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Friday, October 24, 2008

Recommended Halloween Viewing: John Carpenter's "The Thing"

Hey everyone. Firstly, introductions. You're probably wondering who I am and what I'm doing here (and rightfully so). My name's Dan; in a nutshell, I'm your average dude from New York who grew up in the 80s, and thus has a (unhealthy) love for all things pop culture. As such, I'll be contributing posts every now and then concerning movies, television and the like. Thanks very much to the fine folks of Like Television for giving me a podium from which to speak, and allowing me to make something of my otherwise useless geek knowledge. Since Halloween is coming, I figured now would be a good time to talk about my favorite horror flick and kind-of forgotten gem: John Carpenter's The Thing.

(editor's note 11/25/08. You can now watch The Thing at our site.)

The Thing (1982) is technically a remake of 1951's The Thing From Another World. I say "technically" because it actually shares very little with the original film -- especially when it comes to creature design and gore -- and is more faithful to the 1938 short story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr. that the '50s flick is based on. Without giving away too many details about the plot, the long-short of it is that a grotesque, deadly alien makes its way to a remote research outpost in Antarctica. The alien, however, can take the form of anything with which it comes into contact, from humans to animals, and the outpost's crew of scientists (led by a very beardy Kurt Russell) slowly begin to grow paranoid, tense, and downright distrustful of each other, as one or more of them could be the alien in hiding.

In many ways, The Thing is very reminiscent of Ridley Scott's seminal Alien, except I think it's actually better. Sure, both films have a similar premise: a ragtag crew in an isolated environment face off against a seemingly indestructible creature. But whereas Alien got its scares by a tall dude in a costume creeping in the shadows, Carpenter puts the danger right out in the open. This thing could be anywhere; it could be anyone; it could strike at any moment. The movie isn't even that dark -- whereas Alien and most horror films use the dark and space to build tension and fear, Carpenter's film is set in the middle of a bright, white, icy nothingness. True, The Thing's alien is frightening to see (we'll get to that in a minute), but Carpenter doesn't rely on it to make his movie work. No, Carpenter uses his alien's shapeshifting ability to create a sense of danger and impending doom that gives the film its power. The characters don't trust each other, they're in a vast snow-covered wasteland, and there is no escape. That's where the real scares of The Thing come from. That being said, when seen in its true form, the creature itself is pretty damn scary.

There's no perfect way to articulate what the monster looks like here, because it (brilliantly) does not have a singular form. Once revealed and forced out of hiding behind a human or animal facade, this alien is not a guy in a monster suit, nor is it a weightless, soulless piece of CGI animation. Rather, it is an amorphous being that can grow to the size of a room, or can detach itself, limb from limb, to make an escape. Tentacles flail, teeth gnarl from different places all over its body, and its size changes. And it's thanks to Rob Bottin, the special effects master whose work in The Thing is nothing short of genius; particularly amazing is "the head-spider" scene, which I won't spoil by discussing any further. If any film could show that good puppetry and makeup can trump modern CGI any day of the week, it's The Thing. There's a horrifying, tangible quality to the monster in The Thing and the way all the characters interact with it, which is largely due to the fact that it looks so good and is actually there. If this had been a CGI-fest, the movie would be much less effective. (Thankfully, Carpenter has not followed George Lucas's atrocious "Star Wars Special Edition" route and added awful digital effects to this or any of his films.)

To my mind, The Thing is John Carpenter's last truly great film. I love They Live and Big Trouble in Little China, but in both of those, Carpenter seems to just be trying a little too hard, whether with the action or the humor. In The Thing, everything really works: the tone, the effects, the dialogue, and the acting (Kurt Russell, as usual, is fantastic). I can't recommend it enough. A great film that only gets better, and for me, it's the best work of a master filmmaker.

(For those of you who have seen and enjoyed The Thing, I'd also recommend checking out Dark Horse Comics' The Thing From Another World comics. They take place right after the end of The Thing, and are surprisingly true to the spirit of the film. Apparently, Carpenter himself loved them. The comics are currently out-of-print, but they can usually be found on ebay for decent prices.)

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  • cool. i wanna see it. Netflix should have it in my PO box by halloween. can't wait.

    By Anonymous Daniel Bridges, At October 24, 2008 1:37 PM  

  • Hope you like it, Daniel! (If possible, I totally recommend watching it at night, lights out, when it's cold out. Trust me...)

    By Blogger Daniel Brooks, At October 24, 2008 2:34 PM  

  • Awesome movie. I think it just came out on Blu ray too. Big Trouble is my personal Carpenter fave.

    By Blogger Chris Bacolo, At October 24, 2008 4:18 PM  

  • Same for me. Big Trouble is killer... loved the clips, but they did not work for my friend in Europe.. WHY! can you get the whole movie.

    By Anonymous Renee Young, At October 24, 2008 4:33 PM  

  • Yes, Big Trouble is crazy good. Kurt Russell does a pretty mean John Wayne, IMO.

    By Blogger Daniel Brooks, At October 24, 2008 5:01 PM  

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