Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #11
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: August 26, 1982
Sub-Genre: Sci-Fi/Monster Movie
Box Office: $19,629,760 (US)
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 109 minutes
Director: John Carpenter
Producer: Stuart Cohen, David Foster, Larry J Franco, Wilbur Stark, Lawrence Turman
Screenplay: Bill Lancaster
Based on Who Goes There? By John W Campbell
Special Effects: Rob Bottin, Stan Winston
Cinematography: Dean Cundey
Score: Ennio Morricone, John Carpenter
Editing: Todd Ramsey
Studio: Universal Pictures, Turman-Foster Company
Distributors: United International Pictures (UIP), CIC Video (VHS), Universal Home Entertainment (DVD)
Stars: Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, Donald Moffat, Charles Hallahan, T.K. Carter, Richard Dysart, Joel Polis, Richard Masur, Thomas G Waites, David Clennon, Peter Maloney
Suggested Audio Candy:
John Carpenter “The Thing”
“Now I’ll show you what I already know…!”
A motion picture such as John Carpenter’s classic monster movie The Thing doesn’t come along many times in a lifetime. It is an experience to treasure and a piece of work with which it is easy to form a divine bond with. One that will only fortify with time through reappraisal and any gusts of the filmmaking winds of change. It has its place in history and that is only bolstered by the fact no sequel ever arrived, a prequel would take thirty years to construct, and even then could only dream of doing so with limited levels of success. Let me put this to you… How many artists cover The Police’s musical back catalogue successfully? Answer? Precious few – in my humble opinion anyway. Just the same can be said of with The Thing, that’s six degrees of separation for you right there.
Everyone is a suspect. I’m certain that’s what Poirot or Holmes used to say. Well, The Thing doesn’t have either of those super sleuths but it does have Kurt Russell and with Kurt you get for your outlay surely the coolest and most enigmatic of all the eighties screen legends. After all, nobody else can play Elvis Presley and make it stick, let along donning his glad rags a second time as he did for Demian Lichtenstein’s regrettably overlooked 3000 Miles to Graceland. Nick Nolte and Jeff Bridges both turned down his role for The Thing and their loss became his gain. As legendary as our main protagonist is however, here here’s just another guy with a beard.
Carpenter assembles a stunning ensemble cast which includes Keith David, Richard Dysart, Wilford Brimley and Richard Masur among others for this modern-day retelling of Christian Nyby’s surprisingly eerie 1951 classic The Thing from Another World. It actually bears closer connotations to novella Who Goes There? By John W. Campbell but, whatever the influence, the results are truly staggering. The film concerns itself not with romantic sub-plots and instead focuses on a small group of male scientists on an expedition in the ice-coated wastelands of the Antarctic. Events takes place within a tight proximity and, when the group encounter an alien being which can transform itself into any living organism it so wishes, it explores the paranoia and ever decreasing levels of trust as each of our group begin to question who they can depend on.
“I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!!!”
This is essentially where Carpenter’s piece succeeds where many other films of its ilk fall by the wayside. It is never apparent who has been infected and, through a series of red herrings and magnificent build-up of steadily ratcheted tension, the viewer feels as alone as each member of the cast. Of course when you’ve been subjected to dread, paranoia and python-like tension since the credits first rolled you need the occasional lighter moment and subsequent viewings reveal great comic undertones to the famed blood-test scene surprisingly enough. Watching Garry and Childs writhing despondently, while the thing reveals itself next to them in no uncertain terms offers a moment of priceless black comedy, though admittedly not the first time you watch it unfurl.
At points during the narrative all hell literally breaks loose and it is then that we are treated to the transcendent and nauseatingly grotesque mechanical creations of Rob Bottin. The late Stan Winston was also enlisted to fashion the dog mutation scene only as Bottin was suffering from an over-encumbered workload. All of the creature effects are superb and mostly hold up to scrutiny thirty years on. Bottin’s sickening and diverse array of robotics and puppetry is an absolute joy to behold and he finds a way to inject each of his conceptions with personality.
Mercifully CGI was still in its infancy at the time. Tron was the first theatrical release to incorporate this technology, but this would have lessened the impact of what the 22-year-old upstart accomplishes with his fiendishly fine-looking props. Bottin affectionately refers to the canine flesh-flower as “pissed-off cabbage” and I would say he’s on the money there. In addition, Carpenter’s pioneering use of the steadicam has never been more apparent than with his and regular cinematographer Dean Cundey’s trademark widescreen panning photography, which adds serene beauty and dark menace in the same instance. I believe that only Kubrick and Leone had the same keen eye.
Essentially though, The Thing is most memorable for offering a fascinating character study. It manages to dig deep into the human psyche to explore the instinct of self-preservation when faced with an unknown and very real threat. The lack of distraction to the main narrative allow Carpenter to focus solely on building unbearable levels of dread in the viewer and in his early career this was his undeniable trademark. Each agonizingly edgy moment is flawlessly accompanied by another staple of his work: the electronic synth soundtrack. His use of audio helps to create a claustrophobic sense of doom akin to Ridley Scott’s Alien and I would argue that Carpenter’s film is every bit as essential as the prologue to the long running xenomorph saga.
Staggeringly the critical response upon theatrical release was mixed and The Thing somehow managed to perform reasonably poorly at the box office. Its depiction of alien visitation was less than optimistic and one can only assume that, with E.T. capturing the headlines two weeks prior to its badly scheduled release, Carpenter’s creature feature somehow managed to fall between the cracks. Thankfully, over time it gathered a humongous fan base of devout followers, myself very much included in that particular demographic, and is now regarded as the standard by which any monster feature is measured upon. Just like a fine wine or cheese matures with age, so does Carpenter’s finest two hours. It truly is the hallmark of a breathtaking piece of cinema.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
Grue Factor: 4/5
For The Grue-Guzzlers: Bottin was nominated for a Saturn Award for his monstrous effects which have aged ever so gracefully and still hold up alarmingly well by current standards. There is plentiful grue and slime being literally flung in practically every direction and easily enough to satisfy all but the most ardent gore seeker. Limbs are removed, heads sucked like fleshy lollipops, canines split wide open to reveal their fleshy tendrils, faces are massaged from the inside, and then there’s the defibrillator scene whereby Doc learns the true meaning of “in up to the elbows”. Amusingly, it was actually banned in Finland on its release.
Keeper of the Crimson Quill