The Thing

The Thing (1982) movie poster

(1982) director John Carpenter
viewed: 08/26/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Great f’ing movie.

John Carpenter’s re-make of Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby’s The Thing from Another World (1951) is doubtlessly Carpenter’s best film.  Tense and intense, straightforward and yet gorily over-the-top, there is a gritty earnestness to the film’s whole, a pared-down and energetic horror/action film that features some of the best of 1980’s special effects courtesy of Rob Bottin and Rick Baker.

When it came out in the 1980’s the gore/effects were so shocking that there were lots of rumors or stories about people throwing up in the theater.  The effects are strange and extreme, innovative and shocking, still holding great power today, which is owes no small debt to the overall film and its effectiveness.  Many of the best scenes are that in which the “Thing” is morphing, exploding, oozing, whipping around tentacles, never finding a single, singular form.  It must have been quite the exciting challenge, an open ended interpretation of what the creature is going to look like at any given time.  One of the best is when the head of a dead man detaches itself from the body, whips out a long tongue, which it uses to grab on to something to pull itself to safety, and then sprouts antenna-like eye-protrusions and several spidery crab-like legs as it tries to scamper to escape.  It’s not just the grossness but the shock and weirdness and unpredictability of the designs that keeps you always unsettled.

The action is set in Antartica, and the film opens with a helicopter chasing a husky across the snow, shooting at it.  The immediate sequence gives no lead as to what’s going on (i.e., “why are they shooting at a dog?”), so it’s kind of disorienting, very effectively so.  The men in the helicopter chase the dog to the American base, unintelligibly speaking a foreign language, shouting and firing at the dog and wounding the Americans before they are shot and killed.   The dog is taken into camp.  The mystery is afoot.

Kurt Russell, in the best of his starring roles for Carpenter, is the American chopper pilot, who leads a search of the Norwegian outpost to try to figure out what happened.  Footage that is found shows that the Norwegians discovered a spaceship in the ice, and apparently a being as well, frozen for who knows how long.    And unfortunately for all involved, they find out when it thaws out that this creature is a parasitic impostor, a monster that absorbs other creatures and then turns itself into a replica of them.

Things go from bad to worse as the story unfolds, as they begin to understand what they are dealing with.   What comes about is an air of utter paranoia.  The American base team, a very strong all-male cast of character actors, suddenly doesn’t know who among them might be the Thing.  And this leads to one of the film’s best scenes, in which Russell tests their blood with a heated wire, because the creature’s blood will react as a living thing, not merely a bodily fluid.

I’ve been on a minor John Carpenter bent of late, watching his earliest films,  Dark Star (1974) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and I’ve come to have a greater and greater appreciation for him as a director.  I remember that the last time that I watched The Thing, probably about 12 or so years ago, I was also duly impressed.  It’s a film with very little fat.  And with quite a bit of intensity, surprises, and excitement.  Heck, it’s probably one of the best of the 1980’s period.  Yes, it’s that good.

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