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John Carpenter’s THE THING

November 28, 2011

The third and latest incarnation of The Thing recently hit theaters. Not having seen either of the two predecessors, I thought it looked promising. I haven’t gotten around to seeing the new one, but I did finally see John Carpenter’s 1982 version. Carpenter’s was the first remake of The Thing From Another World (1951), directed by Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks.

It is obvious that Carpenter had some serious affection for the original. He made a point of featuring footage from the film in his 1978 debut, Halloween. While I haven’t seen the 1951 release, I gather that Carpenter’s has become the definitive version, and that is certainly for good reason.

The Thing is one of several notable collaborations between Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell (Escape From NY, Big Trouble in Little China, Escape From LA), and as usual, the two really hit it off here.

Set in the desolate frozen tundra of Antarctica, a US research team is pitted against an enigmatic, shape-shifting alien, mistakenly uncovered by a team of Norwegian scientists. The themes of isolation, cabin fever, distrust and deception build to a bloody and pyro-maniacal conclusion. The Thing plays out like a cross between Agatha Christie’s 1939 mystery novel And Then There Were None, and Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien. Its terror builds steadily throughout the picture before erupting violently and magnificently.

The film dabbles in the subgenre of “body horror,” popularized by David Cronenberg. These films feature characters undergoing dramatic and graphic physical change. Carpenter doesn’t take quite the psychological approach to The Thing that Cronenberg did with nasty little films like Videodrome (1980) and The Fly (1986), but that’s no knock. Cronenberg is an artsy director, and that just isn’t the film Carpenter made here.

For a 1982 film, the visual effects are rather good. The demented forms taken by the alien when it’s between hosts are memorably unsettling. In fact, I would be surprised if James Cameron didn’t find some inspiration here for his T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

That said, The Thing is not for the squeamish. Gore is served up in a variety of ways. There is gross-out gore, more-subdued gore and another kind somewhere in between those that suggests something really gnarly happened just off-screen. Did I mention death by napalm?

It’s a decidedly gruesome spectacle, but the gore-to-terror ratio never rises too high. Having a slightly more sensible ratio than true splatter-fests such as Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), makes The Thing a more sensible, grounded experience that viewers can take as a serious piece of sci-fi/horror.

Performances are surprisingly strong in The Thing, and definitely better than your average horror movie. Keith David and Wilford “Diabetes” Brimley, among others, star with a thickly-bearded Russell in the ensemble cast.

The Thing earns a hearty recommendation, and is a thoroughly well-rounded production. The Thing packs some disturbing moments and genuine terror, and should be essential viewing for any genre fan. Bonus points if you watch it after the snow starts to fall.


From → Film Reviews

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