The Thing (1982)

Director: John Carpenter
Screenplay: Bill Lancaster (based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr.)
Stars: Kurt Russell (R.J. MacReady), Wilford Brimley (Dr. Blair), T.K. Carter (Nauls), David Clennon (Palmer), Keith David (Childs), Richard Dysart (Dr. Copper), Charles Hallahan (Vance Norris), Peter Maloney (George Bennings), Richard Masur (Clark), Donald Moffat (Garry), Joel Polis (Fuchs), Thomas G. Waites (Windows), Norbert Weisser (Norwegian)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1982
Country: U.S.
The Thing
The Thing

When we think of John Carpenter’s masterful sci-fi horrorshow The Thing, what usually springs to mind is the surreally shape-shifting xenomorph of the title, sprouting twisted, leering, deformed heads and crackling crab legs and wildly waving tentacles and gnashing monster teeth. The Thing is an incredibly, memorably, gruesomely visceral film, probably the gooiest, goriest, most blatantly gut-punching major studio production of its era (which is ironic given that Richard Heffner, the chairman of the MPAA’s ratings board at the time, had vowed to be harder on rating movie violence and had been doing so for some time).

However, for all its visual horrors, The Thing is, at its core, a classically structured whodunit,—although in this case it is more of a whoisit? “Who Goes There?,” the source novella by science fiction titan John W. Campbell Jr., first published in 1938, had been adapted in 1951 as The Thing From Another World by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby. Carpenter’s film is often referred to as a remake, but it isn’t because screenwriter Bill Lancaster returned and stayed much closer to the original story, which focused on the queasy impossibility of determining who is human and who is a shape-shifting alien in human disguise. The Hawks and Nyby film is a classic of its era, but Carpenter’s work is in a largely different vein and is its own beast.

The story is set entirely at a remote Antarctic research station in the subzero-frozen dead of winter. The station is manned by a dozen men of varying temperaments and personalities played by a roster of character actors that includes Wilford Brimley as a taciturn pathologist who becomes almost insanely paranoid; T.K. Carter as a sarcastic, roller-skating cook; Keith David as a brusque mechanic; Charles Hallahan as a meek physicist; and Richard Masur as an intensely reserved dog handler. The film’s nominal star is Kurt Russell, who plays a hard-drinking, heavily-bearded, perpetually scowling helicopter pilot named MacReady. Russell had previously worked with Carpenter on his 1979 made-for-television movie Elvis and the dystopian action film Escape From New York (1981), and his rising star status is perhaps the film’s only flaw, as it suggests all too clearly who is most likely to be one of the last men standing (although, to Carpenter’s credit, The Thing ends on a true downer, with a nihilistic sense of ambiguity that makes the open ending of 1978’s Halloween seem feel-good).

The Thing was Carpenter’s first studio-backed project, and he took full advantage of the scope of resources now available to him. He and cinematographer Dean Cundey, with whom he had worked on his previous three films (Halloween, 1980s’s The Fog, and Escape From New York), create a constant sense of entrapment and isolation. They use the frozen expanse around the research facility (actually a glacier in northern British Columbia) to reinforce the distance between the characters and the rest of humanity, which might as well not exist, and the close quarters inside the facility to reinforce the characters’ paranoia and make it all but impossible to determine who has been exposed to the alien and therefore may no longer be human. As they did in Halloween, Carpenter and Cundey use the wide Panavision frame to engulf us visually, leaving plenty of room around the dark edges to suggest what might be lurking just off-screen. Italian composer Ennio Morricone supplies an effective musical score, although many of the most memorable synthesizer beats are pure Carpenter (who composed the music for most of his films).

Of course, as noted earlier, the film’s special effects are, in many ways, the star of the show, which were a point of criticism in some circles. The mechanical and prosthetic effects were all designed and created by Rob Bottin, who was only in his early 20s, but had already made a major impact on the horror genre with his werewolf transformation effects in Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981). Bottin’s creature creations are genius in the way they merge all manner of twisted, nightmarish imagery, playing off the familiar and making it utterly horrifying. The film’s reliance on traditional physical effects (no CGI here) gives it a palpable sense of texture and realism, similar to the effects in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). The effects also play into the film’s various tones: sometimes they are simply grotesque, at other times they are shocking (such as the moment when a character’s abdomen suddenly and unexpectedly turns into a giant toothed maw), and other times they are blackly comical (such as when a disembodied head-Thing sprouts spider-like legs and scuttles off in the background as the terrified characters look for it).

But, as successful as the effects are, they would constitute little more than a finely crafted freak show if Carpenter and his cast didn’t generate a constant, escalating sense of dread and suspense. The Thing is, in its gut, a variation on Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” the classic story in which characters in a remote setting are murdered one by one while the remaining characters try to figure out who the murderer is. The Thing itself is less a character than a conceit that Carpenter uses to pit the characters against each other. It helps that Carpenter has such a finely tuned sense of what is genuinely unsettling, which sets the film apart from the spate of splatter films that were dominating the horror genre at the time. Interestingly, the film’s best scene, in which MacReady attempts to determine who is the Thing by testing the blood of each man with a heated wire (he has realized that each part of the Thing is an independent organism that will try to save itself) has no gore or viscera in it and operates entirely on the fundamentals of good ol’ fashioned suspense. It’s a corker of a scene and one that rewards with both a jump-scare of imminent worth and a pay-off that is simultaneously terrifying and hilarious. Carpenter would go on to make several more very good movies in the 1980s, including the moving sci-fi romance Starman (1984), the oddball cult classic Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and the consumerist satire They Live (1988), but it is hard to argue that The Thing isn’t the pinnacle of his work as a filmmaker—a film that is fascinating, horrifying, and utterly engaging from the first frame to the last.

