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That Thing Wanted To Be Us

July 17th, 2011 · 4 Comments

“See, I grew up as a kid watching science fiction and monster movies and it was always a guy in a suit. Or sometimes it was kind of a bad puppet, like It Conquered The World comes to mind right now, Roger Corman’s movie, this kind of vegetable monster, kind of going like this woodenly, and my fear was, they’ll laugh at us, you know, they’ll laugh at it, it’ll be a joke. I mean, even as great as the movie was – and Alien was a terrific movie – it’s still in the very end, up stood this big guy in a suit. I don’t want a suit, I want something that’s alive.” John Carpenter interviewed for Terror Takes Shape in 2002 on The Thing: Collector’s Edition [DVD]

The Thing (1982)
Directed by John Carpenter
Screenplay by Bill Lancaster, based on the short story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr.
Produced by David Foster, Lawrence Turman
109 minutes

Look up the word “doom” in the Encyclopedia Britannica and you won’t find mention of John Carpenter‘s The Thing, but a wave of barometric pressure hangs over this masterpiece of science fiction horror. Beyond the doom its characters are infected with, this remake of the 1951 classic The Thing From Another World was damned by waves of nausea, hostility and derision upon its release. It faltered at the box office, altered the career of its director and alerted studios there was a toll to pay for bankrolling movies that weren’t nice, like E.T. The Extra Terrestrial was nice. Developed by Universal Studios, The Thing was a dream car of sorts for Carpenter, who’d directed one mean, lean low budget machine after another and was offered the keys to adapt one of his favorite movies for a mass audience.

Elegant in its simplicity and overwhelming in its foreboding, The Thing takes place on an American research station isolated in Antarctica. A Norwegian chopper appears on the horizon and a sniper fires at a Siberian husky racing across the ice. When one of the Americans is wounded, the station manager Garry (Donald Moffat) returns fire, killing the Norwegians. To investigate, pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and physician Doc Copper (Richard Dysart) helicopter to the Norwegian camp. They encounter a last stand from hell and even more startling, something contorted in a burn pile outside. Biologist Blair (Wilford Brimley), dog handler Clark (Richard Masur), mechanic Childs (Keith David) and the nine other Americans don’t know what to make of the specimen at first, but quickly learn it isn’t dead yet.

Even more so than the 1950s monster movie he was a fan of, Carpenter was fascinated by themes creeping through the original John W. Campbell Jr. short story, published by Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1938: A hostile alien is awakened and reveals a tenacity to assume the shape and memory of anything it devours, generating rampant paranoia among the men over who is still human and who isn’t. A screenplay by Bill Lancaster ran with these ideas and to visualize them, a 20-year-old makeup effects prodigy named Rob Bottin was entrusted with delivery. Bottin hit on the concept that The Thing wasn’t one monster, but could transform into any lifeform in the universe it had imitated, with gut wrenching effect. Critics and audiences initially felt that the film had gone too far in that regard.

The irony is that Carpenter could have scaled back the violence he was heavily censured for at the time, but with unremittingly stark chords and a pulsating doomsday pace, The Thing is just a dark fucking movie, one that audiences weren’t prepared for at the time. The Thing refuses to favor good over evil, clarity over ambiguity, and that becomes what’s disturbing about it, as well what makes it great. The gothic lighting by cinematographer Dean Cundey, rich production design by John Lloyd and the ominous musical score by Ennio Morricone all feel perfectly in synch. That the special effects hold up as some of the most amazing ever captured on camera is a testament to Rob Bottin; without him, the movie would not be the nightmare it turned out to be. As for Carpenter, this represents the director at the peak of his creative energy.

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 113,449 users: 80% for The Thing

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: N/A

What do you say?

Tags: Aliens · Ambiguous ending · Based on short story · Cult favorite · End of the world · Forensic evidence · Man vs. machine · Paranoia

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Roger Leatherwood // Jul 17, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Thanks for the revisit – I remember thinking the Thing was about as out of control as I had ever seen Carpenter – not like him at all at the time. That it is such a seminal film now (like the also reviled and financially unsuccessful Blade Runner at the time) is ironic justice.

    And on a side(bar) note, I don’t know if your “queue” is really your queue, or if you just built it to show us your good taste, but it is one HELL of a queue. Saw Miracle Mile on the big screen and was blown away on first release and it’s one of the best forgotten LA films ever. And remind me to tell you my Dead Ringers story some time.

    Thanks again, keep up the good work!
    Best, Roger

  • 2 J.D. // Jul 18, 2011 at 6:50 am

    Nice assessment of this great film, which I think may be Carpenter’s masterpiece even though he always be remembered for HALLOWEEN.

    The level of paranoia and how the various characters play off each other is so well done is what keeps me coming back to the film. The nuances of the various cast members, the looks, the accusations, etc. are what keep you guessing as to who is the Thing and who isn’t.

  • 3 Megan // Jul 19, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    Seen this so many times, and I still have to leave the lights on if I’m going upstairs alone after it’s over.

    I absolutely love the crazy scary tension in the blood-testing scene, with the sound of the blowtorch and the scraping of that wire across the petrie dishes and the guys all in the chairs and…Oh. My. God.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Jul 19, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    Roger: You could say Kurt Russell made a career in movies that were ignored upon release and built up a cult following through cable TV and videocassette and now they’re classics. Used Cars was the first, followed by The Thing and Big Trouble In Little China. Audiences may also be behind the curve on Captain Ron as well.

    J.D.: I’m glad you enjoyed the write up. The Thing leaves so much to the imagination — what happened before the story, what will happen after, what The Thing looks like, whether you’d know you were a Thing if you were taken over. You can almost create your own version of what’s taking place and that is the genius of John Carpenter.

    Megan: Don’t forget the dog. I’ve never seen intensity in an animal performer like that before. It’s uncanny.

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