John Carpenter’s The Thing

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In his cultural history of the horror genre, The Monster Show, writer David J. Skal compares Francis Bacon’s famous 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion to equally disturbing special effects work in John Carpenter’s The Thing. The surrealistic imagery conjured by Rob Bottin to depict the

transformation of a human being into a shape-changing thing from

another world is nearly unimaginable, and Bacon is one of its few

precedents. It must be seen to be believed, and it represents a kind of

high-water mark for fevered creativity in the horror film. [Ed. note, 2008: This review references a DVD edition of the film that hasn’t been available for years. Current editions represent a significant improvement in picture quality.]

Director John Carpenter leavens the ordeal with a little bit of

deadpan can-you-believe-you-just-saw-that? humor, but the sequence is

anything but a joke. The film has created a foreboding atmosphere

around the idea that one of the men stationed at a remote arctic

research facility is really an otherworldly being that has stolen the

physical form of a man. Having established a level of fear and tension

in viewers to approximate that of the characters, The Thing

then shows, in graphic detail, why you should be afraid. The explosive

transformation sequence is so shocking, and so unexpected, that it can

leave scars on your retina.

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John Carpenter’s The Thing (top) and Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion; click the second image for larger versions at WebMuseum, Paris

I first saw John Carpenter’s The Thing as an

impressionable teenager, on pay cable. HBO and Cinemax were godsends

for a kid of my age, old enough to have a healthy interest in and

understanding of horror films, but not old enough to get into a

screening of said films unaccompanied. Even cropped from the original

widescreen frame and reduced to fit on my 15-inch TV screen, The Thing made an impact that stayed with me, nearly undiminished, for more than a decade.

Universal has been kind enough to re-release the picture to laserdisc

and DVD from a brand-new digital master that preserves Carpenter’s

Panavision framing and debuts a new six-channel sound mix along with a

raft of supplemental information on the film. The spiffy new versions

could hardly be more galvanizing than the grungy old ones, but they are

more beautifully detailed, more atmospheric, and ultimately more

involving. On DVD, the image is sharp and richly textured, with

striking color fidelity and contrast — no mean feat, since the film’s

imagery varies widely, from the claustrophobic menace of the darkness

inside the compound to snowy, wide-open spaces that reflect the film’s

themes of isolation and the unknown. Some of the darkest scenes are

blocky from digital compression on my player, but the image is very

stable overall.

Produced from a deeply flawed screenplay by Bill Lancaster (son of Burt and writer of, um, The Bad News Bears), The Thing was blessed enough to have Carpenter at its helm — a veteran of down-and-dirty action pictures (Assault on Precinct 13)

directing an ensemble of fine second- and third-tier character players.

The cast was led by Kurt Russell, a Disney alum who was just beginning

to make his mark in genre films courtesy of his role as Snake Plissken

in Carpenter’s previous Escape From New York. (Previously,

Russell had played Elvis Presley for Carpenter’s TV biopic.) Working

from the chilling SF concepts driving John W. Campbell Jr.’s original

short story “Who Goes There?” (title notwithstanding, Carpenter’s film

is based on the Campbell short story, not the previous Howard Hawks

movie), Lancaster created a fine setting for Carpenter’s brand of

monster moviemaking. What’s missing from the screenplay is a strong

sense of characterization and a plotline intricate enough to complement

the film’s sense of tricky paranoia.

Carpenter’s just the director to make those serious

shortcomings not mean as much as they should. From Ennio Morricone’s

brooding score (which seems to echo Carpenter’s trademark electronic

compositions) to Dean Cundey’s finely tuned cinematography, all of the

elements work in concert to create a mood of isolation and mistrust.

From Halloween on forward, rhythm has always been crucial to Carpenter’s ability to spook an audience, as well as to his dry sense of humor, and Todd

Ramsay’s film editing helps put the shocks in all the right places.

Finally, it remains a minor miracle that Universal allowed a generously

budgeted picture to go out with such a downbeat ending. Rather than

reaching a climax, Lancaster’s script just sort of peters out after a

time — but Carpenter makes a virtue of it, leaving the audience

waiting for a comforting resolution that is solemnly withheld.

The Thing can clearly be categorized as part of a movement in

genre film that dealt with biological horror. David Cronenberg was the

ringleader of the biohorror school, which may have been seeded by that

unforgettable shot in The Exorcist when little Regan’s head spins all the way around. Ridley Scott’s Alien and Cronenberg’s Videodrome and Scanners remain essential, unsettling visions of anxiety over the physical

nature of our bodies, and of the possibility that our essential natures

may be changed by alien entities, by pollutants and disease, or even by

TV programming. The Thing can be read as a parable of the

self-destructive “witch-hunt” mentality, or of the ravages that an

insidious killer like AIDS (just blossoming as The Thing was

being shot) can wreak on the survivors, as well as those infected. The

phantasmal imagery is stimulating enough on its own terms that it may

have its own subtle resonance within each individual viewer.

Some of this stuff is considered in the supplemental section of the LD

and DVD, including a commentary track featuring both Carpenter and

Russell in an easygoing recollection of the days spent shooting on

location in Nova Scotia and on the Universal lot in Los Angeles. A

longish documentary is made up of contemporary interviews with the cast

and crew, interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage and outtakes from

the finished picture. It includes just enough information on how the

special effects were achieved, and the highlight is no doubt the

interview segments where make-up artist Rob Bottin (who was just 22

years old during production of The Thing) gleefully recounts the trial and error involved in making these images real.

It occurs to me that, if The Thing were made today, the special effects would be executed using computer graphics, and would thus be about one-tenth as effective. The horror genre never quite recovered from the influx of jokey gore flicks like Re-Animator and Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn,

so it would also be goofy, with every special effects sequence

punctuated by a wink to the audience showing that nobody involved was

enough of a schlub to think they were making an important picture. The

result might have been pretty good, or it might have been unwatchable.

But it wouldn’t have taken itself seriously, and that would make all

the difference. The Thing looks, unblinking, into the abyss,

where it finds our own anxieties, suspicions, and phobias reflected in

the eyes of shapeless, unknowable monsters. A


Directed by John Carpenter

Written by Bill Lancaster

Based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s short story, “Who Goes There?”

Cinematography by Dean Cundey

Edited by Todd Ramsay

Special Make-up Effects by Rob Bottin (with assist from Stan Winston)

Starring Kurt Russell

USA, 1982

Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic)

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