Written by: John W. Campbell Jr. (story), Bill Lancaster (screenplay)
Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Keith David, and Wilford Brimley
Reviewed by: Wes R.
“Somebody in this camp ain't what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us.
By spring, it could be all of us.”
By spring, it could be all of us.”
Remakes put the horror fan in an awkward position. On one hand, they're pretty easy to bash as their frequency increases year after year (while the quality often decreases). Is Hollywood running out of original ideas? Maybe. Though remakes we may love to say we hate, we cannot forget that some of horror's own directorial heroes have ventured into remake territory... and come out with pretty positive results. David Cronenberg gave us a more psychological and disgusting version of The Fly, Chuck Russell kept the B-movie flavor, but added more realistic FX with his remake of The Blob, and John Carpenter delivered what might be his greatest directorial feat... The Thing.
Researchers at an arctic base camp are confused as a Norweigan helicopter flies entirely too low for their comfort. More worrisome, one of the men aboard the chopper is firing into the snowy landscape. However, they are not attacking the U.S. base camp. Instead, they are chasing a dog for reasons unknown. Before long, the nature of their attack becomes quite clear. Some THING is on the loose, and assimilating any living creature in its path in order to survive. Could it have killed and assimilated any of the members of the research team? Paranoia grows strong as R.J. Macready (Kurt Russell) tries to get to the bottom of who's really an alien life form and who (if anyone) is still human.
John Carpenter's The Thing is quite simply, a masterpiece. While undoubtedly an atmospheric classic, The Thing From Another World is a film whose ideas could have been updated and built upon utilizing advances in special effects. By design, we don't have a man lumbering around in a costume like in the monster movies of old. Instead, Carpenter uses craftsmen like Rob Bottin and Stan Winston to create believable and menacing monsters of all forms, shapes, and sizes through stop motion and animatronic puppetry. Carpenter makes good use of the scope aspect ratio to create eerie, claustrophobic shots. True to John W. Campbell's original short story "Who Goes There?", the film is at times, almost unbearably tense. From one scene to the next, you never really know who will turn out to be the alien and who's still human. With the exception of longtime Carpenter collaborator Kurt Russell, the cast is filled with mostly little-known character actors. They all turn in terrific work, however. None of the story's whodunnit-esque elements would've worked at all had the characters not been real and believable human beings that we like and care about. Usually one of the trademark elements of a John Carpenter film is the memorable musical score composed by the maestro himself. This time out, longtime horror and giallo composer Ennio Morricone was given the task of putting music to Carpenter's terrifying images. Whether it was intentional or not, Ennio's synth score feels very much like a Carpenter one. For years as I watched this over and over growing up, it never dawned on me that someone other than Carpenter did the score. It's incredibly minimalistic, yet memorable.
The amount of gore in this one is very potent. It doesn't just contain nasty things that happen to human bodies, but it also features a number of grisly, gooey alien transformation effects by FX master Rob Bottin (and even the late Stan Winston, who stepped in for one sequence when Bottin was in the hospital with exhaustion). What's really amazing is that with the amount of blood and gore, nothing seems to have been cut out by the MPAA at all. During an era when films like My Bloody Valentine and Friday the 13th were trimmed of some of their most interesting death scenes, The Thing went by seemingly unscathed. Perhaps, it was due to the plot and death scenes being more pulpy and fantastical, than the more realistic scenes depicted in a slasher. After all, aliens may or may not be real, however, murderers stalk our streets and neighborhoods every day. The visual effects themselves are some of the absolute best you will find in an 80s horror movie. The only sequence I would call dated is probably the one stop motion sequence late in the film. Much like looking back on ED-209 in RoboCop, that sequence feels out of place when viewed today. However, it doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the rest of the movie. I'd put the effects in The Thing up against most of the obvious CGI moments in modern flicks. At the very least, with practical effects, there was something physical that was actually created and photographed and used on-set for the actors to interact with. A lot of modern FX may look great, but for me, they're about as believable as Roger Rabbit standing next to Eddie Valiant.
A Collector's Edition of The Thing was released on DVD, and was the very first disc I ever bought when I finally switched over to the format. It was packed to the brim with bonus material, including a feature-length documentary. Documentary films devoted to a horror film or franchise, like His Name Was Jason and Never Sleep Again, are becoming more commonplace, but at the time of this original release, this was indeed a rarity. The documentary delves into pretty much anything you ever wanted to know about the film and how it was made. This release also included a stills gallery, storyboards, concept art, outtakes, and trailers. The only drawback to it was that being one of the very first DVDs Universal ever released, the disc was non-anamorphic. A few years later, Universal corrected this with a revamped Collector's edition, featuring most of the same bonus features. This time out, the release was only marred by a terrible Photoshop cover featuring a screaming face covered by snow, instead of the classic, chilling 1-sheet image by Drew Struzan. A high definition Blu Ray version features much of the same bonus material, but only in an interactive form, and not as its own separate watchable documentary. To me, this is disappointing, but not a deal-breaker by any means. The material is still there and is still interesting. Just a shame to see such a well planned out documentary get chopped up and scattered about. Picture and sound quality are both excellent, and this is definitely the definitive version of the film.
John Carpenter has given us classics like Halloween and The Fog as well as fan favorites like Prince of Darkness and In The Mouth Of Madness. The Thing can easily sit amongst his best films. In his remake of The Blob, you can tell that Chuck Russell used The Thing as a template for what he wished to accomplish with that film. Other remake filmmakers would do good to take a few notes from Carpenter as well. But remake or not, The Thing is just an all-around solid horror movie. It's a remake that not only pays tribute to the movie that inspired it, but elevates itself to classic status on its own superb merits. Whether you're a serious horror aficionado or a beginner just getting started, seek out this movie at all costs. You won't regret it. Essential!
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