I’ve seen. They are all done practically and without CGI. This gives them a tactile sense that can’t be matched by modern effects. When a body part gets dismembered, it might not look one hundred percent “real”, but there is a visceral thrill watching something actually happening in front of our eyes. CGI always tends to trigger an awareness response in the brain. We know it’s not real. We check out. Here, the arm might be prosthetic, but there is an innate thrill in watch a facsimile of an arm get cut off that doesn’t happen with modern effects.
There’s also such wonderful imagination on display here. The creature contorts and mutates in gross and vividly imagine ways. There’s is a famous shot of an object sprouting legs and scurrying off. This effect is still grotesque and mesmerizing almost 40 years later. The imagination to come up with that idea, the skill and craft to build something that could perform that idea, and the technical knowhow to shoot it in such a way that it not only looks impressive but also inspires the right fear is thrilling to see.
The movie does have a bleak tone. It was criticized upon its release for its nihilistic tone. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it nihilistic. It is a dark film with a dark and complicated ending that doesn’t give easy answers, but it isn’t hopeless. At least I don’t feel hopeless when the movie ends. I don’t want to give away the ending here except to say it ends on an ambiguous note. That might be frustrating for some viewers, but for me it closed out the films themes in perfect fashion. That is what I’m looking for more often than not, an ending that closes out the themes of the film rather than answering every nit picky little question a viewer has in mind.
This movie is a lot of fun to watch. It’s incredibly tense. There is doubt cast on every characters true nature and allegiance throughout the movie building the tension and suspicion beautifully. The effects are awesome. The acting is brilliant across the board. The cinematography is top notch. The use of light and shadow is absolutely gorgeous. I’m a big fan of this movie.
It’s definitely my cup of tea. A