The Thing (1982) – John Carpenter – Movie Review

Carpenter’s Alien Invasion Classic, With Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley

July 11 2011 Categorized Under: Movie Reviews No Commented
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The Thing (1982)
Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat, Richard Masur, Thomas G. Waites, T.K. Carter, Charles Hallahan, Joel Polis, David Clennon, Peter Maloney

(out of 4)

“I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.”

The Thing 1982 - Spider Head Thing

That new can of Raid Max does not seem to be working

I consider it an injustice that John Carpenter’s The Thing was criminally ignored in June, 1982 while a Spielberg family flick about a cutesy alien who likes Reese’s Pieces shattered box office records. The Thing, of course, also features an alien but you’ll never confuse it with E.T. – there’s absolutely nothing lovable about it. The creature is, in fact, a grotesque and terrifying monster. Not dated in the slightest, which might be due to its wintry Antarctica setting, the movie features disturbing images of alien mutations and carnage which burned themselves into my brain when I was a boy; watching them today, I still get quite a jolt out of them. But The Thing also comes loaded with atmosphere and tension, evoking emotions of loneliness, isolation, dread, and paranoia. It’s a horror film that fires on all cylinders and, for my money, edges out Carpenter’s own Halloween as the best thing he’s ever done.

The Thing 1982 - Wilford Brimley

Wilford Brimley gets tough on diabetes

Set during winter at an American research station in Antarctica, The Thing begins with a helicopter chase as its Norwegian crew attempts to shoot down a poor dog, which runs into the camp of the United States National Science Institute. The helicopter is destroyed when one of the crew drops his own grenade; the surviving Norwegian, shooting wildly, is gunned down by Captain Garry (Donald Moffat) in self defense. This causes station pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) to explore their base for answers, where they find the remains of a nasty-looking alien life form which was buried in a block of ice. Returning with “the find of the century”, the men soon discover that the alien may still be alive, and may have already infiltrated their camp. The first half hour of The Thing is an introduction to the all male cast (not a female anywhere to be found, something I haven’t seen in the genre before or since), their oppressive environment, the Norway camp investigation, and the odd behavior of the rescued dog, which may not be a real dog after all. It’s a good buildup leading to the dog kennel scene, where we are shown what the “thing” is really capable of – mutating itself to imitate other life forms (unfortunately, it has to “absorb” those life forms first). But while the end result is a perfect copy, the process itself is messy, messy, messy. (I reacted strongly to the huskies being harmed – dog lovers, beware).

Less a remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World, Carpenter’s film is a much closer adaptation of John Campbell’s novel Who Goes There? Its depiction of the monster is particularly clever, since a life form that can look like anything gives free reign to special effects artist Rob Bottin (with some help from Stan Winston) to create some truly menacing and grotesque monsters, where every body part or drop of blood takes on a life of its own. This results in some jaw-dropping imagery, one of which involves a head stretching away from its body, down to the floor, then growing legs like a spider. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of the nasty stuff; I’ll try not to spoil the rest for the uninitiated. The effects are from a time pre-CGI and are all the better for it; they are realistic and disquieting, which is something modern CGI effects still can’t seem to pull off. There are some classic scenes in the film – an autopsy sequence where Blair (Wilford Brimley) explains how the “thing” works, an alien attack involving one of the infected faking a heart attack (or maybe the Thing copied the source a little too closely), and a suspenseful scene involving a blood test that hits all the right notes. The feel of the movie is somber and fatalistic, apocalyptic in tone, but given the nature of the plot, this works very much in the movie’s favor (I personally love the open-ending).

The Thing - Peter Maloney

He just remembered he left the oven on 100,000 years ago.

The Thing is worth viewing just for the icky effects, suspense, and mood, but there’s also some subtext to work with. While the 1951 original film has been held up as a allegory for the “Red Menace,” The Thing ’82 seems to exploit more the fear of infection (which might work even better today since the discovery of HIV, which was only just beginning to show itself in 1982). There is a lengthy subplot involving tainted blood, and an intriguing suggestion that even those infected by the alien creature may not even realize it. The film drips with paranoia, making it a good companion with 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, another film (and remake) seen as an allegory of the communist threat. Fear of the Other or fear of imperalism is a common theme among the alien invasion stories, but this movie seems more primal than political. (You could also compare it to Ridley Scott’s Alien, substituting snow for space). Themes of claustrophobia and isolation are also given attention – the frozen wasteland at the edge of the world is a perfect setting for the story. As for the cast, the acting is very good, with Kurt Russell the standout here – it’s one of his best performances; his character MacReady is hardened and level-headed. Keith David and Wilford Brimley (as Blair, who goes crazy when he realizes what would happen to the world population if the Thing got out) are also on target. The icing on the cake is the awesome cinematography by Dean Cundey (his skills also utilized by Carpenter in Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, and Big Trouble in Little China), the amazing location shots (in British Columbia and Juneau), and the cool electronic score from legend Ennio Morricone, which are very similar to Carpenter’s own compositions, actually. The Thing ’82 is a visceral, moody work that showcases Carpenter at the peak of his powers. I consider it his masterpiece (although Halloween comes close), and one of the best horror films ever made.

The Thing 1982 - Dog Thing

I want walkies and Bacon Bits, Now!

The Thing on Blu-ray looks wonderful; a nice clear, crisp transfer. The Blu-ray release reuses the DVD commentary track featuring Carpenter and Russell, which is highly entertaining, however it does not have the 80 minute documentary “John Carpenter’s The Thing: Terror Takes Shape” which is on the Collector’s Edition DVD. I have no idea why. A special U-Control section allows interactivity during the film, with short features showing up in a picture-in-picture format. These features cover cast/crew interviews and how effects were made, etc – these all seem to have been pulled straight from the documentary. I personally think it was better not to go the picture-in-picture route and just give the doc as a separate feature. At least the transfer is in 1080p Hi-Def 2.35:1 with DTS 5.1 sound.

– Bill Gordon

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