The original The Thing from Another World had long been a favorite of John Carpenter's, with its botanical beastie even rearing its head briefly on the Doyles' television in Halloween. A more faithful adaptation of the short story "Who Goes There?" than Howard Hawks' 1951 genre classic, The Thing opens in Antarctica as a Norwegian helicopter frantically chases after a lone Husky, littering bullets across the barren white landscape. The dog finds shelter in an American camp, and the Norwegians' insistence on gunning it down results in...well, a couple fewer Norwegians. Their bizarre behavior is at first chalked up to cabin fever, and with the Americans' communications down and unable to report the incident, helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) takes it upon himself to investigate. He finds the Norwegian base in tatters, and whatever this...thing is that they unearthed has started to dig its otherworldly claws into the American camp as well.
Part of the reason The Thing is so unsettling is that so little is revealed about the creature. It isn't a character so much as a primal force, and its backstory isn't any more complex than that it's a thing from another world. Aside from its abilities and the certainty that it will escape to the outside world, we never learn about its thoughts or motivations. It has no dialogue or even an easily identified appearance. The Thing has been criticized for its ambiguity, but there's something I find intriguing about a hopelessly isolated group of men caught completely off-guard by a wave of destruction and knowing as little about it at the end of the movie as they do at its outset. Although I admittedly still can't follow why 'the thing' picks certain times to metamorphose into a fanged, tentacled hybrid -- maybe it can't maintain a form for more than a certain amount of time? -- the convenience of these transformations doesn't hurt the movie any. The Thing isn't any more rife with characterization for the more terrestrial members of its cast, but as thinly drawn as they are, they still seem like actual people and not just stock cut-outs from the Big Book of Movie Clichés.
Another way in which The Thing sidesteps some of the usual genre formulas is the general lack of over-the-top action heroics. Sure, a couple of its characters have flamethrowers strapped to their backs and tote around a couple of sticks of dynamite, but action isn't the focus of the movie. It's Cold War paranoia -- the fear that the enemy is standing next to you, smiling...indistinguishable from your friends until he raises his arm to deliver the deathblow. The most tense sequence in the movie is the 'test' MacReady administers. Working under the theory that each part of the creature is a distinct living organism and will respond violently to harm, MacReady methodically dips a heated metal wire into a series of blood samples, waiting for a frenzied reaction. Even having seen the movie at least a half-dozen times before, this masterfully constructed setpiece never disappoints. With the obvious exception of Kurt Russell, no one is safe; anything could happen to anyone at any time. Even Russell himself isn't the chest-puffing, hyperconfident leader so much as a weathered blade whose edge has been worn down over time.
Rob Bottin contributed many of the twisted creature designs in The Thing, and they're disturbing and grotesque to the point where his KY-smothered creations are almost darkly comedic. The make-up effects are the real star of the film, and even a quarter century after cameras first started rolling, they still hold up remarkably well today. The most memorable effect begins as an abdomen collapses into a toothy maw and gnaws off a pair of arms. As his body is destroyed, the creature's head detaches itself, leaving a trail of shredded fibers and bubbling sinew along the way. The disembodied head then sprouts a set of spider-like legs and scurries away. Like Palmer says in disbelief afterwards, "you gotta be fucking kidding", only I mean it in the best way possible.
The Thing is a claustrophobic, deeply cynical horror film that arguably ranks behind only Halloween as John Carpenter's horror masterpiece. Essential viewing for fans of the genre.
Video: Despite what the mislabeled packaging suggests, The Thing's anamorphic photography remains fully intact on HD DVD. The image is terrifically sharp and detailed throughout much of the film, offering a considerable improvement over the 2004 DVD reissue. As many times as I've watched the movie over the years, I'd never spotted a nose ring on one character until now! The Thing still holds up well during its more dimly-lit moments, if appearing somewhat softer and flatter than in its earlier scenes, and black levels remain robust throughout. Although there are a handful of excessively grainy shots, film grain is generally tight and unintrusive throughout the bulk of the movie, and very little speckling or visible wear are present. The edge enhancement that marred the most recent DVD release has also been greatly dialed down. Another solid effort from Universal.
Audio: The Thing boasts a strong stereo mix that sounds as if it had been awkwardly retrofitted to use five speakers and a subwoofer. The film's audio is spread across the front channels convincingly and effectively, with the frenzied barking in the kennel and the incendiary roar of flamethrowers in particular highlighting the strength of its stereo separation. The mix makes little use of the surround channels and tends to sound forced and gimmicky when it does. The Thing wisely doesn't have a conventional score booming throughout much of the movie -- that silence heightens the tension -- but the predominately spare electronic compositions by Ennio Morricone pack a low-frequency wallop and have a tremendous presence overall. Even with a healthy assault of gunfire and explosions, many of the movie's sound effects are anemic by comparison, and those that nudge the subwoofer awake often sound flat and artificial. The dialogue stems have a dated quality to them as well, and more loudly shouted lines flirt with distortion. This is a perfectly listenable remix, but it's not an especially good one.
The Thing also includes a French dub as well as the usual collection of subtitles.
Supplements: Culled from earlier releases on a couple of different formats, the standard definition extras on this HD DVD are all at least eight years old. They're familiar, sure, but the best of them are worth keeping around. My favorite of the bunch is the 82 minute documentary "Terror Takes Shape", which covers every conceivable topic of discussion from the earliest stages of production, the low-tech execution of the opening titles, figuring out where to shoot the grueling Antarctic exteriors, numerous production headaches (botched special effects and near-death experiences are especially common talking points), and the film's legacy following a lackluster theatrical run. "Terror Takes Shape" doesn't hesitate to get intensely detailed about topics more recent documentaries and featurettes would gloss over, such as a very thorough look at a flying saucer that was only used in a couple of brief shots in the movie and a lengthy homage to matte artist Albert Whitlock. The documentary's age is somewhat glaring -- it lets some participants needlessly ramble on, and nearly every moment consists of tightly-composed talking heads against a bland backdrop -- but "Terror Takes Shape" is so thorough and enthusiastic that it's worth setting aside an hour and a half to watch.
The Laserdisc-era commentary with Kurt Russell and John Carpenter is laid-back and quippy, striking that perfect balance between goofy production anecdotes and more technical comments. Although the two of them do fall into the trap of occasionally just narrating whatever's happening on-screen, the constant banter is infectiously fun, and Russell in particular spends about as much time laughing as he does speaking. Most of the remaining extras are still galleries and production notes recycled from what looks like an ancient Laserdisc release, encompassing various stages of production as well as conceptual art and storyboards. There are also four minutes' worth of outtakes, some saucer-centric additional footage, and rough looking extensions to the beastie in the climax. The extras are rounded out by an ancient 4x3 trailer.
Conclusion: One of John Carpenter's most enduring genre efforts, The Thing's heavily upgraded visuals make it worth another look in high-def even for those who'd already picked up Universal's special edition DVD from a couple years back. Highly Recommended.