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The Thing Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 26, 2008

  • Movies review


    The Thing Review
    I've covered The Thing twice before for this site - its SD Collector's Edition and its HD debut - but I could never get tired of pondering on its slow-burn success and dogged rise to cult status. It seems that even newer generations of movie and genre lovers - weaned now on excessive CG, bowdlerised remakes and incessant sequels - find the stark brilliance of John Carpenter's deliberately inconclusive, latex-heavy and decidedly moist sci-fi thriller compelling, and its ongoing popularity will surely never fade. With yet more rumours ringing in our ears about the oft-mooted prequel - which looks set to happen, this time, for sure - it feels just about the right time to take another look at this modern classic of tension, paranoia and all-out body-horror with the film's arrival on Blu-ray. So stick around, because “we're gonna find out who's who,” all over again.

    What follows is roughly the same review as way back when MacRready and co. first peeled back that tarpaulin and we all surveyed, with both revulsion and awe, the twisted and steaming remains of some thing - but with a few added extras.

    Man is the warmest place to hide.

    1982 was a year of alien invasions. The sweet ... and the savage. ET took the world by storm - but it was a polite and cuddly invasion - and Spielberg rejoiced. Meanwhile, languishing in the white-out capital of the world, John Carpenter's The Thing - the savage one - was left out in the cold. Finally backed by a major studio in Universal, after a string of independent successes, the visionary director's “invasion” - a remake of his hero, Howard Hawks' influential The Thing From Another World (1951), and an altogether truer version of John W. Campbell's celebrated hard SF novella Who Goes There? - went cruelly overlooked by the saccharine-veined masses, only to become a steady favourite on home video and, ultimately, a cult classic that exceeds Spielberg's wrinkly critter in almost every department. Well, except the cute and loveable category, obviously. Although not a scary film in the traditional style (Carpenter had done the basics already, with Halloween and The Fog), it's shocks and creepy atmosphere were distilled in favour of a cold, seeping sense of dread, alienation and the deep-core anxiety of paranoia. Instead of Hawks' giant humanoid in a boiler suit that brazenly confronted its enemies, Carpenter's beast was an amorphous, shape-shifting organism that attacked on the sly, absorbed its victims and then replicated them, infiltrating Mankind in the most insidious and unpleasant manner imaginable. Now available on Blu-ray, The Thing has never looked better ... which makes the film even more gloriously horrible, if you know what I mean.

    “Is that a man in there ... or something?”

    The bleak Antarctic setting is as remote and inhospitable as you can get. The isolated American scientific base and the twelve men living there are at the outermost fringe of humanity - and boy, are they ever going to find that out the hard way. Taking the essence of the Hawksian common denominator - a group of macho men thrown together in adversity - Carpenter and writer Bill (son of Burt) Lancaster retain some of the original characters from Campbell's story, Copper and stalwart hero MacReady being prime in the mingling, and weave around them a monstrous tale of bodily invasion, acute distrust and aggressive decimation. It's a ten-little-Indians scenario that sees the beleaguered group whittled down by an enemy literally from within, as the cute husky dog seen on the run from apparently stir-crazy Norwegians - who are the most unbelievably poor shots in the history of cinema (feel free to debate on that) - and then taken in by the Americans, proves to be anything but a cute husky dog. The fantastically creepy scene where Russell's mighty-bearded MacReady and Richard Dysart's nose-pierced Dr. Copper investigate the ruined remains of the Norwegian camp is full of subdued menace. The horrific discovery of the bizarre remains in the snow (that twisted double-face is a work of art) and the hollowed-out block of ice (a homage to the original film) still make the blood freeze, almost as much as that glistening in frigid streams from the wretched suicide's wrists - a nastily potent image of hellish desperation. But it is the sly realisation that whatever did this damage is now slinking about within the American base that sets the pulse racing. The shape-shifting qualities of the invader are very soon in evidence as it lays waste to the other dogs, and begins to wreak havoc among the stunned Americans when they realise that this mysterious creature could have imitated any one, or more, of them without the others knowing it. An intriguing instance in the stunned aftermath of the dog kennel sequence has one character look around slowly to regard MacReady with a mixture of awe and trepidation. Could this be the moment when the Thing realises that it might have some stiff opposition amongst its latest human smorgasbord? So, with a vicious storm blocking any transmissions for help and hemming them in for a long and desperate winter, a deranged scientist smashing up all their transport, and with doubt and suspicion clouding their judgement, it's going to be a testing time indeed.

    “I don't know who to trust.”

