Benjamin’s Stash

It’s the only thing worse than diabeetus. Kurt Russell, Keith David, Richard Masur and Wilford Brimley star in John Carpenter’s The Thing.

The ThingCast of Characters:
MacReady – Kurt Russell
Blair – A. Wilford Brimley
Nauls – T. K. Carter
Palmer – David Clennon
Childs – Keith David
Dr. Copper – Richard Dysart
Norris – Charles Hallahan
Bennings – Peter Maloney
Clark – Richard Masur
Garry – Donald Moffat
Fuchs – Joel Polis
Windows – Thomas Waites

Director – John Carpenter
Screenplay – Bill Lancaster
Based on the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell
Producer – David Foster & Lawrence Turman
Rated R

In the Antarctic, a Norwegian helicopter chases down an Alaskan Malamute to an American research station. The Norwegians are unsuccessful in capturing the dog, who is rescued by the Americans. Puzzled by what has taken place, the station sends helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) to the Norwegian camp for answers. All they find is charred ruins, but they also discover the remains of a humanoid corpse that appears to have two faces.

They bring the corpse back for the team biologist Blair (A. Wilford Brimley) to examine, and what he eventually discovers threatens to destroy the lives of these men, with little to no chance of escaping it.

For as much as you have and will continue to have to put up with my bitching over crappy horror remakes (which most of them are), The Thing is an example of a horror film that not only works, not only surpasses the original (which is still a great film from the legendary Howard Hawks), it’s one of the greatest horror films ever made.

By 1982, director John Carpenter already had an established career that began with Dark Star and was then followed by Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog and Escape from New York. Next up was The Thing (which would reunite him with Escape from New York star Kurt Russell), a remake of the 1951 film The Thing from Another World and based on John W. Campbell’s sci-fi novella Who Goes There? Much like the comedy Caddyshack and the spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Thing opened to negative reviews and also fared poorly at the box office (Caddyshack at least made nearly $40 million on a $6 million budget). Opening a few weeks after Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and on the same day as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner didn’t help matters any, but like both Caddyshack and the Clint Eastwood classic, The Thing gradually developed a cult following (a tendency with many of Carpenter’s films) and has now been rightfully reassessed as one of the most influential films of both the horror and sci-fi genres.

This was John Carpenter at the top of his game, which says a lot since prior to this film he had already made one of the greatest slasher (Halloween) and action films (Escape from New York), and even his smaller films like Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog showed how tremendously skilled he was at his craft. What Carpenter did here went beyond being just ho-hum scary; he created perfectly paced tension and terror through an entrapped, claustrophobic, cabin fever-like atmosphere that gradually builds and builds as the movie moves along. Much like the Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None (aka Ten Little Indians), Carpenter and writer Bill Lancaster wisely avoid just rehashing the Howard Hawks classic and serve up a suspenseful whodunit (or, more appropriately, who is it) that keeps us guessing as to who amongst the twelve men are infected by this creature that can assimilate into any living organism. The film convincingly has believing that any one of them could be it, and in a rather genius move by the filmmakers they refrained from revealing to the cast who among them was the creature, which in turn created more genuine, believable performances (having the cast work in freezing temperatures aided the believability as well). The motives and origin of the creature are left unanswered, and it doesn’t need to be any other way. All we’re told here is that this is what the creature can do and it ain’t any good.

Part of what makes this film so much fun is the talented ensemble cast of colorful and unique characters, led by the underrated Kurt Russell (a dependable go-to guy for Carpenter throughout the ’80s) in one of his most memorable performances. One of the reasons why the most recent, unnecessary prequel (which was oddly also titled The Thing) failed so bad was that the characters were hard to distinguish (aside from a fairly effective Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and they really had no personality. It’s a credit to Carpenter, Lancaster and the cast that they could take as many as twelve men, stick them in a confined space and flesh them out individually. It’s not so much the individual personalities that click as it is the exciting dynamic that’s created amongst them all.

Although I love what a film can accomplish with CGI and visual effects (so long as the story comes first and the effects are there to assist it), we’ve kinda become spoiled by what movies can do now and fail to appreciate what practical effects can do for a film. From a craftsmanship standpoint, The Thing is nothing short of brilliant, and the organic approach taken by the crew just adds to the frightening nature. John Lloyd’s (who unfortunately passed away just a month ago) production design and the incredible makeup effects and creature design from both Rob Bottin and the late Oscar winner Stan Winston still hold up to this day, and it speaks to what Bottin and Winston were able to bring to this film when many of the cast later confirmed that some of the prosthetics made them sick to their stomachs.

Of course, Ennio Morricone (an uncharacteristic move by Carpenter, who typically scored his own films) will mostly, for obviously understandable reasons, be remembered for scoring spaghetti westerns, particularly the song “The Ecstasy of Gold” for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But that doesn’t take away anything from the haunting, slow pulse-pounding synthetic bass soundtrack he composed here that gives off an ominous, maddening vibe which complements the tone of the film so perfectly.

Grim, foreboding and filled to the brim with gory effects that aim to excite and not disgust, John Carpenter’s The Thing is equally effective as a horror, sci-fi, action and thriller film. Thanks to the talented cast and the remarkable practical effects constructed by John Lloyd, Rob Bottin and Stan Winston, Carpenter’s vision is a full-throttle thrill ride that never once lets up once it gets going.

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