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The Thing (DVD)
Member Name: LeeRobertAdams
The Thing (DVD)
Date: 13/08/11, updated on 14/08/11 (7 review reads)
Advantages: Relentlessly intense and claustrophic horror with insane special effects.
Disadvantages: The final stand off seems a little rushed.
John Carpenter is the man often accredited with inventing the slasher genre with his low budget, groundbreaking "Halloween" (1978), but his true masterpiece was the gruesome, funny and paranoid "The Thing" (1982).
A relentlessly bleak and scary film about a group of men stranded in an Antarctic camp doing battle with a shape-shifting alien, it's arrival in the cinemas unfortunately coincided with a far more heart warming close encounter - Spielberg's misty eyed tale of a shriveled, prune-like creature with big Disney eyes, a glowing finger, and a desire to "phone home".
"E.T" cleaned up at the box office and was universally loved; "The Thing", with it's band of squabbling men getting picked off one-by-one in a spectacularly gory manner horrified many reviewers - it was almost universally slated by the critics.
It perhaps also didn't help that "The Thing" was also a remake of a well respected sci-fi classic,"The Thing From Another World" (1951). It was a film that Carpenter clearly loved, featuring clips of it on the TV in "Halloween", and he quotes a few of it's more iconic images in his remake. However, he dispenses with all the Hawksian banter and banding together in the face of a common enemy, the female character, and the boring, lumbering creature of the original, and follows more closely the source material, "Who Goes There?" a novella by John W Campbell.
The film follows twelve men stationed at an American research base in the Antarctic as the winter sets in. They are isolated and bored, killing time by playing pool, cards, smoking weed, watching re-runs of old gameshows. We also meet our hero early on, one of the camp's helicopter pilots, R.J MacReady (Kurt Russell), who will prove to be the kind of nihilistic, non-conformist hero Russell specialised in in the early Eighties, like his one-eyed renegade Snake Plissken in "Escape from New York". The kind of loner who takes on heroism as a survival method rather than an altruistic vocation.
(While there is a character called McReady in the original novella, it doesn't mention his initials - the added R J recalls another famous rebel in an earlier novel and film - R P McMurphy from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest".)
MacReady certainly seems different from the rest of the group, happy to sit alone in his shack drinking whiskey and playing chess - badly. On the excellent www.bigdeadspace.com, a website devoted to the Antarctic written by people who have actually spent time there, there are several reviews of the film. Listed as a prevalent character trait amongst those who spend most of the year thousands of miles from civilization in an inhospitable environment is "anti-intellectualism".
MacReady's choice of pastime certainly seems to separate him further from the group in this respect. But we also get an early hint that he doesn't always play by the rules when he loses to his computer, and responds by branding it a "cheating bitch" and dumping his drink in its circuits.
The camp's amiable boredom is shattered by an approaching helicopter. It has come from a neighboring Norwegian camp, and is chasing a dog across the vast expanse of snow and ice. From the helicopter one of the crew is taking pot shots at the dog with a sniper rifle.
The helicopter lands, and is blown up by a poorly thrown grenade; the surviving Norwegian is quickly picked off by camp commander Garry (Donald Moffat) as the half crazed man rampages towards them firing wildly at the dog, which seeks refuge in the American camp.
MacReady and Doctor Copper (Richard Dysart) head over to the Norwegian camp to find out what's going on, and find a scene of murder and madness. In the darkened rooms of the devastated base, they discover a man frozen solid with icicles of blood hanging from slashed wrists; an empty ice sarcophagus; and something twisted, agonized and barely recognizable as human smouldering in the yard. "What is that, a man in there or something?" asks Copper. "Whatever it is, they burned it up in a hurry." responds MacReady.
Taking the remains back to camp, Doctor Blair (Wilfred Brimley) performs an autopsy and makes some startling finds - while the corpse's internal organs are perfectly normal, the body was set alight while going through some sort of hideous transformation.
Meanwhile, the Norwegian dog has been acting rather strange, stalking around the camp with weird, stiff movements - very un-doglike, in fact. The camp's sled dog handler Clark (Richard Masur) puts it in with the other huskies, and very shortly, the Thing reveals its true nature...
Beyond that, I'll try not to reveal any more of the plot, as with most films that would nowadays be labelled a "thrill ride", a newcomer will benefit from knowing as little as possible about it.
Suffice to say, when I first saw it as a teenager, I was rendered a gibbering mess by the claustrophic, tense first half an hour; then got completely blown away when it really kicks off, jaw on floor. I was scared, gobsmacked and excited, like when I first watched "Jaws" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" as a kid. It's one of those kind of films, where you're scared and laughing at the same time, and then watch it over and over again in an attempt to recapture how you felt when you first saw it.
Back on www.bigdeadspace.com, while praising the film's intuitive feel for the dreariness and boredom of overwintering in the Antarctic, the reviewers affectionately pick out things that aren't authentic - from the thickness of the camp's walls to the crew's easy access to flamethrowers. Another recurring criticism is of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston's utterly insane special effects, pointing out all the latex and make up.
In response to that, and absolutely any criticism anyone cares to offer "The Thing"'s special effects, I'll paraphrase another Kurt Russell character, Jack Burton from "Big Trouble in Little China" - "Exactly, it's real and I can touch it."
