John Carpenter: The Collection: The Thing Review
In 1982, the pilot of a helicopter chases a husky across the snow of Antartica, his colleague shooting at it. The further they are from their own camp, the closer they get to an American research station, one that is staffed by a group of out of shape scientists, most of whom gather outside to find out what all the commotion is about. When the helicopter lands, a stray grenade destroys the helicopter and kills the pilot while, as the dog runs amongst the men for protection, the shooter clips Bennings with a shot from his rifle. Seeing this man fire at Bennings, Garry (Peter Maloney) breaks the glass through which he's watching events and shoots him dead with his own pistol. Not knowing what to do with the husky, the camp vet puts it with the rest of the dogs while the others drag the body of the shooter inside, wondering what it might have been that sent him on this killing spree.
From the markings on the helicopter, they trace its origins to a Norwegian camp not, in Antartic terms, far away. With MacReady (Kurt Russell) piloting, the camp doctor, Copper (Richard Dysart), flies there to find it in ruins, the buildings burnt to the ground, its personnel and own sled dogs dead and, in what little is left standing, exposed to the cold. In a back room, MacReady finds what looks like a tomb, made completely of ice while Copper finds something that may once have been human but which is now hideously deformed. With night falling and snow coming in, MacReady and Copper take what they can back to their own station but an autopsy confirms little. Meanwhile, a videotape found at the Norwegian site appears to show them finding a saucer-shaped object in the craft and, some distance away, a frozen figure buried deep in the ice. But while they're making sense of this, there is a howling from the cage in which the dogs are kept. Running there, they find the husky is now a misshapen and bloody mess, out of which come tentacles that have ensnared the other dogs. Shooting at it seems not to have an effect and, breaking through the roof, the creature escapes. Understanding the reason why the Norwegians wanted it dead, the scientists gather what weapons they have and wait for the creature to return. Before long, it will.
John Carpenter's decision to make The Thing doesn't seem that surprising when one looks back over his previous films. There is The Thing From Another World playing on the television as part of an all-night-long series of horror movies in Halloween. Carpenter had also talked of seeing the film in his youth and the impact that it made on him but while his love of the film is clear, it's not a straight remake. Going back to the original Joseph Campbell short story Who Goes There?, scriptwriter Bill Lancaster made his creature Campbell's shape-changer, a world away from the Hawks and Nyby 'intellectual carrot' of The Thing From Another World. How this creature propagates itself is very different from the gently pulsating little aliens neatly arranged in rows in the doctor's laboratory.
This made for some visceral horror, perhaps the thing for which The Thing is most famous. It's standout scene comes as MacReady comes under suspicion. As he defends himself from those who would have left him out in the snow, Norris (Charles Hallahan) appears to suffer a heart attack from which Copper attempts to revive him. As Copper goes to place defibrillation paddles on Norris's chest, it opens to reveal a mouth full of sharp, jagged teeth, which bite off Copper's arms. Norris's head then detaches itself, grows legs and scuttles away. "You gotta be fuckin' kiddin'!" is what Palmer (David Clennon) has to say on seeing it and there were probably many in the audience who shared his sentiment. There are many more examples, not least when Palmer's head splits open and chews Windows ( Thomas G. Waites) before MacReady sets fire to him. The gore does indeed come thick and fast and while the models may have aged somewhat, the body horror more than stands up even now.
However, the biggest change comes in the difference in tone between this film and the Hawks and Nyby Thing From Another World. In that, the armed forces are entirely confident in each plan that is proposed and go about it with a sense of purpose that is alien to the likes of MacReady. They even do so with a sense of humour, joking, before the film's showdown with the creature, that if it can read minds, "He's gonna be mad when he gets to me!" In The Thing, no one is entirely sure what's happening. MacReady attacks the creature with a flamethrower without ever being sure if fire will actually prove fatal to it. A perfect example comes with another standout scene, one that also highlights just how tense The Thing is. Thinking that perhaps any part of the creature is as alive as the whole, MacReady takes a blood sample from each of the survivors and tests it by placing a heated wire onto it. When the creature does eventually burst out - it's blood springs to life to give the audience a good jump - it finds Childs (Keith David), Garry, and Nauls (TK Carter) conveniently tied to their chairs.
But where The Thing From Another World ended with a warning - "Watch the skies!" - this has nothing like as much optimism. The Thing is downbeat, saying that humanity is unprepared when it comes to as ferocious a threat as this one. Carpenter didn't, however, blame The Thing's box office failure on that as much as a film out of place and time. With all the world celebrating a friendly alien (E.T.), Carpenter's alien sprouted tentacles, showed a lot of teeth and sprayed dogs with a purple goo. It could take any form it wanted and, in the one time it's actually caught, makes an unearthly howl. As Carpenter says in his commentary, it was a prescient film in that with HIV hitting the headlines, there was a disease, like The Thing, where you couldn't tell who was infected and who was not. Read into it what you will but The Thing has both tension and horror to spare. It is superbly made, looks great and is the best film John Carpenter made. This set of seven of his films would have been incomplete without it.
