“In movies the sky is the limit…and because of this you have to have great discipline in what you do.”
- Vincente Minnelli
Minnelli was of course referring more directly to the Hollywood musical – arguably his forte. Yet the same analogy can easily be ascribed to the horror movie. Inundated today by a barrage of SFX-laden fantasy yarns, each inexcusably ratcheting up the gore factor, it is a rarity to discover the ‘good fright.’ True dread is not conjured by the grotesqueness of the image presented on the screen, rather by the perceived perversity in the exercise, to be reconstituted in the mind’s eye. As example, there are those who still believe they have actually witnessed Anthony Perkins hack into Janet Leigh during the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) despite a shot-for-shot analysis revealing the knife and the body never came into contact with each other on the screen. Conversely, there are as many who insist having seen the brutal mutilation of a nude innocent during the moonlit swim at the start of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). Yet, this too never happened…or rather did: we just did not get to see it in all its blood-letting/gnashing of teeth gory glory. Hence, perception is the key to terrorizing an audience.
However, by the late 1970's, it was increasingly difficult to rattle people out of their complacency. Bluntly put, the world had seen too much carnage, bloodshed and real-life atrocities committed on their nightly news to be thoroughly startled by any such manufactured nonsense depicted in their filmed entertainments. And yet, John Carpenter had proven there was still the opportunity to wring dread from an audience, ingeniously preying upon their anxieties in the dark with Halloween (1978), arguably, the last truly great horror movie to be made in America. In hindsight, Halloween allowed for all of the cheap imitators to proliferate into the marketplace. The ‘slasher flick’ had been born. Yet, Carpenter did not walk away from horror altogether, even if he appeared to waffle somewhat after Halloween’s trailblazing success. Intermittently, Carpenter continued to hit his target with bull’s eye precision, though increasingly by falling back on more blood and more guts to agitate his audience. Carpenter’s most enduring movies, Halloween, The Fog (1980), The Thing (1982) and Christine (1983) represent not only a director at the peak of his powers but equally attest to a level of inventiveness and craftsmanship in the horror genre, unsurpassed in Carpenter’s heyday, yet ruthlessly mangled ever since.
More than thirty years after its debut, The Thing is one of Carpenter’s most gory blood fests; slit from ear to ear, side to side, and frame to frame, exposing all entrails in between, vetted as an uncompromisingly nihilistic metaphor for humanity’s plague; our innate and mounting mistrust of one another, drenched in a cruel barbarism and somber inevitability for the apocalypse soon to follow it and wipe clean this planet of our existence. Indeed, Carpenter has always professed The Thing as a morality play masquerading within the trappings of a traditional monster movie. And yet, there is absolutely nothing ‘traditional’ about this movie. Whether assessing it from the perspective of Rob Bottin’s ground-breaking visual effects (ably assisted by SFX master, Stan Winston), or exclusively on Carpenter’s storytelling prowess, or, better still, screenwriter, Bill Lancaster’s brilliant reworking of original material, The Thing remains an iconic piece of American horror cinema, unsurpassed for its all-pervasive sense of trepidation. Carpenter seems to have inspired the very best from his stock company of handpicked talents; Kurt Russell – a director’s fav, doing some of his absolutely best work as existentialist, R.J. MacReady.
A lot can – and does – happen in the middle of this forgotten frozen wasteland; a glacial shield near Stewart, British Columbia subbing in for the barren Antarctica landscape. In fact, Production Designer John Lloyd built his main set, an American research outpost, on a knoll, accessible only by a single winding road used by a local mining company; waiting a full six months for Mother Nature to fill in the gaps with her snowy starkness. For even greater authenticity, it was decided virtually all the interior sets would be refrigerated, thus exposing actors’ breath. Yet, Carpenter quickly realized he did not have to achieve subzero temperatures to get this effect; rather, simply to add more moisture into the cool air. While exteriors took full advantage of Stewart’s bleak landscape, virtually all of the interiors were shot on soundstages at Universal, and ironically, during one of the hottest summer swelters on record. Venturing in their heavy fur-lined parkas back and forth between these air-cooled sets and the commissary, and the stifling 120 degree heat outside, several of the cast and crew became ill with various respiratory infections, the flu and even pneumonia.
