The One Horror Movie That Actually Scares Quentin Tarantino

What scares the guy who wrote the notorious severed ear sequence in "Reservoir Dogs?"

Last fall, director Quentin Tarantino stopped by The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for a chat about the novelization of his 2019 movie "Once Upon A Time... in Hollywood." During the interview, Colbert asks about his favorite adaptations and brings up "Who Goes There?" The 1938 short story written by John W. Campbell Jr centers on a group of researchers at an Antarctic outpost trapped with an unearthly, shape-shifting monster who can imitate any organic thing it consumes. The tale would later get an Atomic Age translation to the big screen with 1951's "The Thing from Another World," directed by Christian Nyby. In 1982, "Halloween" director John Carpenter revisited Campbell's story with "The Thing." Frequent Tarantino collaborator Kurt Russell leads an all-male ensemble cast in the once critically panned sci-fi thriller. "The Thing," however, has since gained new life and is now regarded as one of the scariest, most beloved, and influential movies ever, leaving its creative mark on directors ranging from Guillermo Del Toro to J.J. Abrams to the "Jackie Brown" creator himself. Both adaptations are appreciated, but it's the latter film that the pair gush over. Tarantino has especially high praise for the film's claustrophobic atmosphere and Rob Bottin's groundbreaking practical effects ("Some of the greatest special effects ever put on a movie theater screen," Tarantino states).

"I think it's one of the greatest horror movies ever made, if not one of the greatest movies," Tarantino says. "One of the reasons it holds a special place in my heart is the idea that I love horror movies — I'm a big horror movie fan. I don't get scared at horror movies. I respond to suspense ... but that's not really terror. 'The Thing,' I got scared in."

From the beginning of his career, Tarantino has courted controversy for the ultraviolence and charged language in his films — not much can throw him off guard. So why does "The Thing" get under his skin? After some self-reflection (something everyone should do when they react in an unexpected way to media, positively or negatively), he landed on a reason for his attraction to the sci-fi classic. For Tarantino, the contained setting is filled with suspects, bursting with fear and aggression. "The movie," he says, "makes the paranoia of that so palpable, so real, [that] it's almost like another character in that movie — the sheer paranoia." That paranoia, he observes, has nowhere to go but beyond the screen and out into the audience.

'Nobody trusts anybody now, and we're all very tired.'

Quentin Tarantino went on to reveal that he consciously infused the screenplay of his debut feature, the 1992 indie crime film "Reservoir Dogs," with the paranoia of "The Thing."  In "Reservoir Dogs," a group of diamond thieves holes up in a warehouse after a heist goes bad. With no one knowing anyone's true identity, the tense atmosphere is similar to that of "The Thing." As Kurt Russell's R.J. MacReady laments in John Carpenters' 1982 film," "Nobody trusts anybody now, and we're all very tired." Likewise, Tarantino kept that friction in mind while penning his script.

"I need to trap these bastards in this warehouse, and no one can trust anybody else," he tells Colbert. The aim was to get the simmering tension of Carpenter's classic to manifest through the grungy walls of the empty warehouse where Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), and Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) try to determine whose secret disloyalty brought down the planned heist. It paid off: The third-act standoff scene works fantastically due to the groundwork laid in the screenplay, meticulously fomenting distrust between the criminals. Tarantino has a knack for tense armed negotiations, and he has included variations on the standoff scene in a handful of his subsequent movies, including the 2009 World War II gem "Inglorious Basterds" (which places the fight in a Nazi-filled basement pub) and his 2015 western epic "The Hateful Eight." 

Despite coming close by writing the vampire-crime-action-thriller "From Dusk Till Dawn" and sneaking in a horror-adjacent Manson Family sequence at Spahn Ranch in "Once Upon A Time... in Hollywood," the prolific storyteller has yet to make a real horror picture. Last we heard, Blumhouse is working on a resurrection of "The Thing" with Carpenter's tentative involvement. Still, we can only imagine how Tarantino might handle "Who Goes There?" if given the opportunity.