****/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B+
starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon
screenplay by Bill Lancaster, based on the story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr.
directed by John Carpenter
by Walter Chaw I remember the sick fascination I felt staring at the cardboard standee for John Carpenter's The Thing (hereafter The Thing) in the lobby of the now-flattened two-house cinema where I had gone to see E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial that dewy summer of my ninth year. It was opening weekend for the Carpenter flick, but the line around the building was for the second week of Spielberg's very own My Friend Flicka, and I was one of the millions of children guilty of flocking away from a movie that promised to make you feel like shit in favour of one that promised to make you cry. I would be afraid to see The Thing and the same year's Blade Runner until at least five years down the road when, during a particularly bad flu, I asked my mom to rent them both from a local video store (also gone--the city of my mind is ever more populous now, year-on-year), figuring that in my fever haze I would be insulated from the horrors that had grown around them in my head. Besides, as a wizened vet of 14, I had survived The Fly, Aliens, RoboCop, and Hellbound: Hellraiser II at the Union Square 6 (also gone), so what horrors could these musty relics hold for me?
Heroic bush-pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) is one of several men at an Antarctic research station that, after encountering a crazed Norwegian helicopter pilot and the dog he's trying to kill, becomes infiltrated by an alien organism capable of mimicking other lifeforms. Mimicking them so well, in fact, that these men, who've been living in close quarters for what we presume to be long months if not years, are helpless to distinguish their peers from the monster imitating them. The men are ingenious, however: one of them, Blair (Wilford Brimley, who, I shit you not, shouldâ€™ve gotten an Oscar for his work in this film) figures out that if the creature escapes, the world is done for; another determines that a blood test could ferret out the monster; another still decides that there can't be a happy ending when everyone is the enemy. The Thing has one of the best closing lines of all-time, a perfect collection of performances, and a wondrously foreboding Ennio Morricone score that, yes, mimics John Carpenter's no-fi DIY work on his previous pictures.
It's also one of the last hurrahs for the practical-effects extravaganza. Rob Bottin's goopy prosthetics and models are so intensely, exuberantly fucked-up that it's not too much to say that the picture touches on the same mysterium tremens effect of Kubrick's 2001. What disappoints me so much about the derivative, offensive Avatar is that with all this technology at his disposal, James Cameron's hamstrung by his imagination. You have the opportunity to do anything you want and you craft an alien world as a lush rainforest populated by blue cats? Bottin takes the mandate to create an alien entity and with rubber, the shit in a Twinkie that holds it together, and puppet armatures produces a monster in the pre-processor age not only nothing like a guy in a suit but nothing like anything anyone's ever seen before, too.
Where that first screening of Blade Runner opened my mind to an obvious cult, The Thing opened it to a subtler one. Odd that each film deals with issues of identity and mortality. I discovered what it was to love a movie that was relentless in its desire to be unpleasant, but lost for me that first time through was exactly how organic all of the performances are and how impeccable a machine of paranoia is this Hawksian story of man-love and man-betrayal set deep, deep in the frozen wilderness. The picture is read with profit as an affront to masculinity by the intrusion of a creature of pure fecundity, though I prefer to see it as one of the earliest AIDS melodramas, as our society is presented with a plague, carried invisibly and communicated through the most intimate--the most vulnerable--acts. (Acts of love, betrayed, and you can test for it in the blood.) As MacReady says roughly an hour in, "Trust is a hard thing to come by these days." The tendrils of its faceless implication lingering from years past, I wonder if the movie's effectiveness doesn't tie in with pubescent body-horror eternal. What's adolescence but a fast-mutating--fast-metastasizing, if you will--disease to the sufferer? There's even explanation in The Thing of the behavioural changes one endures, the isolation one imagines, and the bonhomie one desires.