While Lloyd was putting the finishing touches on construction of the Stewart set, Carpenter went about assembling the very best behind-the-scenes talent a $15 million dollar budget could buy. Almost unheard of, The Thing was given eight months’ prep, serving Carpenter extremely well, especially since many of Rob Bottin’s visual effects were groundbreaking, and thus proven only on a trial-by-error basis of experimentation. For one scene, the big reveal of ‘the thing’ emerging from actor, Charles Hallahan’s gaping chest, the desired results were nearly lethal. For close-ups, Hallahan had been uncomfortably strapped into an apparatus that only exposed his head; the rest of his body about to be torn to pieces by ‘the thing’ recreated from gelatinous substances and employing a hydraulic clamp. However, for the sequence immediately to follow, depicting Hallahan’s head literally split from the rest of his body, a convincing rubber mask with audio-animatronic puppetry built in had been devised by Bottin. This was covered with an ingenious – if highly toxic – mixture of wax, melting plastic, bubble gum and lacquer thinner. The end of the scene called for MacReady to torch the emerging ‘thing’ with his flame thrower; the actual shot performed by an experienced stunt double. Alas, by the time Carpenter was ready to shoot this sequence, the entire room had slowly filled with highly combustible gasses given off by Bottin’s applications; the result – a gargantuan fireball erupting on the set. It virtually destroyed all of Bottin’s carefully timed SFX, resulting in the entire process of applications having to be recreated from scratch for the next day.
Such mishaps were less ‘the norm’ on the set of The Thing, though they speak to the communal off-the-cuff experimental genius with which the movie was assembled; all hands pitching in to create some of the most grotesque ‘creature effects’ yet seen on the screen. I would sincerely argue many of these have remained unsurpassed since, including Stan Winston’s spectacular ‘amorphous’ mutation after ‘the thing’ has consumed the Malamute and Siberian Huskys inside the kennel; Winston fashioning some splendid wickedness from rubber appliances built to house mechanical puppetry; the fake dog’s fur matted down with 5 gallon tubs of KY jelly to create the slime-devouring effect. For the film’s opening shot depicting the arrival of an alien hovercraft, model maker, Susan Turner invented a convincing flying saucer hurtling towards the earth, built from ABS plastic with brass-etched pieces and a strobe light source to maximize its fine details. The actual photographic effect of the ship penetrating the earth’s atmosphere was later painstakingly achieved in four optical passes, the under-exposed film cleverly masked with mattes applied in tandem. From here, SFX designer, Peter Kuran set the tone with an exhilarating main title sequence (actually mimicking the titles from 1951’s The Thing From Another World); another optical SFX, burning the words ‘the thing’ into the screen; shot through a tank of cloudy blue water, the letters formed by incinerated plastic melting away under the excessive heat of a blow torch. Virtually all of the almost 70 mattes created to extend background scenery in The Thing were the work of one man: master matte artist, Albert Whitlock, whose illustrious career had begun on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). A true artist with an eagle eye for creating seamless depth-perceptive compositions on glass plates, later recombined with live-action footage, Whitlock transforms the glacial vantages of Stewart, B.C. into vast, enveloping and desolate landscapes of absolute isolation; his mattes for the pivotal sequence where MacReady and his fellow survivors discover the battered remains of the crash-landed alien space craft, half-buried under titanic drifts, is an outstanding visual feast.
Loosely based on the Winchester Films production of Howark Hawk’s 1951 classic, The Thing from Another World, Carpenter's remake cribs its inspiration more directly from John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella – Who Goes There? (also, the basis for the ’51 classic). Like the best of Carpenter’s work The Thing retains its’ sense of ominous foreboding, parceling off its schlock violence while building upon the intensity of gruesome special effects to create increasingly intolerable moments of gore. In this regard, Carpenter is both pandering to the times he arguably helped to usher in with Halloween, yet equally thumbing his nose at the competition; thinly veiled pretenders who had followed his lead, in effect, proving two axioms – first, imitation is the best form of flatter, and second, that if anyone was going to do ‘gore’ best of all, it was going to be Carpenter. What Carpenter wanted – and arguably achieved in The Thing – was a very scary movie. What he absolutely did not want was a ‘guy in a suit’ as his creature; a convention virtually every major horror and science fiction movie had relied upon time immemorial. Thus, Rob Bottin’s original concept art for ‘the thing’, perpetually digesting and recombining various forms of life into its own interstellar cellular mitosis, fit Carpenter’s bill; also, the prevailing trend in American horror movies put forth in such iconic examples as 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and 1981’s An American Werewolf in London. Ironically, The Thing would prove a considerable blow to Carpenter’s conceit; the critics almost unanimously eviscerating its technical prowess as “visually repulsive” and “disappointing” – or, as the late, Roger Ebert chose to classify it, “…a great ‘barf-bag’ movie.”
