The Thing (1982) – Chariots of the Gods, Man…
And if this review persuades you to watch it, here’s a piece of advice – put the film on now. Don’t Google search it and look at pictures. Don’t ruin it for yourself, just watch it!
The Thing is a relentless, bleak, funny and terrifying film about a group of men stranded in an Antarctic base, battling for their lives against a hideous shape-shifting alien.
On its original release, The Thing bombed at the box office, largely because its arrival coincided with a much more heart-warming close encounter – Spielberg’s misty eyed tale of a small, prune-like creature with a glowing finger and a desire to “Phone Home”.
ET: The Extra-Terrestrial cleaned up at the box office, and was universally loved. The Thing, with its squabbling bunch of guys picked off in a spectacularly gruesome fashion, turned off many viewers, and was universally slated by critics.
It also didn’t help that The Thing was a remake of a well respected sci-fi classic, The Thing from Another World. The original is clearly a film Carpenter dearly loves, featuring clips of it in Halloween, and quoting some of its more iconic images in his version.
However much Carpenter respects the original, he returns to the source material, John W Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? Out goes the Hawksian camaraderie, and the banding together to face a common foe. In comes paranoia and suspicion. Out goes the boring, lumbering creature, and back we go to a shape-shifter biding its time, hiding inside the men until it can pick them off one by one.
The Antarctic winter is closing in, and the twelve men are isolated an bored. They pass their time playing pool, cards, smoking weed, and watching re-runs of game shows.
We meet our hero, R J MacReady (Kurt Russell). Like one-eyed renegade Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, MacReady is the kind of nihilistic, non-conformist anti-hero Russell specialized in during the early Eighties. The kind of loner who adapts to heroism as a survival method rather than an altruistic vocation.
(There is a character called McReady in Who Goes There? but his initials are not mentioned. The added “R J” brings to mind another famous rebel from an earlier novel and adaptation, R P McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.)
MacReady is an outsider in the group, happy to sit by himself drinking whiskey and playing chess – badly.
On the excellent bigdeadspace.com, a website about the Antarctic written by people who actually spend time there, is a section devoted to reviews of The Thing. One of the prevalent character traits listed in those who chose to spend most of the year thousands of miles from civilization, in an inhospitable environment, is “Anti-intellectualism”.
MacReady might not be an intellectual, but he likes to think for himself, and his choice of activity sets him apart.
We get an early hint that MacReady may not always play by the rules when he loses to his computer, and responds by branding it a “cheating bitch” and pouring his drink into its circuits.
The camp’s amiable boredom is broken by an approaching helicopter. It has flown from a neighboring Norwegian camp, chasing a dog across the vast wastes of snow and ice. One of the crew is taking shots at the dog with a sniper rifle.
The helicopter lands, and is blown up by a poorly thrown grenade. The surviving Norwegian is shot by camp commander Garry (Donald Moffat), as the crazed man rampages toward them firing wildly at the dog.
MacReady and Doctor Copper (Richard Dysart) head over to the Norwegian camp to find out what the story is. They find a scene of murder and madness. In the darkened rooms of a devastated base, they discover a man frozen solid, with icicles of blood hanging from slashed wrists, and an empty sarcophagus of ice. They also find something agonized, twisted and barely recognizable as human smouldering in the yard.
“What is that, a man in there or something?” Copper asks.
“Whatever it is, they sure burned it up in a hurry.” Responds MacReady.
When I first watched The Thing as a teenager, I was rendered a gibbering mess by the ominous, tense opening half hour. Then when the Thing finally broke loose, I was completely blown away. I was gobsmacked, terrified and excited, like the first time I saw Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark.
It’s one of those films, where you’re scared and laughing at the same time, then when it’s finished, you watch it over and over to try capturing the feeling you felt when you first saw it.
Big Dead Space praises the film’s intuitive feel for the dreariness and boredom of overwintering in the Antarctic. It also affectionately picks up on the less authentic things – from the thickness of the camp’s walls to the crew’s easy access to flamethrowers. Another criticism is of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston’s utterly demented special effects, pointing out all the latex and make up.
To this criticism, and any criticism anyone cares to level at The Thing‘s special effects, I’ll paraphrase another Kurt Russell character, Jack Burton from Big Trouble in Little China: “Exactly! It’s real and I can touch it.”
My main gripe with today’s CGI special effects is that no matter how spectacular or lifelike they may seem, they always look so pristine and intangible. You know on a fundamental level that they are effects created by a computer, and no matter how superficially realistic the images are, you know it simply isn’t there.
There is also some good old fashioned stop motion in The Thing. I always marveled at Ray Harryhaussen’s stop motion monsters. I couldn’t help the feeling that all the countless hours he spent with his creations, moving them a little bit, taking the shot, moving them a little bit more, rubbed off. The feeling that somehow he bestowed some of his humanity to his monsters.
