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Creepy Carpenter Classic
The Thing (DVD)
Member Name: SWSt
The Thing (DVD)
Advantages: Oozes atmosphere and tension
Disadvantages: Will be too slow paced and dated for money (particularly the post-Cold War generation)
A remake of 1950s film The Thing from Another World it sees a group of scientists trapped in their Antarctic base pursued by a shape-shifting alien which can assume the shape of any one of them.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this is little more than a cheap Alien rip-off. After all, they share so many features: an isolated setting, a group of people being picked off one by one by a hostile alien, a growing sense of fear and a strong science fiction influence. You'd be dead wrong, though. Alien favoured tension and shock moments; The Thing is more concerned with an increasing sense of paranoia amongst the base's inhabitants as they slowly start to realise that they cannot trust anyone else, since they might already be infected by the alien.
It's this sense of paranoia and tension which carries The Thing. If you go in expecting a gung-ho actioner or a gory horror film, you will be disappointed. The plot builds slowly and at times will leave you feeling slightly bewildered (why are those men in the helicopter shooting at the dog?). Yet this lack of information helps you to buy into the paranoia which slowly starts to infect the inhabitants of the base. Other than knowing that something is not right, you are no wiser than they are and each new revelation only serves to increase the sense of fear and paranoia in both viewer and cast. It's a classic case of drip-feeding information in a way that builds a tense, nervy atmosphere rather than relying on classic scare tactics.
The Thing will infuriate some viewers. It is very slow-paced, with more emphasis on build up and atmosphere than blood and guts. The open ended nature of the denouement will also annoy some. I know only too well that some people, having sat through 100 plus minutes of film, want a resolution one way or the other. The Thing refuses to provide easy answers, leaving the viewer to decide the ending for themselves. This either makes it a very intelligent film or a complete waste of time, depending on your perspective.
There are some pretty gruesome special effects at times, but these are limited and gore hounds will not come away satisfied. In fact, it's precisely because the special effects are so limited that they are so effective. Due to budgetary constraints, they are used sparingly but effectively, adding a more immediate visceral element to the over-arching paranoia and tension.
The special effects hold up surprisingly well, even today. Relying heavily on models (rather than CGI), they have a more grotesquely real look than anything a computer, no matter how powerful, could churn out. Some of the effects are genuinely gross (it's this which earns the film its 18 certificate rather than shocking violence or bad language) and will turn the stomach of some viewers. Again seasoned horror film watchers will have nothing to worry about.
The acting is solid throughout, without being spectacular. To modern day eyes, some of the characters might look a little bit clichéd but this is only because, Hollywood (with its usual lack of imagination) has recycled this type of character endlessly in the last 30 years. When The Thing was first released, they were a little more unusual. It is fair to say, though, that there are a few stereotypes (some slightly distasteful), such as the taciturn, militaristic base commander who expects his orders to be obeyed without question; the hip 'n' groovy black guy, who is all mouth but a good ally in a tight spot
To be honest, there's not a great deal to be said about the cast in terms of their acting abilities. All of them quietly get on with the role assigned to them, but no-one really outshines anyone else. This is entirely appropriate since the film is more of an ensemble piece than a star vehicle. Even Kurt Russell - the film's nominal big name - is solid without being spectacular.
It's true that because of this some of the more incidental characters can get a bit lost and sometimes you struggle to remember who they are or what their function on the base is. It's also fairly obvious who is going to make it through to the end credits and who is going to die. But then, playing Spot the Corpse is half the fun of horror films anyway!
As with Halloween, John Carpenter is all over this film. Not only did he write and direct the film, he also composed the music. As in Halloween, he conjures up a minimalist score, played on a synthesiser that oozes tension and menace and creates atmosphere all on its own. Spielberg showed with Jaws how effective music could be in raising tension and it's a lesson which Carpenter has clearly taken on board.
Proof that remakes are not always bad things, The Thing is also great example of how to create a horror film where atmosphere, paranoia and tension are more important than cheap shocks, blood and guts. You could even make the case that The Thing is amongst the last of a dying breed. As the 80s progressed, blood, guts and ever more elaborate kills became more important than atmosphere, a trend which has pretty much continued until recently. If The Thing really is amongst the last of its kind, then it's a hell of a way to go.
Best of all, copies can often be picked up second hand for a couple of quid (and not much more new), so there's no reason not to try it.
Director: John Carpenter
Running time: approx. 109 minutes
© Copyright SWSt 2012
Summary: A Carpenter Classic