The New York Times, Vincent Canby was even more negative, labeling Carpenter’s efforts as a “foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is fun as neither one thing nor the other. Sometimes it looks as if it aspired to be the quintessential moron movie of the 80s.” Interestingly, these same critics have since reassessed The Thing either as one of the most trend-setting achievements in the horror genre, or, even more incongruous to their original disemboweling, a blatant masterpiece. But in 1982, The Thing performed poorly at the box office, its domestic gross of $19,629,760 a real downer. Arguably, the failure was not Carpenter’s. The Thing premiered virtually months following Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982); a movie that like Spielberg’s other opus magnum in the sci-fi genre – 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind - had presented extraterrestrial life as both benevolent and disarming. The Thing also ran neck and neck with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, another dour depiction of ‘the future’ similarly to stumble at the box office; yet, like The Thing, gone on since to achieve cult status and a level of appreciation hard to debate.
To address at least some of the initial critical backlash; yes – there are intervals of hideousness that leave the viewer repulsed (as when ‘the thing’ –half-charred – is analyzed as a micro-organism capable of mutating into any shape); actor, Wilford Brimley, as Dr. Blair, up to his armpits in juicy entrails dripping in gelatinous ooze. But these prolonged vignettes of investigation, as well as the ‘ten second scares’ that bookend them, are neatly counterbalanced by Carpenter’s continuously-mounting anxiety during quiescent moments; an uncertainty breeding paranoia within the group of scientists as represented on the screen, but also insidiously spreading like a contagion throughout the viewing audience. Both as a movie and as a remake The Thing excels not because of its blatant disregard for the aforementioned ‘slow burn’ in steady character development, but rather because Carpenter cleverly recognizes exactly when too much is just enough and has still not crossed so far over the threshold that he cannot reel in his audience with the promise of more to follow, guaranteed to unsettle them even further. This of course is the hallmark of a master storyteller and Carpenter is precisely that; the horror genre’s grand master champion.
Our story begins in outer space; a mysterious saucer hurtling to earth, destined to crash in the frozen Antarctic where it will lay dormant for many decades before being unearthed by a Norwegian research team. We regress, momentarily, to a helicopter pursuing an Alaskan Malamute across these knee-deep snowy embankments, the dog repeatedly eluding a sniper’s bullet and eventually making its way to the United States National Science Institute Station 4. Aside: in the movie, Kurt Russell’s MacReady signs off as “R.J. Macready…helicopter pilot, U.S. Outpost thirty-one” – a reference to the outpost’s original numeric assignment. Unable to shoot the animal from the skies, the Norwegian pilot (Nate Irwin) lands his copter near the American outpost where he accidentally drops a thermite charge. This blows up the helicopter and himself, drawing out the small American contingent to investigate. Now, the Norwegian sniper (Norbert Weisser) inadvertently wounds American researcher, George Bennings (Peter Maloney) in the knee with a stray bullet before being shot to death by Garry (Donald Moffat); the station’s commander. The dog, seemingly harmless if slightly scared, is taken into the kennel by wrangler, Clark (Richard Masur).
