The Thing (1982) dir. John Carpenter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilfred Brimley, Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat
In 1982, “The Thing” was not a success, due in large part to the general sentiment of wholesomeness from the E.T. phenomenon. In fact, it was released only two weeks after E.T. That’s really bad timing. Thanks to the VHS generation in the 80’s and 90’s “The Thing” grew in respect and stature to become what’s routinely regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time.
Of course, John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is a remake of the Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby film “Thing From Another World”. While there’s much in common with both films Carpenter’s version became one of the most gruesome and goriest films of all time.
Carpenter doesn’t hide too much in this version, we know right off the top there’s an alien on earth. We see it in the very first scene – an alien ship crash landing on earth. After the title burns itself into the screen we’re in the Antarctic and an American outpost encounters an ornery Norgewian firing his gun at an innocent dog. The man is killed but the dog remains with the Americans. Little do they know that it's not a dog at all but some kind of shape shifting alien. This isn’t the CG morphing type of shape shifting we see today though. Visualizing by some of the most incredible physical gore effects ever attempted the takeover process is violent, bloody and bodily destructive affair.
Our hero is RJ McCready (Kurt Russell), a confident but sad drunk who, when the crisis is elevated, takes control as leader. After visiting the Norwegian camp the resident scientist of the bunch Blair (Wilfred Brimley) comes to realize the destructive power the alien would have if it ever reached civilization. When they team realizes one of their own may be an alien in subterfuge everyone’s eyes turn on each other.
“The Thing” is Carpenter at his most confident and arguably the pinnacle of his career. While we never really see the alien in full form, Carpenter shows us the monster at the end of the first act, in the biggest, goriest and 'eye-poppingist' scene in the film. Unlike "Jaws" or "Alien" Carpenter is too excited to save these reveals for the last act. So he's confidently subverting our expectations. Without a doubt in his characters' minds that there's an alien presence on the compound in the second act Carpenter scares us even more by turning the characters on each other.
One of the more curious aspects of the film is Ennio Morricone as music composer. It’s a fantastic low key brooding synth score, but nothing that Mr. Carpenter couldn’t do or hadn’t done before in his previous films. In any case, like John Williams’ effective "Jaws" theme, Morricone uses a couple of simple and quiet plucks of a bass to produce utter fear. Who can forget those ominous opening notes we hear in the opening scene?
The showcase scene in the film (which Robert Rodriguez honourably tried to paid homage to in “The Faculty”) is the famed blood testing scene. It's a masterpiece of tension and horror. With the characters confined in one room a sample of each of their blood is tested to see which one is an alien. Carpenter is aided by some wonderful editing from Todd Ramsey and but it's his misdirection skills which jerk us around through the various suspects and shock us with a couple of great scares.
Roy Arbogast and Rob Bottin's phenomenal creature and gore effects arguably are some of the greatest physical in-camera effects ever created – and this includes the greats, Stan Winston, Ray Harryhausen, and Willis O'Brien. I was too young too see the film in the theatre in 1982, but I couldn't imagine what kind of gasps I would have heard coming from that ET-hyped audience that summer.
Carpenter has admitted he suffered such a backlash against the film he had difficulties financing all of his projects afterwards. The fanboy reverence for "The Thing" has hopefully relieved some of this negativity for Carpenter. Thanks in part to those VHS Generation kids who are now writing, reviewing and making films for a living Carpenter's name is now front and centre when discussing the great masters of horror and suspense.
"The Thing" is available on Blu-Ray from Universal Studios Home Entertainment