DVD of the Week – Review of The Thing (1982)
by NIR SHALEV
In 1951, Howard Hawks (Scarface, 1932; Rio Bravo, 1959) directed a horror classic called The Thing from Another World. It featured a slew of American Air Force officials and scientists at an arctic station who encounter a hostile alien creature. The film kept the monster’s appearance hidden until the end, ratcheting the suspense up to 11. The reason for the film’s enduring popularity is that, just like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), there’s a the huge metaphor embedded in the story’s center: communists hiding in plain sight inside the US. They looked just like everyone else and spoke just like everyone else and were virtually impossible to detect. A nationwide scare was in progress and the fluoride scare was soon to follow. America in the mid-20th century was a particularly interesting country.
Fast forward 30 years to John Carpenter’s remake simply titled The Thing. Instead of hiding the monster, he made it invisible. More on that in a bit.
The Thing also takes place somewhere in the arctic and it stars Kurt Russell as MacReady, Keith David as Childs, and Donald Moffat as Garry, to name a few of the cast. They are working in the northernmost, frozen part of the country and are soon visited by a couple of Norwegian scientists who are hunting one of their own dogs. It ends badly for the Norwegians and as MacReady and a small crew investigate the Norwegian base they find nothing but death everywhere. All employees in that base have become corpses, some were burnt beyond recognition and some have, mysteriously, committed suicide. MacReady and the crew also find a spaceship frozen beneath the arctic ice, which the Norwegians had previously dug up.
Upon returning to their own base, they notice that the dog from the Norwegian base transforms into a creature that’s made up of spider limbs, veins that stretch to forever, and a lot of gooey red stuff. The dog assimilates the other dogs in the kennel but is eventually defeated and burnt to a crisp. The crew understands that inside of their own facility exists an invisible creature that can imitate its enemies. Paranoia sets in immediately. At the start of the film the crew is happy and playful like a family and after the incident with the dogs, any one of them could be the Thing. If this film was to exist as is in the 1950s, without all of the gory details, of course, it would be an even more frightening experience than the Howard Hawks version because paranoia was a popular social trait during the 1950s and 1960s.
This film does a stellar job of depicting every individual character’s state of mind through terrific performances and a storytelling approach that keeps the audience guessing who’s really who. Kurt Russell’s performance here is one of his finest and it only goes to prove that he was more than just an action star. The entire cast delivers performances that are presented with realism and not theatrics, because that’s the only way to properly deliver the goods in this film.
The special effects are entirely practical because CGI didn’t exist yet and neither did morphing. More unique than the texture of the bizarre creatures is the creature designs themselves. There’s a character who becomes a Thing and as he lies on his back on a table his head stretches down to the ground, detaches, and then grows spider limbs and tries to leave the room quietly. Because the alien can impersonate whatever it assimilates, the creatures in the film are always concoctions of several parts of several different animals, rodents and mammals combined.
Last but not least is the cold atmosphere and Ennio Morricone’s chilling score. The score is entirely synthesized, reminiscent of most popular 1980s films and it adds to the chill factor because the film is science fictional; therefore an electronic score seems fitting. Morricone loved to play around and experiment with various sounds and sound effects and he loved turning them into musical instruments (listen to any song from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly soundtrack). Here, his score sometimes contains only three notes and they’re effectively creepy.
John Carpenter was a maverick from the start of his career, beginning with his genre defining Halloween (1978) and moving through Escape from New York (1981) to Vampires (1998). A few of his other cult classics are the original Assault of Precinct 13 (1976), Christine (1983) based on the Stephen King novel, Starman (1984) starring Jeff Bridges, and They Live (1988). Every one of his films is unique. He borrows genres and whole aspects from classic films but he makes his films his own. After viewing the first 15 minutes of any of his films you can declare “this feels like a John Carpenter film.”
The Thing is available on DVD (in multiple versions) and Blu-ray. The main feature to look for when evaluating versions for purchase is the commentary track recorded by Carpenter and Russell.
New releases this week: Aftershock, Bad Teacher, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, Monte Carlo, Page One: Inside the New York Times, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Red State