    “Trust's a hard thing to come by, these days.”

    Carpenter's most radical deviation from the Hawksian path is that his cluster of tough guys do not band together against a common foe - instead, they turn on one another when the chips are down, forging uneasy alliances only out of desperation and fear, rather than out of the desire for group-solidarity. MacReady and Joel Polis's Dr. Fuchs are about the only pair that we feel we can depend on. Oh, and the big mountain-man, Clarke, overwrought at the loss of his beloved dogs, despite the fact that nobody else seems to trust him. “How long were you alone with that dog, Clarke?” Even Blair, played by everyone's favourite grandpa figure, Wilfred Brimley (well, perhaps not when he's a longbow-wielding Cajun moon-shiner in the likes of Van Damme's Hard Target) has something odd about him - but more on that, later. The other helicopter pilot besides sombrero-wearing MacReady, is Pothead-Palmer (the laconic David Clennon), a spaced-out believer in things from outer space. His laid-back attitude makes him likeable and unthreatening, so perhaps we could side with him. But we're not drawn to David Keith's mechanic, Childs. He's a bully, and the deteriorating situation of men picking on one another and choosing sides seems to suit his antagonistic manner too well. And then there's Donald Moffat's station commander, Garry, a strange eye-browed (go on, have a look at 'em) ex-military type who struts around the camp with a Magnum revolver strapped to his hip. He may not exude complete authority but we know that he's just itching to use that “pop-gun” at the first opportunity.

    “I know I'm human. And if all of you were these things then you'd just attack me right now. So some of you are still human.”

    Regular cameraman, Dean Cundey, works miracles here with Carpenter's precision-built compositions. The camera panaglides us down the claustrophobic corridors and snowed-in tunnels of the American camp and lends nervous energy to the many group shots - another distinct reference to Hawks' picture - by moving around and through them, keeping us on our toes. Ennio Morricone's Carpenter-inspired score is minimalist and memorably haunting. It beats like a metronome, reverberating from within like the film's own thudding heartbeat. The crisply taut atmosphere of cooped-up paranoia tightens the screws with each passing scene, as clues and red-herrings (the shredded garments, for example) keep on coming. Carpenter builds the many set-pieces with terrific character interplay, allowing his many protagonists (and hidden antagonists) plenty of caustic, edgy dialogue and wary, suspicious glances. We only know as much as the frightened cast, so even our trust begins to ebb away. The common criticism about there being too many characters for us to care about, apart from the nominal leads, doesn't hold water. Carpenter is at pains to give everyone just enough breathing space to flesh them out (literally, in some cases), their collective dilemma becoming all the more weighted by the sheer level of individual tensions. This remorseless cranking of unease boils down to clever and intelligent writing from Lancaster and his refusal to stereotype his rugged gang. Oh sure, the obvious hero is the tough, cynical MacReady but, meshed behind his beefy beard, Kurt Russell could be anybody. His character may be a resourceful, no-nonsense type but he is left in-the-dark about the nature of the threat as much as we are. “I don't know! 'Cos it's different from us, see ... 'cos it's from outer space!” Still, he's the one I'd give the gun to. Or maybe Pothead-Palmer, just for a laugh. But not you, Childs. So back off. Way off ...

    “I thought you'd feel that way, Garry. You were the only one who could've gotten to that blood. We'll do you last.”

    The body-horror super-shock tactics of Carpenter and makeup maestro Rob Bottin are far more disturbing than simply golly-gosh gore effects. The very notion of something alien, something abhorrent invading our bodies and mutating our flesh is a raw, primal fear. Coupled with the ghastly threat of loss of identity (and I don't mean credit card theft), it goes way beyond the logical terror of a bullet, or a knife, because it possesses a clinical and biological efficiency that is hardly random or impersonal. The Thing's assimilations are all-consuming, and perfect, offering no chance of survival ... and they are as personal as can be. If, as Mac maintains, every piece of it is a whole organism, then even the merest microscopic smudge of it on your skin is enough to seal your doom. And guarantee you a cold, alien replacement. David Cronenberg may have specialised in the field of physical corruption and mutation, but Carpenter's thesis on the matter remains the clearest evocation of horrendous infection the cinema has, to date, offered. But then again, the Thing's particular strain of virulence - never more pertinent than in today's world with Aids, BSE, Avian-Flu and bio-warfare threats - asks some quite bizarre questions, too. As Childs puts it, “If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?” The Thing's replication process (never shown in full) sometimes doesn't seem to involve terrible pain - look at the perverse, almost sexual assimilation of Bennings. And would a victim even be aware that he was no longer the real McCoy, or MacReady? Thus, would being a Thing actually be that bad? Discuss, please.