In spite of the years having passed since the first release of The Thing, we've gotten so used to anamorphic presentations of film that it's a surprise when one isn't. And in spite of the promises to the contrary, The Thing still isn't anamorphic. That's probably more of a problem now than it was with the first release of The Thing, with many people running their upscaling DVD players through HDMI to a television believing it to be 720p. Expanding the picture via a press of a button on the remote control doesn't work any more, needing, instead, a rejig of the HDMI settings. But do that and let the picture fill as much of the screen as its 2.35:1 aspect ratio will allow and you lose the subtitles, which extend below the bottom of the screen. Add to that the various bits of dirt, white spots and other blemishes on the film and this is The Thing in pretty bad shape.
The real pity about The Thing is that it's such a good-looking film, it really ought to be a great DVD. Carpenter's camera swishes through his set, low to the floor and showing off the lens flare off the lights. It's dated very slightly, mostly in the fashions, hairstyles and chunky Chess Wizard computer of the time, but, for the most part, it looks fairly timeless, aided not only by Carpenter's classic cinematography but by the isolated setting in the Antartic, thereby avoiding many cultural references. However, inasmuch as this is at least carried on to the DVD, the picture is soft, lacks detail and looks too harsh. The colour looks to be slightly off as well, being a touch too red for my liking. There's grain too but that's not such a bad thing.
The DD5.1 audio track isn't bad but rather than offering any memorable moments, it simply gets on with presenting the dialogue and action. For the most part, the DVD does this fairly well. The dialogue is clear throughout, there's some use of the rear speakers, though not much, and while there's little background noise, there is a hum from the subwoofer throughout no matter what's happening on the screen. Finally, this is subtitled in English and various other languages.
Commentary: This is probably the third time that I've watched this film with the commentary and it's no worse now than it was the first time around. The commentary only features John Carpenter and Kurt Russell but it's clear that they're firm friends, talking to one another as though they've shared a great deal over the years and have come together both to catch up and to watch the movie. That this is being recorded at the same time seems to be something of a coincidence. Together, they laugh at the continuity errors and glitches in the movie, point out where special effects took over from the live action and where Carpenter pays homage to the Hawks original. This was a great commentary when The Thing was first released on DVD and it's still one of the best that you'll ever hear - funnier and much more interesting than any other you might care to mention.
Terror Takes Shape (80m33s): This documentary, like the commentary, is a good one, beginning with Carpenter talking about his first seeing The Thing From Another World (it plays in the background of Halloween) and going on to the actual making of The Thing. All of the major contributors to the film are interviewed here, not only Carpenter and Kurt Russell but screenwriter Bill Lancaster, DoP Dean Cundey, special effects supervisors Rob Bottin and Stan Winston and film editor Todd Ramsay and the interviews are detailed, interesting and good-natured. It skips some of the actual production but takes a broad view of the making of the film, attempting to fit in as much as it can but offering more than enough detail as it suits, such as Susan Turner showing off the model spaceship that opens the film.
Production Archive: This is a way to present much of the background to the production, using still images in between pages of text. Not forgetting The Thing From Another World, shots of James Arness as the monster feature in between behind-the-scenes stills of John Carpenter and the making of The Thing. Also included are a series of Cast Production Photographs, which simply presents pictures of the cast in character taken on the set. The DVD then goes on to present various bits of concept art, storyboards and so on in sections titled, Production Art And Storyboards (featuring the original Dale Kuipers creature design), Location Design and Post Production. This section also includes a set of Outtakes (3m57s), none of which are presented to the same standard as the original film, being 4:3 and looking unfinished.
Notes: This part of the DVD includes several pages of text on the production of The Thing, none of which feature anything new if you've been watching the bonus features up to this point, on actor Kurt Russell and director John Carpenter.
Finally, there is the Theatrical Trailer (1m52s) and a link to the Universal Studios website.
In summary, the only thing that lets down this DVD of The Thing is the quality of the visual presentation. This being exactly the same as the old R2 release of The Thing, down to using the same menus, there's more bonus material on this disc than there are in many two-disc special editions and all of it's great, from the commentary to the making of and everything in between. Had the transfer of the film been better, indeed a lot better, this would have been one of the best DVDs you could buy. However, unlike many DVDs, where it's the rather ordinary selection of bonus features that let it down, here it's the same poor showing of the film that we've always had. Indeed the only change is to the cover but, even then, it's a mistake to use that of the videogame of The Thing here.