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.”

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

11 responses to “DVD of the Week – Review of The Thing (1982)

  1. I once read somewhere (convincing attribution I know…) that Carpenter didn’t like Morricone’s score, junked it, and wrote a new score himself, but for contractual reasons Morricone’s name stayed on the credits. I always thought that was credible since it does _sound_ like a Carpenter score. Do you know if there’s any truth to the story?

    The great thing about “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is that it isn’t tied to just one meaning. The “Communist infiltration” metaphor is persuasive, but then so is the “critique of 1950s conformity” metaphor. It doesn’t have to be linked to contemporary concerns either, it can be read as a critique of any groupthink “ism” imposed by force. Not to mention the existential horror right there at the surface!

  2. Makes sense. Those two films are period pieces that can exist in any decade because their messages never change and neither do we. To quote Snake Plissken: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
    And from the Body Snatchers films I find the 1990 version to the best and creepiest one.

    Re the Moriconne score, I hadn’t heard that before but it intrigues me now.

  3. I’ve heard Carpenter mention that he composed a little bit of the score, but he says it’s mostly Morricone. The story goes that Carpenter wanted to score the film himself but simply didn’t have the time, because it was his first big studio movie and he couldn’t handle everything like he was accustomed to doing. He hired Morricone and told him not to mimic his own style, but Morricone did it anyway, which is why it sounds like a Carpenter score. In any case, the famous bass “heartbeat” theme (titled “Humanity [Part II]”) was all Morricone.

  4. This is my favorite of the three Thing movies. Nothing against Hawks but that 50’s version is a little slow for my tastes. We just reviewed the newest prequel version and we hated it.

  5. I also found the original film slow. I should have watched it when I was a kid fo rit to properly effect me. That, and the fact that the Thing is a vegetable (in the ’51 version) just made me smirk throughout the film.

  6. My problem with the 51 film isn’t that it’s slow. The 82 film is pretty slow itself. Half an hour passes before we see the dog Thing transform. It’s over an hour before we see the spider head. The blood test scene doesn’t happen until roughly an hour and a half into the film. Carpenter’s movie is in no hurry at all.

    The 51 film’s problem, for me, is the inappropriately light tone. Everyone is so cheerful and nobody seems to consider the monster a serious threat. There’s some great dialogue and some of the scenes are memorable – discovering the alien ship, seeing the monster attacking the dogs outside, dousing the monster with kerosene – but the movie feels like Howard Hawks had no interest in creating a genuine atmosphere of tension.

    Of course, I’ve been lectured by old timers about how wrong I am, about how they were pooping their pants when they saw the film for the first time, and how I’m just too young to appreciate classic movies. Which is funny, considering how much I enjoy certain science fiction and horror films that were being released around the same time as The Thing from Another World, like The Day the Earth Stood Still and The War of the Worlds.

    • The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is still relevant today and far more than its *ahem* remake, and it’s still a terrific film; one which some people, mysteriously, believe is deals with undertones re the threat of communism. And The War of the Worlds (1953) is a terrific classic but, believe it or not, I prefer the Spielberg verison because it’s about the fact that when civilization is threatened, no matter how terrible the threat is, we, mankind, manage to destory one another instead of assist one another. That, and the effects are astonishing.

      And I agree that the ’82 version of The Thing is not a fast paced film but it never feels slow. I was getting antsy watching the ’51 version.

  7. I will put in my vote that the ’82 version is superior to the ’51 version as well. Although it has been awhile since I’ve seen either, I too thought that the ’51 one was slow and light in tone. The ’82 one built up some very good tension and the more gory special effects was effective. By the way just for trivia the guy who plays the monster in the ’51 film was James Arness who later went on to star as Marshall Dillion in the long-running ‘Gunsmoke’ western series.

  8. Well, I pretty much agree with everyone on the Thing vs. Thing debate. The Hawks version is kind of slow and the lighthearted banter (although entertaining) kills the tension. Carpenter’s version generates a sense of mounting dread that is completely absent in the earlier film; the deliberate pacing, “who’s the monster now” story, and eerie music all contribute. The perfect mimic Thing, which harkens back to the telepathic monster of the original John Campbell novella, is indescribably more horrifying than the humanoid vegetable.

  9. And the atrocious weather is better presented in the ’82 version. The Antarctic base has become a character all on its own in the Carpenter film. :O)

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