Tuesday, June 14, 2011

THE THING

John Carpenter, 1982
Starring: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith Davids, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan

If you are reading this blog and haven't seen
The Thing, please stop what you are doing, immediately find a copy and revel in one of the greatest horror masterpieces of post-'60s American cinema. Based on John W. Campbell Jr.'s novella "Who Goes There," The Thing is a loose remake of The Thing from Another World (1951), though it is more faithful to the source text than the original film. It remains one of the greatest remakes in the history of horror cinema and I don't see how any other director would even consider remaking a horror film after this. I'm looking at you, Hollywood.

The Thing, which is the first and greatest film in Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, concerns a group of American men in an Antarctic research station who have an encounter with a parasitic alien that has buried in the ice for thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of years. The aforementioned “thing,” whose true form we never see, absorbs, assimilates, and imitates other lifeforms for its own survival. Though it begins with an escaped Norwegian sled dog, it quickly moves on to man, spreading terror and death throughout the camp.

The incredible Kurt Russell stars as MacReady, the hard drinking, no-shit-taking helicopter pilot who channels John Wayne to become what is basically a Western hero in an apocalyptic sci-fi horror film. The rest of the cast is equally strong, but he blows everyone out of the water with this performance. Or just sets them on fire.

Everything in this film is basically perfect. From the solid script to the genius effects by Rob Bottin, The Thing is genuinely terrifying and is one of the few films that manages to deliver non-stops scares in addition to gut-churning effects and gore. Carpenter's real genius is the treatment of titular creature. Aliens are an admittedly overused trope of sci-fi and horror films. From Ridley Scott’s almost unbeatable Alien series to the hugely popular X-Files TV show, it has been a staple of the genre since the ’50s. Carpenter cleverly avoids finding a fixed form for the creature, instead creating a mutating spectacle of the abject that is a horror both intellectually and biologically.

The scenes where "the Thing" undergoes a transformation into a foreign life form reveal its true nature to be nebulous and liquid. We never see its real form and only witness the ease with which it shifts back and forth between individual life forms and species. It is truly an amalgamation of nature. The sounds it emits are at once insect and reptilian, becoming more mammalian when it absorbs the dog,s and eventually human. It also exhibits vegetative tendencies. The facial skin and fur of the dog-thing peels back like flower petals, to begin transformation anew. Vine-like tentacles shoot out of the body to aid in assimilation. Finally, spider legs shoot out of the chest cavity, allowing the creature to run the full gamut of evolutionary possibility. True horror.

The nihilistic ending is the other major achievement. While there are plenty of horror films with "bad" or ambivalent endings, Carpenter is a master at this. The Thing didn't do well at the box office, but has become a cult film for a reason. Mainstream critics applauded its incredible special effects, but complained that they made the film too violent, scary and stomach-wrenching. Pussies.

This is definitely Carpenter's greatest film, which is a considerable achievement considering that it is his first major studio film. It comes highly recommended and is a must for anyone remotely interested in horror. I don't say this often, but The Thing deserves to be seen on blu-ray. Pick it up as soon as possible if you don't already own it. The only way the regular DVD release is superior is that it comes with more special features like interviews, commentary, deleted scenes and a great documentary called "Terror Takes Shape." If I were you I would also pick up the wonderful Ennio Morricone score, which is a rare instance of Carpenter not scoring the film himself and stands as one of the best soundtracks of '80s horror.

A note of interest: apparently the crew at the U.S. South Pole station regularly watches THE THING after the last flight in. That's fucking awesome.

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