It’s October 31st and for a fourth year I clamored trying to figure out the perfect film to recommend and review. I always start October with one of the Halloween films and end with something epic. Year one was Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Year two was Clive Barker’s Nightbreed. Last year was Tom Savini’s remake of Night of the Living Dead. This year I not only bring you a remake but a perfect film, The Thing. I hate remakes as much as the next guy but before they became commonplace half-assed milkings of nostalgia there were three filmmakers who brought the ideas of old Hollywood Creature Features and made them special FX extravaganzas! There was Chuck Russell’s the Blob, David Cronenberg’s The Fly and John Carpenter’s The Thing. The Thing is a Seminole film in Carpenter’s career. It’s his first big studio film, the first film he himself didn’t score and it truly introduced the world to the insane mastery of practical FX by Rob Bottin. It is Carpenter’s most personal and at times most heartbreaking masterpiece.
Antarctic American Outpost 4 is quiet with another passing day of drinking, smoking, gaming and boredom for its scientists, doctors and staff. Across the snow runs a dog being chased down by a helicopter that is throwing grenades and shooting at it. Outpost 4 is alarmed to hear all the commotion and runs out into the snow to see what’s going on. The dog runs up to the group lovingly as they start petting it and the helicopter lands with two frantic Norwegian men who don’t speak English. One accidentally drops a grenade and blows himself and the helicopter up as the other runs screaming at the dog shooting wildly and accidentally hits a man named Bennings in the leg as the rest of the Outpost scatters in fear. Their military lead Garry jumps into action and takes out the Norwegian man who shot Bennings. Baffled they take in the dog and send a team out to go find the Norwegian outpost to try and discover what’s going on. They find monstrous and horribly deformed people at the outpost as well as a giant spaceship a few miles away. Upon returning to the base, Doctors Blair and Copper do autopsies and discover the creatures are indeed human. The dog they rescued from the Norwegians then transforms and begins trying to eat the other dogs in the base in a massive organism of tissue and limbs. They manage to kill it but Doctor Blair discovers that the creatures assimilate anyone and everyone trying to mimic humans in every way. Paranoia grows as the men all turn on each other trying to figure out who has become, The Thing!
From the moment we see a spaceship fly through the sky to the opening title sequence where, “The Thing” is burned into the screen you get chills watching this movie. In that opening sequence there are so many iconic moments and cinematography that many other movies riff on, The Final Girls using the same opening title sequence in a loving homage. Carpenter sets up these characters very well, showing them in their areas of expertise, but also giving a sense of Cabin Fever as they are all stuck there together, that they are all already going a bit mad. The Norwegian helicopter and drama awakens them from their banal day to day routines and reinvigorates them giving them purpose. As they all discover these strange things they go deeper and deeper into something scary until it finally jumps out at them! Once the Thing takes its first shape half are stunned and half go into survival mode setting up even more character dynamics for later in the film. As much as I love Kurt Russell’s MacReady and Keith David’s Childs as total badasses, the most important character in the film is Wilford Brimley’s Blair. Once he discovers that capabilities of The Thing and the idea that should any small part of it make its way to civilization the human race might be doomed to extinction, the scientist in him kicks in. He goes completely mad having fully understood what’s at stake but in that madness is a true hero for us all. He destroys any and all communications to the outside world, any transportation and threatens all his colleagues with an axe and gear. Ready to die and take anyone with him than chance the world to the horrors that he knows are coming. A hero guised as a villain and this pivotal point also causes complete claustrophobia and paranoia. Anyone you didn’t like before could be suspect. Someone you liked could be suspect. Can you even trust yourself? Whatever move you or anyone makes could be that of the creature or your own drifting mind that’s jumbled by all matters of hell! The writing and direction works perfectly here and sets up a movie with so many layers. From that point on the Thing is unseen for a good chunk of the film and the horror itself comes from the characters mistrust and the audiences tension builds worrying who could be the monster. It’s some of the most tense and horrifying dialogue and reactions from this amazing ensemble cast. It builds and builds right up until you see the Thing again and you are left on the edge of your seat wondering who is next.
Carpenter constructed a tense atmosphere that leaves you speechless but this is all amplified synonymously wonderful with the FX of Rob Bottin. At the young age of 22 having only done a few projects for Roger Corman, Rock N’ Roll High School and Humanoids of the Deep, Bottin embodied the 80’s FX proving ground that so many of us worship at the alter of. His FX scrutinizingly put to the test by Carpenter had Bottin himself overworked into exhaustion and hospitalized. He had no idea if he could pull off the impossible FX work written down on paper but kept saying he could do it and delivered us FX that people still question how it was done, FX artists still revere and try to recreate but above all else the FX still hold up and indeed look better than most FX today. The most infamous probably being the defibrillator scene. One of the characters seemingly has a heart attack forcing one of the doctors to pull out the defibrillators to try and revive him. The crew stands by as they think MacReady is infected, he holds a flamethrower and stick of dynamite swearing he’ll kill anyone who messes with him. Quick shots back and forth from the crew getting jumpy with MacReady to the doctor trying to revive the other man. Back and forth with quick movements and cuts to Ennio Morricone’s succinct harrowing score. Finally as the hands go back down on the chest, it caves in and teeth grow out which then chomp down on the doctor’s arms and bite them off blood gushing everywhere. The whole crew freaks out stumbling in fear as whom they thought was safe wasn’t. A huge stalk of limbs shoots out of the chest with tendrils flailing as a half formed head emerges screaming at MacReady who quickly lights it up with his flamethrower! With the body ablaze the head detaches itself from the body and drops downward off the table green ligaments and yellow puss oozing out as it hits the floor and a tendril emerges outward and grabs a table setting the head upright as it grows itself more limbs and crawls away. The scene burned so vividly in my mind that I could describe it at any time as nothing like it have I ever seen before and doubt could be seen again in anything. That’s the amazingness of Rob Bottin, he may have no idea how he’ll do it but he’ll get it done and within the gore emerges a beautiful art form in of itself.
When you watch it you see every bit of the horror genre that Carpenter had learned and toyed with up until that point fully on the screen. This was his proving ground that he could make a tent pole film with a tent pole budget on the horror/sci-fi scale. That’s why he loves it so, it was so personal and so expertly executed on all fronts by all departments. To him this was the summation of his career. Upon its release the world buried it. Critics hated it and called it gore porn, witless meandering. Fans hated it saying it was too gory and far too bleak. The biggest blow by far was from the director of the original Thing From Another World who called it garbage. A hero of Carpenter’s even. It was a financial and critical failure. People were not ready. What they wanted was another type of Alien visitor in the form of E.T. who released that same summer. I honestly think E.T. Is what put the nail in the coffin. Over the years though thanks to the original VHS boom and the many fans growing up and referencing The Thing in their own art, most recently featured in Stranger Things, Carpenter’s Masterpiece has built a cult following and found its audience. Slowly year by year gaining its deserved mainstream publicity. It’s lauded as one of the greatest horror films of all time in several publications and most recently given a Special Collector’s edition from Scream Factory. I could gush on and on forever about the flick but as I bid you adieu for another year until next October, this is a perfect horror film and a perfect way to spend your Halloween night in the dark wondering if whoever’s next to you is themself The Thing…
Happy Happy Halloween! Halloween!
Happy Happy Halloween! Silver Shamrock!