After some consternation, primarily because of a fast-advancing snow storm on the horizon, MacReady agrees to pilot their own helicopter, taking along Dr. Cooper (Richard Dysart) to the Norwegian base camp in search of answers. What they discover is more than cause for alarm. The Norwegian outpost has been burned to the ground. There are no survivors. Inside the communications room Cooper and MacReady discover the radio operator with his throat and wrists slashed. Just beyond these still smoldering remains they make an even grizzlier discovery; burnt remains of a ‘humanoid’ possessing two contorted faces. Reluctantly, MacReady agrees to transport this ‘alien’ corpse back to their base where Dr. Blair performs an autopsy. Apart from the two heads, Blair discovers no additional abnormalities. Still no closer to the truth, Blair suggests Clark retire the Malamute to the kennels; inferring the animal may be the source of a contaminant that prompted the outbreak of violence at the Norwegian base camp. Not long thereafter, the station’s sled dogs begin to react violently to their new edition; the Malamute ripping apart to reveal a blood and guts-laden creature with tentacles. It begins to devour the dogs one by one. By the time MacReady hears the commotion and hurries to the kennels to investigate, virtually all but two of the dogs have been semi-assimilated into ‘the thing’; MacReady ordering Childs (Keith David) to torch it with his flame-thrower.
Putting out the flames with extinguishers, the carcass is hauled off to Blair’s laboratory where he performs another autopsy. “See what we’re talkin’ about here is an organism that imitates other life forms,” Blair explains, “…and it imitates them perfectly. See, when this thing attacked our dogs it tried to digest them, absorb them and in the process shape its’ own self to imitate them…we got to it before it had time to finish.” But now, Blair begins to suspect an even more insidious nightmare afoot. Perhaps what caused the Norwegians to die has already infected their base camp. Blair questions Clark about being alone with the Malamute for at least an hour before the outbreak of ‘the thing’. He also crunches some numbers about the contagion’s incubation period. If left unchecked, it could easily consume the entire world population in approximately 27,000 hours after first contact. Charting a course, using data recovered from the Norwegian camp, MacReady and his team discover the downed flying saucer; ‘the thing’s’ home base for many years until the Norwegians managed to excavate it, and thus unleash terror upon the world. In the meantime, scientist, Fuchs (Joel Polis) discovers Blair’s medical journal, later sharing the info in it with MacReady. Their discussion is interrupted by the realization the refrigerated corpse of ‘the thing’ has infected Bennings whose clone, not yet entirely formed, does not get very far before MacReady is forced to douse it in gasoline and set it ablaze. Gary, Bennings best friend, is deeply disturbed by this turn of events, but assists MacReady in torching the rest of Blair’s autopsied remains in the snow.
Childs returns to discover Blair has gone on a rampage, murdering the remaining dogs with a pickaxe and dismembering the controls of the helicopter before barricading himself in the communications room, destroying the command center with an axe, various pieces of furniture and his bare fists. Eventually, MacReady, Childs and the others manage to subdue Blair. But the damage is done. There is no way to get in contact with the outside world. A standoff occurs after the communication’s officer, Windows (Thomas G. Waites) attempts to defend himself with a rifle; Gary ordering him to drop the gun or face being shot to death. The situation momentarily diffused, Blair is locked inside the reserve storehouse, quietly suggesting to MacReady that Clark is not to b trusted. After all, he was the only one to get close to the Malamute before it morphed into ‘the thing’. Gary steps down from being base commander. In tandem, Childs and Clark offer to assume the position. But MacReady puts forth an alternative; Vance Norris (Charles Hallahan) as a viable candidate. Alas, Norris does not believe he is up to the challenge. Fuchs is ordered by MacReady to conclude all lab work on blood tests conducted on everyone earlier that afternoon. However, right in the middle of his computations, a fuse is deliberately blown and a shadowy figure leads Fuchs away from his work and out into the cold, planting evidence MacReady might be ‘the thing’. Meanwhile, in the rec room, Gary, Vance, Dr. Cooper and Clark are tied up; MacReady placing Norris in charge while he, Windows, Childs, Nauls (T.K. Carter), Palmer (David Clennon) go in search of Fuchs.