    “We're not getting out of here alive. But neither's that Thing.”

    The makeup fx are, of course, legendary. We see a dog turn inside-out, we see faces erupting and bodies transforming into grotesque parodies of humanity and hideous life-forms stolen from other planets. We see hands become wicked long claws and torsos split open into jagged-fanged, limb-munching maws. Carpenter told the then 22-year old Bottin to just go wild and let his imagination run riot. And nothing since, even with the advent of CG trickery, has ever come close to matching the spiralling excesses of splatter that The Thing flung at the screen. The colourfully gruesome flesh fusions are immensely startling and completely intrinsic to the plot. Nothing shown here is actually gratuitous - in fact, true bloodletting in the conventional horror movie sense is rare. However, the deadly defibrillation scene is a veritable master class of gore and creature fx - that spider-head is such a wonderful creation that you wish it had more scuttling screen time with which to wow us with its antics. But my favourite effect is when the head initially tears itself away from the burning body and all those gloopy strands snap and pop as it slides, unseen, down the side of the table. Just watch that scene again - go on, and tell yourself that that isn't really Charles Halloran's head trying to exit stage left. The effect is so dazzling and convincing that I truly doubt it could be improved upon even with today's technological advances. The frozen suicide (it's a bit of overkill, isn't it? He managed to slash both wrists and his own throat!) is a gleefully grim image, too. But, I'm willing to bet that no matter what deliriously horrid contortions and deaths you witness in The Thing, you still squirm more at the blood test thumb-slittings. Seriously, despite the alien threat, I think I'd be more concerned about mop-topped Windows wiping the scalpel on his jeans before cutting into my skin, wouldn't you?

    “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot. But, when you find the time, I'd rather not spend the rest of this winter tied to this f*****g couch!

    The blood-test scene is a sensational exercise in tense build-up and misdirection. The gradual gear-changes provide the sense of a situation that is perpetually teetering on the brink of hysteria. Childs' cold accusation that Mac is a murderer and Garry's swift, though apprehensive refuting of the test's validity are ingenious stalls and deceptions that mark the scenario out as one of Carpenter's stealthiest episodes of drawn-out nail-biting. Check out the 40's reproduction poster on the wall behind MacReady - the ad for cigarettes carries the knowing slogan “They're not labelled, chum!”, which just serves to prove the dilemma that the surviving humans face when attempting to unmask the Thing. Carpenter hasn't achieved such a level of sustained, yet reigned-in tension, since. And this stylish eloquence is complimented with the famously ambiguous ending, which echoes back to Mac playing chess against a cheating, and untrustworthy computer opponent. It was a huge gamble to sign the story off in this way and, for many less imaginative viewers, it proved to be an infuriating one. Personally, I love it. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that the fading moments of The Thing are possibly the most satisfying and yet perfectly sly that I've seen in a movie. It wins by refusing to answer any more questions and, instead, throwing up many more to the Antarctic winds. The screenplay actually encourages you to think and ponder about the things that it hasn't shown you. Such as when certain people have been attacked and imitated, or exactly how Blair managed to build that little spaceship under the ice. Did he split into lots of little mini-Blairs, or was it one multi-tentacled alien mechanic? I prefer the latter, myself. One thing is clear, however, he has “been busy out here all by himself.” But back to that fantastically tantalising denouement with the two doomed figures sat amid the smouldering remains of the camp, alone at the bottom of the world. If man is, indeed, the warmest place to hide, then I think that if I was the Thing, I would opt for the one with the bushiest beard. Sorry, Mac.

    “If we've got any surprises for each other ... I don't think we're in much shape to do anything about it.”

    As a footnote, let's look towards that reputed follow-up again. After it has seen various other conceptualisations, such as a TV show, a straight remake, a pure sequel, as well as ideas about it seeing life as an adaptation of Dark Horse's decent comic-book run - it is now definitely looming on the horizon. And the sad thing is that, although John Carpenter should be the one to tackle it, his unbelievable career-decline in the years since he unleashed The Thing makes him the last person you'd actually want at the helm. It's a terrible thing to say about a once-so-talented filmmaker, but the simple fact is that he can't hack it anymore, that little stint on the nasty short Cigarette Burns for the Masters Of Horror series notwithstanding. Go on, John, prove me wrong mate. Please ... and, in the meantime, “Maybe we'll just wait here for awhile ... see what happens.”