In what has to be his best film — even better than Halloween and Escape from New York — Carpenter does a remake of Howard Hawke’s classic 50’s scifi The Thing and actually surpasses the original. Carpenter drops the Cold War-paranoia of the original and instead uses the original John W. Campbell, Jr. short story’s theme of paranoia within an isolated community. The community in question in this remake is an American Antarctic station deep within the frozen wilderness of Antarctica. The station’s crew is comprised of a group of scientists and support personnel of varying background and temperament.
Carpenter’s remake begins with a simple overhead, fly-over shot of an arctic mountain range. The wide-angle shot of icy desolation was compleemented well by the simple, heartbeat-like bass arrangement from well-renowned film composer Ennio Morricone. This opening sequence gives this remake an early sense of isolation, creeping dread and foreboding. John Carpenter begins the film by quickly putting his audience at a state of unease and doesn’t relent until the end credits has completed its crawl on the screen. The Thing does an excellent job of combining Carpenter’s steady, minimalist direction and Morricone’s musical arrangements to create a film of extreme isolation, hopelessness, paranoia and inevitability.
Where the original had an alien that was onscreen very quickly, Carpenter’s alien follows the short story’s version and hides itself by killing and copying members of the arctic team. Throughout the film Carpenter effectively uses this plot device to make each character distrust the other members of the team. Any one of them could be an alien in disguise as one of them. It is only during the most extreme situation will the creature reveal itself. It’s during the tense scenes of mistrust growing within the community that the film excels in immersing the audience in the film’s excercise in terror.
The special effects used in the film is top notch even now. Now CGI was used — this was the early 80’s and CGI was still a decade away. Rob Bottin’s animatronics, puppets and buckets of blood is still a high achievement for its day and still studied by students looking to enter the film effects field. One special scene where his effects are used well is a scene involving a kennel of huskie sled dogs and one alien impersonating as one of the canines. I cringe to think how another remake of The Thing would replace Bottin’s puppetry, animatronics and plain old kero-syrup with CGI. If there’s any film that got it right the first time in terms of FX work, this film is one of the few.
The music score is still one of my favorites to this day. As mentioned earlier, Ennio Morricone’s simple bass and synthesizer compositions are simple, yet adds a palpable sense of tension, paranoia and terror as the film moves forward. Considering that Carpenter always scores his own films, it seemed like a gamble giving over the reins of scoring this film to another. The end result shows that Carpenter gambled correctly.
People who are not big fans of very gory scenes and violence this film is something that they should avoid, but for those who are fans of great filmmaking, this is a must-see. Film students would do well to see a master at work. Now if he can only get back to making films just like this instead of what the studio is handing to him, I think Carpenter still has alot left in him other than more Ghosts of Mars.