The men turn on MacReady after Fuchs charred remains are discovered in the snow by Nauls, along with remnants of MacReady’s burnt knapsack. Now, Norris begins to suffer from chest pains, collapsing, presumably of a heart attack. Dr. Cooper is freed to perform CPR, using electro-paddles to stimulate Norris’ heart. But Norris has not flat-lined. He has been possessed by ‘the thing’; Norris’ chest bursting open and then clamping down on Cooper’s hands, severing them at the wrist. In the ensuing mayhem, ‘the thing’ nearly escapes, sprouting spider-like tendrils from Norris’ decapitated head and attempting to flee. MacReady incinerates it with his flame thrower but also shoots Clark dead by accident. Now, the remaining survivors are bound, MacReady taking new blood samples, then heating up a conduit to test their legitimacy. MacReady performs the experiment on his first to illustrate a clean bill of health for the rest of the group, followed by Windows, who also proves not to be infected. Regrettably, Clark’s sample was also pure, meaning his panic earlier was merely that. MacReady has murdered an innocent man. Childs blames MacReady for being too hasty and Garry interjects a second note of protest, suggesting the methodology behind these experiments is severely flawed. Believing Garry is ‘the thing’, MacReady vows to conduct the experiment on his blood last. However, it is Palmer’s sample that is contaminated; the thing springing forth from Palmer’s body, devouring Windows before MacReady can fire up his blow torch.
Leaving Childs back at base camp, MacReady, Garry and Nauls venture to the storehouse to give Blair the same blood test; MacReady, informing Childs if Blair returns without them, he is to be incinerated on the spot. Alas, they discover the storehouse empty; Blair having dug a tunnel beneath its floorboards where he has been hoarding parts from the damaged helicopter, presumably to build a vehicle of escape. Nauls alerts MacReady and Garry to seeing Childs stumbling around outside beyond the parameters of the base camp. Almost immediately, the main generator is blown; MacReady reasoning ‘the thing’ wants to return to its hibernation state, content to remain dormant until another rescue team arrives, thus reviving and releasing its terror further upon humanity. MacReady cannot allow the thing its survival and elects, with Garry and Nauls’ complicity, to set fire to the base camp, thus, driving the thing out of its self-imposed slumber. Regrettably, Blair is still on the prowl, isolating and killing Garry as he endeavors to plant his dynamite charges. Nauls is lured away too and presumably, also killed, the thing suddenly emerging from beneath the floorboards and pursuing MacReady. With moments to spare, MacReady lights the last stick of dynamite, casting it into the lake of gasoline set before ‘the thing’. The compound is rocked by several chain-reaction explosions, leaving MacReady presumably the sole survivor. Not so, as Childs emerges from the still burning remains, revealing how he managed his escape Blair. Inquiring what their next course of action should be, Childs is informed by MacReady they have reached the end of the line. Once the smoldering ruins are vanquished, the temperature will steadily drop to subzero digits and they will both freeze to death.
Dean Cundey’s contributions on The Thing cannot be overstated; his moody interplay of shadow and light, primarily employing a palette toggling between arctic cool cobalt blues and stark whites, and, the even more ominous use of fiery oranges and bloody reds, exhibits the mark of a true painterly master cinematographer; revealing just enough information emerging from the dark. Bill Lancaster’s screenplay has bettered its source material; ‘mutated’ it into a Darwinian disaster tour de force, draped in an underlay of horror movie clichés. However, an examination reveals both Lancaster and John Carpenter’s philosophical slant as devoted to the doctrines of ‘man against himself’ – when even man cannot recognize who and what he is, or – more to the point – has become. That most critics of their day virtually overlooked – or perhaps, ignored - all of the subtext and theory Carpenter had toiled so diligently to feather into his plot is, frankly appalling. The Thing is more about man’s diligence to do himself harm than about an alien invader that, after all, was supremely contented to remain in suspended hibernation under the snow until its slumber was unceremoniously disturbed by the curiosities from another species. We all remember the parable about ‘curiosity killing the cat’ – or, in The Thing’s case – the dogs and every other life source within its grasp. Despite the critic’s shortsightedness, in the final analysis The Thing was, and remains, the perfect apocalyptic horror movie – not because it manages to effectively deliver the visual equivalent to a thirty second jolt from an electric cattle prod, but because it leaves the viewer with deeper issue to contemplate; fear subsided into soulless/godless existence – the end of life as we know it: not ‘a bang’ but ‘a whimper’. If the purpose of all horror movies is to instill lingering dread, then John Carpenter’s The Thing endures as very few horror movies of any vintage do or have for a very, very long while.
