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By the middle 1960s, producer Howard Hawks' original The Thing from Another World had become a television staple for adolescent monster fans, as revered as Frankenstein or King Kong, two other titles that seemed to play in constant rotation in the Creature Feature movie slots. One of its biggest fans was young John Carpenter, who would base his career on Hawks' style of filmmaking. Assault on Precinct 13 riffed on Hawks' Rio Bravo; Carpenter puts clips from Hawks' The Thing on Jamie Lee Curtis' television set in his breakout picture Halloween. The mega-success of Halloween gave Carpenter the freedom to tackle his pet personal project, a remake to be called simply The Thing.
Enthusiasts of literary science fiction and some foreign film critics had initially despaired at Hawks' discarding the brilliant idea from the original short story in favor of a fairly generic Frankenstein's monster from outer space. John W. Campbell, Jr.'s Who Goes There? envisions the alien is a shape-shifting body snatcher that can imitate and replace any living organism; it infiltrates an isolated group of men in a lonely arctic outpost. The genuinely scary story is a paranoid nightmare. One can't be sure if one's best friend is not really an alien pretender waiting for the right moment to attack.
Backed by Universal, Carpenter set out to film Campbell Jr.'s original premise, using the latest techniques in special effects makeup to show The Thing ingesting its victims and performing gruesome, disturbing transformations. Young makeup effects expert Rob Bottin supervised the gooey metamorphoses, which when combined with clever camera tricks produce some of the most effective gross-outs ever filmed. A sled dog's muzzle splits open like a peeled orange to disgorge a flower that spits toxic matter. A man's chest becomes a set of jaws that chew off another man's arms. When threatened, the head of an "imitation man" rips itself free of the rest of its body, grows spider legs, and scuttles away across the floor. Variety's review suggested that the William Castle gag of having nurses in attendance at screenings of The Thing might be a good idea!
As a series of exciting scares, Carpenter's show has few equals. He sets up the story with a minimum of fuss and uses telling bits of action instead of expositional dialogue to sketch his interesting characters. The researchers and staffers at an Antarctic science station are quickly differentiated. MacReady (Kurt Russell) is a longhaired helicopter pilot and a loner who becomes a de facto leader. Dr. Blair (A. Wilford Brimley) is the first to detect the grave threat to the camp. Palmer (David Clennon) is a pothead helicopter mechanic and a chronic whiner. Childs (Keith David) is a mean man with a flamethrower but prone to emotional outbursts. Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) examines the remains of various Thing-creatures killed in the process of transformation; he's the first to formulate a test to determine which colleagues are really Things in disguise. Clark (Richard Masur) takes care of the sled dogs and tends to be withdrawn and low-key. Garry (Donald Moffat) is the dependable but unimaginative head of security.
Both film versions center on a group of men under siege by a mysterious and deadly foe. In the original the military men and the scientists establish a group solidarity, and the humans prevail through cooperation. Screenwriter Bill Lancaster's remake has a less optimistic view, partly because Carpenter's male group is a loose coalition of nonconformists and partly because The Thing makes group solidarity impossible. Because anybody can be "the monster", nobody can be trusted.
On a scene-by-scene level Carpenter's mastery cannot be denied. Every monster attack is a jolting surprise. Unlike the characters in a thousand "haunted house" movies, nobody acts entirely stupidly; quite the opposite. MacReady makes good snap decisions, not hesitating to kill when necessary. We appreciate the commonsense approach when MacReady first hears the howling dogs. In a movie like Ridley Scott's Alien MacReady would trace the ungodly howling alone to its source, and be attacked in the dark. He instead plays it smart and hits a fire alarm. The whole camp is alerted.
Carpenter again shows himself to be a master of 'scope composition. He directs action for maximum excitement but makes frustrating story decisions. The real nature of The Thing's modus operandi remains hazy. The few attacks and "takeovers" we see are noisy affairs, yet The Thing is able to absorb several humans without being detected. The exact sequence of Whom is taken over When is so unclear that our desire to understand what's happening dies for lack of information, taking the film's suspense along with it.
