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John Carpenter can hit or miss on some of the things he's done in his career. Vampires may be a good case in point. But In his version of The Thing, remade from Howard Hawks' 1950's classic, he doesn't focus on the creature as much as the relationship between the men in the camp and how the paranoia starts to creep in the group as they try to figure out who may or may not be infected by the creature. I might have jumped ahead of some people who haven't seen it, so here's a brief recap for those few who have missed The Thing:
An American crew working in the Arctic circle encounter a Norwegian crew that is frantically shooting at a dog that is running to the camp. The Americans defends themselves as soon as one of the men is accidentally shot, and the Norwegians are killed. The Americans take the dog in, but they also go out to the Norwegian camp to find out just what exactly spooked them so much. They find a camp littered with bodies, along with something that was thawed out by the group before they were brutally killed. From that point, various members of the group get infected by a mysterious virus and are plucked off one at a time. The crew, or at least one or two of them, begin to notice that the cause might not necessarily be of human creation, especially after the discovery of a spaceship near the Norwegian camp. So the remainder of the film is focused on trying to figure out who's human and who's not.
What made this one maybe a bit scarier than most was Carpenter's ability to create enough of a dynamic between the men, that most of them were fleshed out enough to the point where you understand how they work together. And the cast is very able, from older members Blair and Copper (Wilford Brimley and Richard Dysart, respectively), to younger members Childs (Keith David, Armageddon) and Palmer (David Clennon, From the Earth to the Moon), all held together by the film's star (and frequent Carpenter leading man) Kurt Russell (Dark Blue), who plays MacReady. Carpenter does a great job keeping the cast and the events in close quarters. With Cinematographer Dean Cundey, whom Carpenter has worked several times through the years, you see most of the interior shots always have something or someone in the frame as well, taking up more space than you're accustomed, giving you an almost claustrophobic feeling. Only when the film is outside do the exteriors get shown, and they are filmed well. Now does this mean that Carpenter eschewed his horror film roots? Far from it. With effects supervisor Rob Bottin, Carpenter creates sequences that are still considered gruesome to this day. I still can't sit through the whole scene with the dogs early on, and the later scenes are also gory and designed to shock, which they do in spades.
At the end of the day, The Thing is more than just your typical horror film, it's a very effective look at how a traumatic incident can wreak havoc on a small isolated group, and the cramped feeling in the small camp makes you feel a bit more frightened of the Thing once it appears (designed and created with the usual outstanding work by the late Stan Winston). This remains one of Carpenter's best films, and itremains one of the better horror films since its release 25 years ago.
By my count, this is the 57th different incarnation of The Thing on DVD, and I've seen it in both non-anamorphic and anamorphic; and high definition is the third for me. Using what is presumably the same VC-1 encoded 2.35:1 presentation that the HD DVD possesses, The Thing looks as good as I remember it, with fine detail in the shadows and interior shots, film grain noticeable through most of the piece, and the Bottin effects still scare the crap out of me in high definition. On the tighter shots, you can even make out facial detail in some of the characters, but the thing I liked most of all was that the image is clear as a bell from start to finish. The early scene where MacReady plays chess, a very soft green light from the computer is on one side of his face. That kind of work I don't recall seeing on the standard definition disc, and having The Thing look like it does in high definition is a reason to plunge into the market.
The Dolby Digital-Plus soundtrack has been replaced with a DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio in 5.1 that certainly does improve the feature, with some caveats. Dialogue is crisp and clear in the center channel with a minimum of compensation. Speaker panning and directional effects are occasional, and subwoofer engagement is rare. Having said that, remember that most of this film occurs indoors, and the exterior shots is where it gets a chance to stretch out, particularly during any of the helicopter shots, when the bird goes through all of your speakers or occasionally when the creature makes noise outside. There are some moments when the sound stage is limited by the soundtrack of the date, and you hear slightly canned sound effects, but it's an upgrade over the HD DVD soundtrack.
There are only two features on here, which means they've removed some of the material from the standard definition version. Carpenter and Russell have always gotten along; they've worked on several films together, and their commentary tracks are always entertaining. Big Trouble in Little China is a good case in point, and if they reunite for any new commentary tracks, they should be worth the price of admission. Here they do justice to their reputation, as Carpenter does provide some technical information and some scene specific comments, the two spend a lot of time remembering old stories and making fun of some people as they appear on screen, Wilford Brimley being the main victim. Russell remembers seeing a huge sign for the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and the film being released a week after the release of E.T.; they had a good feeling of what they were up against in their own studio. While they were skeptical of the effects at first, they were pleased with how they turned out. Both enjoy a lot of laughs during the commentary, with Carpenter's laugh sounding a lot like Sesame Street's Count von Count. The two wrap up talking about how much they enjoyed the process, and look forward to doing more commentaries in the future. Amen guys. "John Carpenter's The Thing: Terror Takes Shape" is an extensive look at the production, featuring new interviews with some members of the cast, including Russell, and of the crew, including Carpenter, Special Effects Coordinator Rob Bottin and Stan Winston, to name a few. It covers just about every aspect of the film, location scouting, concept drawings, unused stop motion photography, you name it. There are humorous stories about effects shots going wrong and some exotic appearances by the cast to the studio commissary when filming on the Universal lots. On location footage is included here too, along with recalling problems on location including an interesting story about taking the first bus ride to the hotels at the British Columbia spot. Everyone shares their thoughts about the film now, how it turned out and what they perceive it to be, and with all of this, the result is a very extensive look at the film. However, this is the only other feature to speak of on the disc, and it's takes up the U-Control function on the disc. The stills could have probably been through on here as well to fill up the rest of the time. I'm just saying.
The Thing remains one of the top horror films over the last quarter century, both for the slow elevation of psychological tension and the visual effects, which surprisingly, still stand the test of time. The technical merits definitely make it one to upgrade for standard definition owners, and HD DVD owners should strongly consider it for the lossless soundtrack. The dropped extras are a minor inconvenience at the end of the day, and The Thing is fun to watch even more now that it's on Blu-ray.