Shout! Factory’s Scream imprint will shortly unleash a new ‘collector edition’ of The Thing; described as a ‘new’ 2K scan from the Inter-positive, supervised and approved by Dean Cundey. What does this mean? Well, Universal’s original 2006 Blu-ray was fairly impressive, if looking ever-so-slightly scrubbed with too much DNR to get rid of any and all indigenous grain. Overall, Universal did The Thing proud in 2006 in terms of color purity and richness, with virtually no chroma noise and/or bleeding, and, black levels that never crushed. Now, Shout! advertises a return to the drawing board – ‘new’ and 2K (although why 4K was not employed, even as an afterthought, is beyond me). The results, i.e. ‘improvements’ are noteworthy; beginning with an even more refined image that just seems more organic to film. Details in foreground and background information are greatly enhanced. Certain colors appear more vibrant this time around; flesh tones in particularly adopting a healthily nature pinkish hue. Best of all, black levels have been tweaked to reveal some truly startling shadow delineation. Contrast is perfectly realized, though I must confess, I thought The Thing looked pretty damn good on the old Universal Blu-ray too. One blip to report: the shot identifying the U.S. Institute Station 4 is inexplicably grainier herein with some inexplicable fading round the edges. I don’t know why this is and could not even begin to guess.
Audio is a different matter: three options - 5.1, 2.0 and a new 4.1 DTS, the latter derived from the theatrical 70mm six track Dolby. It is not overstating the obvious to say the utmost care has been afforded the 4.1; a revelation with crisper sounding dialogue, effects and music having greater – yet, somehow subtler ambiance. Wow, this was impressive and immersive. Alas, it also features a minor – very minor – synchronization flub during the blood testing scene. I thought I was imagining it at first, engrossed in the story itself. But no, it’s a mistake – albeit, a very minor one. Shout! has since pushed back the general release of The Thing until Oct. 11th to correct the issue. Personally, I feel blessed to have had this opportunity to sneak peek this Blu-ray.
Where Shout! advances is in its extras. The Universal Blu-ray contained nothing except an audio commentary carried over from the studio’s ole DVD release. We get this same audio track here; augmented by two additional tracks, one starring Dean Cundey and Rob Galluzo, the other featuring co-producer, Stuart Cohen, moderated by Michael Felsher. Miraculously, Universal gave no consideration to the myriad of extras it had already produced, albeit in SD, for the DVD. Shout! has ported all of these onto a second disc – including The Thing: Terror Takes Shape – a fascinating 80 minute ‘behind the scenes’ look back at the making of the movie . But Shout! is not merely content to import these plentiful extras. We also get a command post full of brand new goodies divided into three subcategories: interviews (5 total: with John Carpenter, practically the entire cast – minus Kurt Russell - and editor, Todd Ramsay. But I think the most gratifying of these are with the technical visual effects artists and SFX make-up artists and sound designers; you know, those chiefly responsible for what an audience sees and hears once the raw footage is in the can, but who rarely are afforded the sort of homage Shout! pays them here. We also get featurettes: two new to Blu: The Art of Mike Ploog and Back Into the Cold: Revisiting the Filming Location. Under this header, there are 9 more featurettes, all of them ported over from the original electronic press kit, containing extensive interviews with cast and crew. These were a part of the LaserDisc and DVD releases of The Thing in the mid-1990s, but again, inexplicably left on the cutting room floor and absent from Universal’s 2006 Blu-ray release. Finally, Shout! has provided the network TV version of the movie in standard def – made up of outtakes and deleted/extended scenes to substitute for the ones considered too violent for TV back in 1985; plus two additional vintage featurettes: The Making of a Chilling Tale, and, The Making of The Thing. In short, Shout! has pulled out all the stops for a thoroughly comprehensive Blu-ray edition of a movie definitely deserving as much. Bottom line: even if you already own The Thing on Blu-ray you need this reissue. This truly is what reissues are all about, folks: not simply slapping together different cover art and parceling off 5 minutes of ‘previously unreleased’ material when 7 hours of more previously unreleased material still remains locked in a vault somewhere waiting to be unearthed. Shout!’s The Thing comes very highly recommended: a definitive look at a great scary movie!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)