Rob Bottin’s effects work on The Thing still stand up as the most astonishing in modern cinema, one instance where the prefix “Special” is completely appropriate. Once the Thing breaks cover, it is done with such wicked, cruel bursts of imagination. In some respects, you are almost distanced from the violence and gore by how outlandish the creations are.
The Thing prefers to keep it’s head down and pick off its victims out of sight. When it is forced into the open, it isn’t just killing people, it is destroying them, perverting their bodily form and corrupting their features in mean-spirited parodies of their former selves.
Many critics and audience members were turned off by supposedly excessive levels of gore. “Gore” makes you think of blood, and while there is quite a lot of the red stuff about, Bottin wisely decided to vary the palette in the creature scenes.
He uses sickly whites and yellows, viscous greens and sinister blues. It was a wise choice. Before writing this review, I re-watched the famous defibrillator scene. Although I’ve seen it maybe thirty times before, I was still staggered by how horrific it is. If it was also drenched in blood, it might have tipped over into unwatchable territory.
No matter how crazy it gets, we are reassured by the men’s reactions. I mentioned earlier that The Thing is a funny film. There are no jokes, no one liners, no zingers, and nothing comes across as particularly scripted, apart from the odd exposition speech.
Yet the dialogue is terse, no nonsense, and our reactions to the Thing’s atrocities are usually voiced accurately by one of the characters.
Clark: “I don’t know what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.”
And perhaps the film’s most famous line: “You’ve gotta be fuckin’ kidding.”
The performances are straightforward and economic. Some critics complained about the lack of emotional substance or identifiable characters. I disagree. You don’t need back story, heavy dialogue or major thesping to identify with characters in a splattery sci-fi horror flick.
The Thing offers no back story on its characters, and is all the better for it. Each character is a clearly defined representation of a frightened man in dire circumstances. The men are played completely straight, with endearing gallows humor, and each performance gives you a neat character capsule, sometimes with just a few lines of dialogue or from their body language.
Twelve men facing something they can’t even comprehend, let alone fight. Their reactions range from full on freakout, to cowardice, to anger, determination and eventual heroism. You are invited to identify with all these reactions, and the tension is sustained by a smart screenplay, which ensures none of the characters do anything completely stupid.
So many decent action and horror movies are ruined by a ridiculous “Yeah, Right!” moment, thrown in there just to advance the plot. Bill Lancaster’s tight script keeps it realistic – almost everything the characters do makes sense.
The tension is elevated by Carpenter’s superbly controlled direction, and Ennio Morricone’s chilly, minimalist score.
It is sad to see how Carpenter’s career has slid away to irrelevance over the past few decades. Here, his camera prowls corridors and peeks around corners, watches characters from doorways, and creates a sense of deep unease. There is always something lurking in the corner of the frame. The set pieces are strung out so long you can barely take it, then deliver an outrageous pay off.
Morricone, famed for his majestically OTT scores from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, provides an unusually understated soundtrack here. The insistent theme suggests something patient, waiting, the slow heartbeat of an implacable, merciless enemy.
The Thing bombed at the box office on original release, and like the creature itself, the film crawled away into the dark and found itself a new form – VHS.
It was the perfect medium, in the heyday of the horror and the video nasty, the Eighties. On VHS, The Thing found many a willing victim, and it steadily built a cult following among kids with access to their dad’s video rental card.
Then all those kids grew up, and some of them became today’s movie critics. Thirty years on, The Thing is one of the most revered cult classics, a box office disaster turned venerable touchstone of a much maligned genre.
I suppose it’s always the way. Perhaps in thirty years time, people will be looking back at the Saw franchise and praising them as existential parables about the futility of mankind, trapped in the machinations of an omnipotent tormentor.
The Thing remains John Carpenter’s masterpiece. Many cite Halloween, yet while the groundbreaking slasher is still as relentless as the soulless Michael Myers, it is horribly dated, and the B-movie dialogue stinks.
The Thing has a few outdated moments involving computers, but otherwise still feels contemporary and grounded in blue collar reality. It is definitely top of my list marked “Films to spring on friends who haven’t seen it yet.”
And when I have kids, I’ll wait until they’re old enough to ride their bikes down the video shop, if such a thing exists then. And I’ll make them rent The Thing. Screw certification, I owe it to my offspring. I can’t wait to see the look of their dear little faces…
Posted on 02/06/2012, in action, Entertainment, Film, Horror, Movies, sci fi, T and tagged John Carpenter, Kurt Russell, Rob Bottin, Stan Winston, Who Goes There?. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.