I did two things in recent days; firstly I watched John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing in preparation for this review, and secondly I watched Halloween on Halloween, which I generally do every year as tradition dictates unless real life gets in the way. I mention this because of the scene in Halloween where little Tommy Doyle is sat up watching late night horror films on the TV and we are treated to the opening titles of 1951’s The Thing From Another World. It struck me as quite extraordinary that Carpenter went on to reinvent the film he was paying homage to.
So lets set the scene! Antarctica, winter 1982. The sun is shining, and yet the weather is bitterly cold. The camera follows a chopper flying low across the white arid landscape, a wolf appears, the colouring of its fur coat is striking against the snow. A man in the chopper pulls out a sniper rifle and starts to shoot. Man is the threat. The wolf tries to get away, the audience wills this to happen which it does. The residents of United States National Science Institute Station 4 come to the aid of the animal, they add the dog to their pack. Now the danger is within.
The genius of The Thing is that we can all understand what it is like, weather at home or at work, to be stuck in a confined space with people you can barley stand at the best of times let alone trust with your life. The thing can take on the appearance of any other living organism and with no hope of contacting help until spring the all male research team must find some way of telling who is a friend and who is an enemy. Some crackup, some are taken over by the thing, and some, like MacReady played by Kurt Russell, fight to stay human. We initially see the set from the low angles of dogs eye view as it pads around the camp mingling freely with its inmates. Carpenter creates a tense claustrophobic atmosphere so that when events start to go sour (as it does in the dog kennel scene) suddenly the little domestic irritations of day to day life shared within the same small group of individuals cause people to become suspicious and paranoid. A ripped pair of underpants chucked unhygienically into the kitchen bin becomes a source of unease.
The Thing is an ensemble piece and we see a great deal of most of the characters, but cleverly the audience is never left in any doubt that MacReady is human. Kurt Russell’s MacReady is the archetypal cool anti-hero. He could be chilling in his cabin, with a bottle of Jim Beam, but he must reluctantly organise the station to discover who is infected and keep the infection from escaping to reach the wider population. Kurt Russell is seriously cool in this movie. We identify with MacReady and, like MacReady, we the audience start to feel that we are quite possibly alone in a world of ice and hostile doppelgängers.
The Thing’s classic score comes from not one but two amazing horror maestros Carpenter himself, and Ennio Morricone with the main theme. There is something compelling about the continuous rhythmic beats of the score that temporally pushes the on-screen action along towards some inevitable invisible doom. I still can’t get the music out of my head.
The version of The Thing that I watched was the new Universal 100th anniversary Blu Ray steel-book edition. Dean Cundy’s cinematography always looked beautiful, especially the snowy landscape shots, however thecleaned up digital copy now allows us to see some of the monster special effects more clearly. And boy do they stand-up to the test of time. Not only are they still, terrifying, enthralling and gory, they contain just the right amount of tongue in cheek humour to delight. (It’s behind you!) The special features contain some entertaining interviews with special make-up effects creator Rob Bottin, as well as audio commentary from John and Kurt which, if their commentary on Escape from New York (1981) is anything to go by, should be highly entertaining.