Thing, The (United States, 1982)
When it was released in 1982, John Carpenter's remake of Howard Hawks' 1951 science fiction classic The Thing from Another World spurred much debate about not only which film was more effective but whether Carpenter's version fit better into the science fiction or horror genre. In the end, such arguments, while not uninteresting, proved pointless. The Thing became accepted on its own terms, which is how it should be. This is one of those rare remakes that remains faithful to the premise of the original (and the short story upon which both are based, John Campbell's "Who Goes There?") but does something unique with the concept. Viewing The Thing is not like watching The Thing from Another World in color with better special effects and new actors. It's a different experience altogether.
The movie centers around a 12-man U.S. Antarctic expeditionary crew stationed at Outpost #31. Their days are busy, but their nights are long and cold. Their lives are ruled by routine until the day when a half-wolf/half-dog appears with a Norwegian chopper in hot pursuit. The animal survives but the seemingly crazy Norwegians do not. One is blown up by his own grenade. The other is shot dead when he brandishes a firearm. It turns out that the dog is not the innocent victim of a lunatic hunting outing. It's actually an alien that has the ability to digest and imitate creatures it comes into contact with. Once it has access to Outpost #31, it begins doing what it does best: infiltration. By the time the human beings recognize their peril, the situation is dire. No one knows who to trust, because there could be an alien among them.
Kurt Russell heads an ensemble cast comprised primarily of character actors, including the likes of Wilford Brimley (before he became typecast as a folksy grandpa), Richard Dysart (who would later become a regular in the TV series L.A. Law), Keith David, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, and Charles Hallahan. Although Russell is the hero, the others do fine supporting jobs despite the thinness of their characters and the lack of substantive backstories. Even Russell's R.J. MacReady is largely a blank slate. We know he's pragmatic and a quick thinker, calm under pressure, and good with weapons, but that's the sum total of what the film tells us about him. (Dr. Blair, Brimley's character, was originally slated to be played by Carpenter regular Donald Pleasance until a scheduling conflict interfered. One wonders whether the role would have been expanded in that case.)
Although Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster based The Thing on the short story "Who Goes There?", they did not neglect the 1951 picture. Carpenter included several homages, the most obvious of which was to use footage from The Thing from Another World as the video retrieved from the Norwegians' camp. (Clips from the black-and-white film also appear in Halloween.) The Campbell story, which was written in 1938, became a science fiction touchstone, inspiring not only for The Thing from Another World, but other movies including Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its remake.
A paranoia-choked atmosphere is the primary reason why The Thing works as well as it does. The setup is standard stuff, establishing that the characters are isolated and can expect no help from the outside. The realization there could be an alien among them, and any one of them might not be human, is what launches The Thing into a spiral of escalating tension. The quest to identify the alien(s) consumes about half the movie's running time, and includes several red herrings and the gripping blood test sequence in which MacReady uses a hot wire and samples of everyone's hemoglobin to clear some members of the crew and damn others. The final confrontation with the alien, despite providing the most grotesque special effect of the movie and allowing plenty of pyrotechnics, is anticlimactic. Then again, after the extended suspense of the middle section, it's hard to see how any resolution could rise to that level.
Carpenter's recreation of an Antarctic station is flawless; we never doubt for a moment that these men are trapped and alone in a frozen wilderness. The spartan nature of the lifestyle feeds into the claustrophobia and paranoia that develop when it becomes evident any of them could be standing next to an alien. The Thing works on a visceral level, and not just because of the blood and gore. Carpenter's flair for suspense, honed to perfection in Halloween, is on display here. Viewers, especially those watching The Thing for the first time, will be perched on their seat's edge for a good portion of the movie.
Despite having a larger budget than anything Carpenter had previously worked with, The Thing still feels like one of his movies. In fact, it could be argued that this is the last movie of Carpenter's most fertile period as a director. (I'm a fan of Starman but, being a love story, it's a much different kind of picture.) The cinematographer is Dean Cundey, who had worked on a number of Carpenter movies. The composer, Ennio Morricone, tailored his score to the director, using the same kind of low-key, uncomplicated approach favored by Carpenter the composer. (Those watching this movie without knowing of Morricone's involvement might believe Carpenter had written the music.)
Upon its 1982 release, The Thing was decried by many mainstream critics as being too gory and gruesome. Roger Ebert calls it "a geek show, a gross-out movie in which teenagers can dare one another to watch the screen." Indeed, Rob Bottin's effects work was among the most elaborate and unsettling stuff to have appeared on screen to that point, but it pales in comparison with advances that have been made in the quarter century since The Thing's release. The creature work in The Thing remains effective all these years later, but it is no longer as startling as it once was. It's in line with what we're used to seeing in standard science fiction horror fare. With the shock value muted, we are able to concentrate on the story and absorb how well crafted it is.
One apt comparison to The Thing is Ridley Scott's Alien, which came out a few years earlier. Both movies are in many ways cut from the same cloth and owe their inspiration to the Campbell short story. Alien is more polished and features better detailed characters, but there are a lot of similarities. The nightmarish creature remains hidden for much of the movie. The crew is isolated and trapped. One character rises out of the ensemble to take control. And a lot of the action takes place in dark, shadowy spaces. Alien has been described as a "haunted house in space" movie, indicating the way it straddles the horror and science fiction genres. The Thing does the same thing, but with an additional twist: it throws in a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie. That element, more than any other, makes this movie unique and worth a viewing by any horror/sci-fi fan who has not seen it.
Thing, The (United States, 1982)
Cast: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat
Screenplay: Bill Lancaster, based on "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell Jr.
Cinematography: Dean Cundey
Music: Ennio Morricone
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
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