The identity test is the most original scene, and the most frustrating. Observing that any bit of The Thing can function as an individual creature, Dr. Copper proposes that every Thing Cell is capable of acting independently. MacReady puts blood samples from all the surviving researchers in separate Petrie dishes, and burns each with a hot wire. If any of the blood is really "imitation Thing blood", it will try to save itself, and reveal who isn't who they seem to be. What happens next is just too good to spoil. The problem is that the survivors, who at that particular moment can be certain that none of them are infected, never consolidate what they've learned. Instead of staying together to fend off the one or two men still untested, they split up to search the camp. The "haunted house" scenario comes back after all.
In the rush to a Cool Finish, The Thing takes a detour into nihilism. The existential standoff at the fadeout is a tough-guy pose that rings false, with "real men" opting to freeze to death rather than let The Thing survive. We wonder why nobody has taken a single photograph as evidence of the menace, or why notes haven't been written warning relief missions not to thaw out anything organic. The audience doesn't want good men like MacReady to surrender. Carpenter and Lancaster resurrect heroic film formulas, only to revert to the 80's brand of hollow pessimism.
The Thing is a riveting scare show and a rewarding one to see more than once, even if frustration sets in at not being able to straighten out the monster's gnarly bio-logic. The acting is uniformly excellent. Carpenter usually avoids multi-character dialogue scenes but for this film pulls them off beautifully. Kurt Russell's understated performance turns MacReady into a dependable hero. Charles Hallahan's Norris looks for an authority figure to follow. David Clennon's Palmer becomes sarcastic and Richard Masur's Clark sullen and defensive. Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat and Keith David trade accusations when the outpost's blood supply is sabotaged. The hipster radio operator Windows (Thomas Waites) quietly freaks out behind his dark glasses. And Wilford Brimley's eyes glaze over when his first assessment of the problem establishes that The Thing has more likely than not already won the battle.
John Carpenter's sci-fi horror show was a theatrical underperformer. Just a week or two before its premiere, Universal also released the sugary E. T. The Extraterrestrial, which captured the country's heart. When The Thing hit the screens the welcome mat for gory monsters had already been withdrawn. I saw E.T. at the Cinerama Dome on its first weekend. Universal tacked on a scary trailer for The Thing. With the audience jammed with little kids, several irate mothers stomped out to the lobby to complain!
At the time, John Carpenter was frequently compared to John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) and especially David Cronenberg, whose films seemed exclusively focused on Thing- like bodily tumors, mutations and other incitements to squeamishness. Cronenberg's flights of intellectual weirdness were fascinating but even his remarkable Videodrome had difficulty cohering as a satisfying narrative. Not until his gruesome, transgressive remake of The Fly would Cronenberg truly come into his own. Both filmmakers revisit 50s Sci-Fi classics but Carpenter gets bogged down in thriller mechanics. Cronenberg re-imagines his remake from the inside out (literally) and transcends the original.
Universal's Blu-ray maximizes the impact of John Carpenter's overachieving creature feature The Thing. The Canadian and Alaskan scenery is breathtaking. The elaborate sets for the research station and the stunning special effects -- all concocted before the advent of computer generated imagery -- only improve with the added detail of 1080 lines of resolution. Only an icy matte painting or two seem to suffer, and look a little flat. Ennio Morricone's score provides minimalist rhythms over the titles and credits that sound identical to Carpenter's own film scores, but he also adds tense strings to heighten the mood in several scenes. The lossless Blu-ray audio brings added clarity to the unworldly howls of the alien Thing.
If you own a previous DVD with its rich bounty of extras, hang on to it. Carpenter and his star Kurt Russell share the good commentary track reclaimed from the earlier special edition. The new disc's only additional extra is a "U-Control" feature that works only on the newest Blu-ray machines. It's a picture-in-picture item that takes excerpts from the previous long docu and pops them up from time to time during the film. Instead of watching the whole docu full screen, we see pieces of it in a small box while the feature is running. This combination of docu and trivia track doesn't seem to be much of an improvement. The added storage space of Blu-ray would easily accept the entire contents of the old special edition - something that was done on Paramount's satisfying Godfather Blu-ray. Universal's stingy attitude isn't helping the adoption of the new format.
One of the most popular segments of the older special edition was seeing the sensational stop-motion shots animated by Randall William Cook, that were dropped from the film. We checked out the climax but didn't see this material among the pic-in-pic segments.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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