Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Thing

Film: The Thing (1982)
Dir: John Carpenter
Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Among cult fans, there is no disputing that director John Carpenter is one of the masters. The only source of debate lies with which film is his ultimate masterpiece. After all, the man has given us such iconic characters as Snake Pliskin, Michael Myers, and Jack Burton. For me, his greatest work is unquestionably The Thing. With its terrifying script, talented ensemble cast, and groundbreaking FX work, this 1982 thriller really raised the bar for science fiction and horror films.

The Thing takes place at a remote Antarctic research station, where twelve men discover a shape-shifting alien in their midst. The creature, buried under the snow for centuries and recently unearthed by Norwegian scientists, infiltrates the camp and starts to kill - and then mimic – the researchers. The presence of “the thing” fuels fear and paranoia among the men, who know that any one of them could actually be a parasitic alien. They soon realize that their best defense against the creature is sticking together. And a flame-thrower, of course.

The movie is considered both a remake and a sequel to 1951’s The Thing From Another World, in which Arctic scientists unearth an evil alien from the ice. Both films are based on John W. Campbell, Jr.’s short story, “Who Goes There?” Carpenter’s version implies that the events take place post-Another World, but he and screenwriter Bill Lancaster put a whole new twist on the story and make it their own.

The first thing this movie does right is the setting. Outpost 31 is isolated, claustrophobic, and so cold you can practically feel it through your television screen. All this lends to the film’s pervasive feeling of desperation. There is something naturally scary about the arctic tundra, especially when combined with a lonely station cut off from the world. Not to mention, blood and fire look wonderful against a snow-white backdrop!

Secondly, The Thing has a great ensemble cast. Leading the pack is eternal badass Kurt Russell as helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady. Sporting a strange cowboy hat and one impressive beard, MacReady is the levelheaded leader of the group. Then there is Keith "I didn't take it out for air" David as a flame-thrower-toting tough guy. We even get Wilford Brimley going crazy with an ax! What more could you ask for? Rounding out the crew are many lesser-known but wonderful actors. I loved every character and their transition into a paranoid self-preservationist.

Thirdly, the score is perfect. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone provides a subtle but menacing theme. He uses repetitive two-note bass chords that sound like the heartbeat of some unseen beast. The music is not boisterous, but rather remains quietly in the background. In doing so, it effectively builds tension without being distracting.

Above all, my favorite aspect of this movie is the innovative special FX work. Rob Bottin utilized techniques like puppetry, stop-motion animation, and animatronics with stunning results. The thing, in all its mutated forms, looks incredible. With this gig, Bottin broke new ground in the field of special makeup effects and prosthetics. Films like this are the reason that today’s CGI-laced horror movies make me weep.

The Thing provides us with a simplistic man-verses-monster story and backs it up with great actors, tense atmosphere, and mind-blowing creature effects. The script leaves just enough unanswered questions to keep the viewer’s mind churning. I still have lengthy debates over how and when the creature assimilated its victims. To this day, even Carpenter claims he does not know who among the Outpost 31 crew were actually turned by the alien and when. This is just one more reason I love this movie so much. The Thing has everything you could ever want in a sci-fi or horror movie. It may not boast the memorable catchphrases or caricatures of Carpenter’s other works, but it still manages to outshine them in every way.