My main problem with today's CGI effects is that no matter how spectacular or lifelike they are, they are so pristine and intangible. You know on a fundamental level that they are created by a computer, an no matter how superficially realistic the images look, you know it simply isn't there.
There is some good old fashioned stop motion in "The Thing", and I always marveled at Ray Harryhaussen's stop motion creations. I couldn't help the feeling that all the countless hours he spent with his monsters, moving it a little bit, taking a shot, moving it a bit more, somehow passed a little of his humanity onto the creature.
Rob Bottin's effects in "The Thing" still stand up as the most astonishing in modern cinema, one instance where the prefix "Special" is completely appropriate. Whenever the Thing breaks cover, it is done with such a unexpected burst of wicked, cruel and imaginative contortion of dog and human form. In some respects, you are almost distanced from the violence and gore by just how outlandish the creations are.
The Thing prefers to stay low and pick off it's victims one by one, out of sight. But when it's forced out into the open, it isn't just killing people, it's destroying them, perverting their bodily form and corrupting their features into a mean-spirited, malignant parody of their former selves.
Many critics and audience members were turned off by what they perceived as excessive levels of gore. "Gore" instantly makes you think "blood", and while there is quite a bit of the red stuff about, Bottin wisely decided to vary the palette in the creature scenes - there's also quite a few sickly whites and yellows, viscous greens and sinister blues going on. It was a wise choice. Before writing this review, I watched again the famous heart attack scene, and although I've seen it maybe thirty times before, I still couldn't quite get over how horrendous it was. Having copious amounts of blood around may have tipped it over into the unwatchable.
We are also reassured by the men's reaction to the atrocities - I mentioned earlier how "The Thing" is a funny film. There are no jokes, no zingers, no one liners, and nothing they say comes across as particularly scripted, apart from the occasional but necessary expositionary speech.
The dialogue is terse, no nonsense, and earthy, and every time the Thing erupts onto the scene, our thoughts are pretty accurately voiced by one of the characters.
Clark: "I don't know what the hell's in there, but it's weird and p*ssed off, whatever it is."
and perhaps the film's most famous line: "You've gotta be f*ckin' kidding."
This leads to the performances. Again, some critics at the time complained about the lack of emotional substance or identifiable characters. This I completely disagree with - you don't need extensive back story, major dialogue or heavy thesp-ing to identify with characters in a Sci-Fi horror flick.
"The Thing" offers virtually no back story to any of the characters, and is all the better for it. Each character is a clearly defined representation of a frightened man in extraordinarily dire circumstances. Played completely straight, but with endearing gallows humour, each performance gives you a neat character capsule, in some cases, just from body language or a couple of lines of dialogue.
Twelve men facing something they can barely get their minds around, let alone deal with, and their reactions range from full on freakout, to cowardice, through to anger, determination and all out heroism. You are invited to identify with all these emotions, and the sustained tension is aided by a smart script, which ensures nobody does anything completely stupid.
How many otherwise decent action or horror films completely ruin things by having a "Yeah,Right!" moment, when a character does something absolutely idiotic, just to advance the plot? Bill Lancaster's economic script is tight and no nonsense - virtually everything the characters do in this film makes sense, perhaps what you might do in such a situation.
All this is elevated by Carpenter's superbly controlled direction, and Ennio Morricone's chilly, stripped down score.
It's sad how Carpenter's career has slid away in the past couple of decades. Here his camera prowls corridors and peeks around corners, watches characters from doorways, creating a sense of deep unease, and the set pieces are strung out so long you can barely take it, then delivers an outrageous pay off.
Morricone, famed for his masterfully OTT operatic scores in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, provides an uncharacteristically understated score for this film. The insistent theme suggests something patient, waiting, a slow heartbeat of an implacable, merciless enemy.
On it's original release, "The Thing" bombed at the box office and was savaged by critics; but, much like the creature itself, it slinked away into the dark and found itself a new form - VHS.
It was perhaps the perfect form for it to take, especially in the heyday of the horror and the video nasty, the early Eighties. There on VHS it found many an eager viewer, and from there it steadily built a devoted cult following.
Then all those kids grew up, and some of them became today's movie critics. Now almost thirty years later, "The Thing" is perhaps the most revered of the cult classics, a box office disaster turned venerable touchstone of a much maligned genre.
I suppose it was always so - I'm sure in thirty years time, people will be looking back at the "Saw" movies and praising them as existential parables about the futility of mankind trapped in the devious schemes of an omnipotent tormentor.
"The Thing" remains John Carpenter's masterpiece. While "Halloween" is still as lean and relentless as the soulless Michael Myers, it really shows its age, and the temptation is to reach for the fast forward button when the characters actually start talking in their sub B-movie dialogue.
"The Thing" however, apart from some really dated moments involving computers, still feels contemporary and grounded in blue collar reality. It is perhaps top on my list of "Films to bust out on friends who haven't seen it yet".
And when I have kids, I'll wait until they're old enough to ride their bikes down to the video shop - if they still exist then - and stick this on for them. F*ck certification, I owe it to my offspring. I can't wait to see the look on their dear little faces...
(This review originally appeared on Ciao! under my alias, Midwinter.)
Summary: A good old fashioned watch-from-behind-the-sofa experience.