The best of Carpenter could be encapsulated in that quintessential understanding of how the pressures of being young are at play with the pleasures of it. The exhilarating puerility of Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from New York finds explication in that duality while the lovely despair of them, coupled with the nihilism of Halloween and The Fog, present the essential apocalyptic humours of our first hormonal corruption. The graphic in the first third of The Thing depicting the timetable for mankind's complete alien assimilation is the grimmest joke of the piece, in that if it's read as a coming-of-age horror show (as I seem inclined to do, given my experience of it), then total assimilation has already occurred. The wisdom of The Thing is in proposing that in the world of 1982, maybe everyone was a pod already. It is as canny an evocation of the spirit of the Reagan years as Christian Nyby's (Howard Hawks's?) The Thing from Another World was in the cold heart of the Red Scare, and a recognition, true and brilliant and three years before Back to the Future literalizes it, that what Reagan desired most was to yank the United States post-Vietnam back into our conception of the Eisenhower era.
He couldn't quite do it, no matter how many Cold War enemies he resurrected, because the suspicion planted in our minds by decades of love betrayed told us that there weren't any Roy Rogers endings to our Vincent Price realities. Unreasonably tense, with a key scene in particular still nigh unwatchable for me, The Thing is as good a remake in theme as it is in glorious Technicolor function--as good, in fact, as Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (a movie to which it pays homage in a pretty creepy moment), and in much the same way. It's a key film of the 1980s and, as such, has longer legs than the once-almighty E.T.. The one, see, is just a '50s family flick repurposed with a disgusting alien, where The Thing is a commentary on how we as a nation were asked to pretend that we were as halcyon as our idealization of the fifties as told through the cunning machinations of a disgusting alien. Yeah, man.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Universal recycles the video master prepared for the most recent DVD in bringing The Thing to Blu-ray. Nevertheless, I swear the flick on Blu looks like it was shot in '50s-era Technicolor. Lurid, lovely, almost greasy, the picture's 2.35:1, 1080p presentation honours Dean Cundey's amazing widescreen cinematography. The source print isn't spotless, mind, and some optical noise is a drag, but the increased resolution enhances the desolation and grunginess of the setting, and the saturation boosts make for brilliant juxtapositions of arctic blues and alarm reds. You can feel the duelling temperatures in an image of a chilled MacReady fending off his mates with a flare held to dynamite, and if a certain softness becomes increasingly apparent, it's very possibly a consequence of Universal choosing to consign the film to a single-layer disc.
The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track pushes Morricone's score with a heavier bass thrum than previous incarnations of The Thing on home video, while each axe-smash is localized in a different speaker in the scene where Blair goes nuts and destroys the computer room. Dynamic and resonant without being expressly revisionist (voices are still a little thin and the ambience of the mix tends to be concentrated in the forward soundstage, pointing to the movie's vintage), it's excellent. Also on board is a feature-length commentary reteaming Russell and Carpenter--another classic from the duo, with tons of never-stuffy information about the shoot and real warmth and insight in every recollection. I love the trainspotting of fake hands and casts painted black over broken hands to look like gloves, as well as the genuine glee with which Russell meets certain line-readings (not his own) and perverse effects. It's a real pleasure and one of the few yakkers I've listened to multiple times; I'm almost comfortable with it as the main soundtrack now.
Originally produced for LaserDisc and a highlight of the Collector's Edition DVD, Michael Matessino's "Terror Takes Shape: The Making of The Thing" is an eighty-minute retrospective composed of in-depth, exhaustive interviews with virtually every principal involved in the production. Best are the Bottin bits, with the man proving himself an able, and gracious, raconteur who discusses his creations in gratifying detail while providing amusing anecdotes about having to repeat sophisticated gags over and over when mishaps ruined days of work. And like the aforementioned yak-track, the piece is not afraid to delve into or speculate about the film's failure to strike a chord with contemporary audiences and critics. Although Universal has exported this documentary more or less intact to Blu-ray, they've unfortunately chosen to present it as a picture-in-picture "U-Control" extra, robbing it of scale and imposing gaps between segments in order to get its shorter running time to reconcile with the length of the feature. Meanwhile, the BD does away with all kinds of ephemera (trailers, storyboard and photo galleries (including precious full views of the Blairmonster from conceptualization to execution), and a nifty set of outtakes) that was on the DVD, which has become a collector's item in the truest sense. Such a waste. Originally published: July 14, 2011.