I did not go to see The Thing in 1982. I was a young'un, probably one
theater over, watching E.T., which was released about the same time and gave
The Thing the (glowing) finger at the box office (both The Thing
and E.T. were Universal pictures). Which made seeing The Thing, for the
first time, 19 years after it was released, an even more amazing experience.
Like Aliens, Blade Runner, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, The
Thing has not just aged well; it has barely aged at all.
The basic setup of The Thing is none too original. Put a group of people
in an isolated location, let a monster loose in their midst, and watch the ensuing
carnage. It had been done before, and it's been done dozens of times after,
but only a handful have been done as effectively as The Thing. The
Thing works well on the jump-out-and-scare-you "GOTCHA" level,
but The Thing is also a mystery movie that will have you asking a lot
more interesting questions than "Who's going to get eviscerated next?"
The very best of these type of movies pull you into the situation, put you
among the characters, and make you wonder how you would react if it were your
life on the line. Would you be rational? Would you crack? Would you make one
of those stupid (and fatal) mistakes? What plan would you come up with to save
the day (or would you just try to save yourself)?
Stephen King's The Stand (the book and the underrated miniseries)
will keep you awake thinking about what you would do if a virulent disease wiped
out everyone you knew, and you were left in a nearly abandoned world to pick
up the pieces. Once, on a long drive home after watching Romero's Dawn of
the Dead and Day of the Dead, my brother and I spent a good hour
coming up with a highly detailed zombie contingency plan. It's important to
think ahead, you know, just in case the dead really do start rising up to feast
on the living.
Point is: suspense, paranoia, excellent lighting and cinematography, and a
great "what if
?" scenario. Not a hack-and-slash poorly disguised
as science fiction. Oh, and the cast is damn fine too. Richard Dysart (L.A.
Law), Richard Masur (later cast in Stephen King's IT, no coincidence),
and Keith David (later cast in Pitch Black, no coincidence), among others.
Kurt Russell (also of John Carpenter's Escape from New York and Big
Trouble in Little China) in a role that's lived-in and utterly believable.
And Wilford "It's the right thing to do, and the tasty way to do it"
Brimley gives a performance that will make you forget Our House, just
in case you already haven't.
The Thing was a remake of 1951's The Thing from Another World,
which, in turn, was a telling of John Campbell's story "Who Goes There?"
But while it does have its roots in these two source materials, it also owes
at least as much to the Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies and Ridley
Scott's Alien. (In turn, James Cameron's Aliens takes some inspiration
from The Thing.) Invasion of the Body Snatchers was supposedly
a metaphor for the distrust caused by the political climate of McCarthyism and
the red scare. One of director John Carpenter's inspirations was the (at the
time) emerging threat of AIDS, and you can see it in the improvised blood test
that the characters in The Thing perform.
They just don't make movies like The Thing anymore. And when I say that,
it's not a disparaging remark about the current crop of movies (okay, maybe
it is a little like that). I mean that, if someone were to make The Thing
now, they would not make the movie the same way. Today, a monster movie (there
are exceptions) is going to rely heavily on computer generated effects. When
The Thing was made, computer graphics technology was roughly equivalent
to Atari's Asteroids video game (Check out the cell invasion simulation
in The Thing for an example of the state of the art in 1982. It looks
a lot like
Rob Bottin is the man behind many of the creature effects. You get a great
sense of the guy on the DVD's 80-minute documentary "Terror Takes Shape".
Bottin is a big, goofy kid, and he'll probably be a big, goofy kid until the
day he dies. Oh, yeah, he's also a genius.
John Carpenter has said many times that what he wanted to do with The Thing
was get away from the man-in-a-suit monsters that have populated 99% of creature
features. That forced Bottin to be very creative. When I watched The Thing,
I was astounded by the special effects. When I found out how they were done,
I was doubly impressed. His work on The Thing was almost insanely painstaking.
During production of The Thing, Bottin lived in his workshop seven days
a week. After they wrapped the film, John Carpenter sent him to the hospital
Nowadays, a director can just order up a CGI movie monster. I'm not saying
that computer animators don't have a hard job, but the things that Bottin did
with rubber, wires, gelatin, Twinkie additives, slime, and bubblegum are as
convincing (often more convincing) than the flashy digital stuff coming out
20 years later. (See also The Mummy Returns, Evolution, and Tomb
After just one viewing, The Thing easily makes my top ten list of monster
movies. The creature from The Thing ranks up there with all-time great
silver screen critters like Jaws, Godzilla, King Kong, the aliens, the predators,
and the raptors.