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The Thing
Reviewed by Jason Myers, ©

Format: Movie
By:   John Carpenter
Genre:   Horror / Science Fiction / Mystery
Released:   1982
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   10/10 (What Is This?)

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 … Atari's Asteroids).

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 to recover.

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 Raider.)

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.


-Copies of Film/DVD Editor Jason Myers' Zombie Contingency Plan are available for the low low price of $19.95. Order now at a get a free Impending Apocalypse Survival Kit, absolutely free!

 
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    DVD Details

    Lots of groovy stuff here. A commentary track with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell; an 80-minute documentary, "Terror Takes Shape", which is completely fascinating, in spite of its mostly talking head nature; a few excised scenes from the movie, including a stop-motion bit that John Carpenter rightly sized up as being not realistic enough; and a heap of photos, storyboards and notes: production, location design, and post-production. But the "Cast & Filmmakers" section only has bios on Russell and Carpenter. Huh? DVD Rating: 9/10.

     

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