When I was little, my family used to have this cable service called WHT. I can’t remember what it stood for, but recall that it was a one channel station that would constantly show movies. It was like Starz for anyone who didn’t want to pony up the extra money for actual HBO at the time. Since it was set up at my Grandparents house (where I lived), sometimes we’d all gather around for a Movie Night on Saturdays. This is something my family’s done often during the years, and the current part of my family does this on Sundays now, premiering films we haven’t seen yet.
It was one of these Saturday nights that I first witnessed John Carpenter’s The Thing. I had to go to bed for it, being as young as I was for the film, but with the door open I could hear the music and sounds from my bed. At one point, I climbed out of the top bunk and snuck to the stairs, watching the film in my PJ’s. My family would get pretty engrossed with movies, so they never bothered to glance in my direction. After all, this was the first time any of them were seeing this film, and they all loved the original.
I was doing fine until that Husky’s head split open. If I just kept my mouth shut, I could have seen the whole film. After that, I couldn’t stop screaming, “Omigod! The doggie!!” I was met with cries of “Go to Bed!!” from just about everyone. Even though I climbed back into bed, there was no way I was able to fall asleep. Every gunshot, every yell caused me to bundle myself under my blankets with my eyes wide open.
Since then, The Thing has become a family favorite, a reliable go to film for any time it’s cold or rainy or dark. I even showcased it for my friends in Oregon who hadn’t seen it before and they also had almost the same reaction to that poor dog.
So, what is The Thing?
Other than maybe being John Carpenter’s strongest film (which many will argue, because there’s always a place for Big Trouble in Little China for me), it’s a great example of a work in progress that was just done and put to print. Like Jaws, the film ran into some problems. Special FX member Rob Bottin suffered from exhaustion from working so hard on the film. They had some issues with coming up with the final representation of The Thing that wouldn’t appear too cartoon-like or animatronic. There was even a fire during the taping of a huge effect shot involving a body ripping open because of the chemicals that were put into the latex workup. Even though the movie takes place in Antarctica (which I believe roughly 6 months of night), the film actually has a day and night cycle, having filmed in Juneau, Alaska. On top of that, with all of the money thrown at the film, it pretty much tanked at the box office. As quirky as all those elements are, the movie just works because of both the isolation of the characters, the trust issues that occur as a result of the events, and the claustrophobic space they live in. In some ways, it’s very similar to Ridley Scott’s Alien to me (sans the trust issues), but with much better lighting. The Thing is pretty much a cult classic at this point.
The story of The Thing is boosted if you’ve seen the original The Thing From Another World with the late James Arness, but it’s not a requirement. It starts off with a dog being chased by a helicopter, who manages to reach a Research Outpost in Antarctica, occupied by Twelve members. The crew soon discovers that that things aren’t exactly what they seem, but neither are they. Unlike the original movie, the creature in this film has the ability to absorb and mimic whatever organism comes into contact with (which actually is pretty creepy in its own right, that sense of violation). Trust plays a huge part in the story as the crew fight to save themselves while still trying to keep a close eye on who’s walking among them.
The atmosphere of the film is really augmented by the sound. As old as the film is, the sound quality holds up incredibly well on a surround system. The wind from the snow, bullets ricocheting, the panting of dogs and of course the dripping of blood all sound like someone put a microphone right up to all of them to capture it as best they could. The outpost, as big as it is, actually has a lot of narrow hallways with canisters stacked to the sides in many places, giving the place a cramped feel. Add to that Ennio Morricone’s haunting theme and you’ve got a recipe for horror. I mean, for someone who’s scored fantastic Westerns, one would think that Morricone and a Carpenter film might not gel well, but it really does.
Visually, compared to films today, The Thing is pretty tame for it’s effects, and some (the final rendering of the Thing itself, in particular) can be a little dated, but not so much that you should groan about it. At the time, however, it was considered gory (and I guess when you’re in shock on seeing a dog’s face split open, there’s someone smiling somewhere saying to themselves..”Yeah, that worked right there”).
The Thing marks another John Carpenter / Kurt Russell pairing. Russell’s R.J. MacReady is the figure we follow through the film. It’s through him that we try to make sense of everything going on. In one scene that involves him huddled in a corner with a flamethower and some dynamite, defending himself from his friends, you get the notion that you want to be on that guy’s side. Even if following him means getting blown up to a million pieces, because it really becomes difficult to trust anyone in this film. Paranoia plays a huge role.
The cast is rounded out by a few other notable members. Richard Dysart (L.A. Law, Prophecy) plays Doc Copper, and is actually pretty good here. Keith David (Requiem for a Dream, They Live) plays Childs, who really doesn’t believe in any of that “voodoo bullshit”. Thomas Waites (The Warriors) is Windows, who for me, represents the scared kid of the group. He’s not sure what’s up, he just wants to be away from it. Then, of course, you have Wilford Brimley, who seems to realize the problem but takes measures in his own hands rather telling the others just how bad things could get.
Overall, The Thing is highly recommended. I know there’s a remake in the works, and part of me is a little excited for it, hoping that it’s done well. I can’t imagine the filmmakers today running into half of the issues they had in the original.
The Thing also marks one of the best Director commentaries I’ve heard. If you have a chance to watch the film with the Director track on (which I believe Russell also has a hand in with Carpenter in talking about the film), it’s pretty interesting what they elaborate on. Also noteworthy (and funny) is Rob Bottin’s story on the effect sequence that started a fire. That’s definitely worth a listen.