So, it’s John Carpenter’s birthday and once more, I find myself writing about The Thing. The last time it was a dissection of that disappointing 2011 prequel and this time, it’s a little look back at what I think is one of the scariest mainstream sci-fi/horror films of the 80’s that still works today thanks to how well it was put together. The overall tone of relentless, deliberate dread the film sets up from the very beginning is claustrophobic and overpowering as you’re sucked into the story about the doomed men of Outpost #31.
I saw this back in 1982 and the film really pushed the envelope of what could be done with practical effects so much that even today most of Rob Bottin’s (and that brief slice of Stan Winston’s) groundbreaking work holds up as believable. Of course, the story and excellent cast also make this one such a killer film to curl up with that I’d even recommend it to those who hate horror movies just because everything clicks so well…
I’ve seen this so many times that I can recite sequences off the top of my head and can still note which parts of Ennio Morricone’s mostly low-key, quietly creepy score aren’t in the film (but live and breathe on the different soundtrack LPs that have been released since). For those terrified of blood and gore, well… it’s here in spades and considering the subject matter, one hundred percent necessary to show you that alien means business. If you’re Thing-curious, I highly (VERY highly) recommend seeing the 1951 film The Thing (from Another World) just to catch the parallels between the two flicks and to get a pre-freak out film that sets up this more “realistic” update. You can get a bit of classic film education while you’re at it, as that original is in the National Film Registry as an important film worth preservation.
While you’re grooving on the larger cast with a few good women in it, James Arness as a cross between a crankier Frankenstein’s monster and a pissed off carrot/cactus and the snappy tech-savvy dialog that has Howard Hawks written all over it (Christian Nyby is credited as the director, but some say Hawks did some heavy lifting here), you’re setting yourself up for the newer film and its more intense shocks. Carpenter’s film actually has a classic lineage to it outside of the homage to the Nyby/Hawk film in that Burt Lancaster’s son, Bill wrote the screenplay. The decision to drop any women from the story actually helps the film a great deal, as in the original the ladies are smart and interesting, but other than screaming and getting in some choice lines, they’re making and serving coffee or trying to stay out of danger. Boo, but that’s the good ol’ days for you, right?
Scenery busting performances from Kurt Russel and Keith David aside, Carpenter’s film isn’t a total “rah-rah!” testosterone fest action movie at all. Each of the characters is well played by the individual actors to the point that tiny personality and personal details become more noticeable and important upon subsequent viewings. For example, I didn’t realize Doc Copper had a nose ring until I saw the film a second time back when it was in theaters. I thought it was a screen artifact or lighting thing, but it’s a very cool touch that made me wonder who chose that bit of detail for the character. The rather large ensemble cast means you don’t get as much time with every man to find out his quirks and some of the stuff is yes, a bit too generic. Palmer is the stoner alternate chopper pilot. Windows gets to hide out in the radio room and bitch a lot, Clark REALLY loves his doggies, Nauls cooks the meals and so forth and so on.
While criticized heavily upon its release for a lack of character development, for me this actually works in the film’s favor. Just knowing the basics about some of these men is more than enough because the theme of “Who’s the Thing now?” works even better the less you know about these guys. This not knowing works best in the films transformation sequences when many surprises are revealed (and yes, much blood is spilled) and specifically, in the memorable portrayal by a certain older gentleman as a scientist who indeed goes mad once he’s revealed to be more than the sum of his parts. Fans know who I’m babbling about here, but I don’t want to spoil the film’s best and funniest bit of random violence that takes place. The great thing about that scene is it’s not gory at all, so anyone can sit through it and marvel at the dialog and resulting take down. Cue your ears in for some fun sound effects work at the end and a quip from an actor that truly makes the scene hilarious.
In case you haven’t caught on yet, this is also a film that gets more amusing each time it’s viewed even if you hate horror flicks. Once you know when to yank up that pillow to your face and listen for the assorted yelling and screaming to die down, you can get back to chuckling over some stuff you normally dove under the seat to not see. Granted, the film only “got” me the first time I saw it, but some sequences still made me a bit cringe-y for a while. If you’ve ever accidentally cut yourself with an X-Acto knife or hate even the most generic of needle shots in a film, yeah, you’re like me and do the one eye thing where you shut the eye with better sight and quickly glance up and out of frame for a hot second. Oh, what? You don’t do that? Give it a try one day – it actually keeps you from looking like a dork at the movies when you’re the only person trying to scramble under your chair.
As noted, the bulk of the effects work to this day and put to shame overdone CG “realism”. Given the literal “chewing gum and duct tape” style Bottin utilized here, making up stuff as he went, it’s amazing to see how well most everything was pulled off. The 2011 prequel used a blend of both practical and digital effects, but I felt it was only half successful at that blending. Of course, practical effects work isn’t dead at all (as any episode of The Walking Dead will show you), but I do miss the days of watching a film and wondering how the heck stuff was done and not just automatically thinking “oh, nice CG work!” all the time. Bleh. Not to blast great CG work, mind you. It’s just become so commonplace that we’re seeing way too much of the impossible overused to augment reality to the point that even the smallest stunt looks impossible even with one’s sense of wonder fully activated.
Anyway, I’ve babbled on for far too long here. You have a very scary (but at times quite funny under the proper circumstances) film to see. So go buy or bake a cupcake and get some candles and a beverage of choice, dial this one up through your legal delivery service of choice and have a blast. You can thank me later when you crawl out from under the sofa or wherever.