The Thing Collector’s Edition Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 4.1 surround
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio Commentary by director of photography Dean Cundey
  • Audio Commentary by director John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell
  • Teaser trailer
  • U.S. and German theatrical trailers
  • TV spots
  • Radio Spots
  • Still Gallery (behind-the-scenes photos, posters and lobby cards)
  • Video interview with John Carpenter in conversation with Mick Garris
  • Video interviews with actors Keith David, Wilford Brimley, David Clennon, Thomas Waites, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, and Joel Polis
  • Video interview with editor Todd Ramsay
  • Video interviews with visual effects artists Peter Kuran and Susan Turner, special make-up effects artist Rob Burman and Brian Wade, and stop-motion animators Randall William Cook and Jim Aupperle
  • Video interviews with supervising sound editor David Lewis Yewdall and special sound effects designer Alan Howarth
  • Video interview with novelization author Alan Dean Foster
  • John Carpenter’s The Thing: Terror Takes Shape retrospective documentary
  • Outtakes
  • Vintage featurettes from the electronic press kit
  • Vintage featurettes “The Making of a Chilling Tale” (5:13) and “The Making of The Thing
  • The Art of Mike Ploog
  • “Back Into the Cold: Revisiting the Filming Location of The Thing” featurette
  • Vintage production reel
  • Vintage behind-the-scenes footage
  • Annotated production archive
  • Network TV broadcast version of The Thing
  • DistributorShout! Factory
    Release DateOctober 11, 2016

    Shout! Factory’s Collector’s Edition Blu-ray marks The Thing’s second Blu-ray release, and it looks and sounds amazing. Shout!’s disc features a transfer that was scanned in 2K from a 35mm interpositive under the supervision and approval of cinematographer Dean Cundey, so I have to imagine this is as accurate a presentation as we’ve seen. The transfer doesn’t improve substantially on Universal’s earlier Blu-ray in terms of clarity and detail, but it is a tad brighter and the color temperature is noticeably cooler, which results in a slightly more bluish image that befits the film’s frigid atmosphere. In terms of sound, you have the choice of an earlier 5.1-channel mix or a new 4.1-channel mix that has been created from the original 70MM six track Dolby stereo soundtrack. The new mix is quite impressive, with a robust low end, good clarity, and plenty of activity in the surround channels, especially when the Thing starts doing its thing. The number of supplements on this two-disc set is very nearly overwhelming, as it combines a slew of new material with virtually everything that has appeared on earlier editions of The Thing, dating back to Universal’s Signature Collection laserdisc. New to this edition is an audio commentary with Cundey, who offers a great deal of insight into the film’s production from his unique perspective. There are also an impressive collection of new video interviews. In “Requiem for a Shape Shifter,” horror filmmaker Mick Garris, who was on-set during production and directed a making-of featurette that is included in this set, interviews John Carpenter about the film. “The Men of Outpost 31” assembles interviews with a half-dozen of the actors who appeared in the film, including Keith David, Wilford Brimley, David Clennon, Thomas Waites, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, and Joel Polis. “Assembling and Assimilation” is a brief interview with editor Todd Ramsay, while “Behind the Chameleon: The Visual Effects of The Thing” contains interviews with visual effects artists Peter Kuran and Susan Turner, special make-up effects artist Rob Burman and Brian Wade, and stop-motion animators Randall William Cook and Jim Aupperle. “Sounds From the Cold” includes interviews with supervising sound editor David Lewis Yewdall and special sound effects designer Alan Howarth, and “Between the Lines” is an interview with novelization author Alan Dean Foster. “Back Into the Cold: A Return to the Shooting Locations of The Thing” is short featurette narrated by Todd Cameron, founder of the fan site, about his trip to the Canadian filming location in 2003 with fellow fan Steve Crawford. Finally, the disc adds an impressive gallery of concept art by Mike Ploog. The rest of the material on the disc comes from previous editions: an audio commentary by director John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell; a teaser trailer, U.S. and German theatrical trailers, and TV and radio spots; Behind-the-scenes photos, posters, and lobby cards stills galleries; the feature-length retrospective documentary John Carpenter’s The Thing: Terror Takes Shape, which features circa 1998 interviews with Carpenter, Russell, special effects make-up designer Rob Bottin (who pretty much steals the show, in my opinion), and matte artist Albert Whitlock, among others; the complete network TV broadcast version the film (in what looks like worn VHS quality), which runs just over 93 minutes and is not only pan-and-scanned and missing all the goriest bits, but also adds an absolutely awful voice-over narration at the beginning that explains who each character is in the style of a 1970s educational film; five minutes of outtakes; vintage featurettes from the Electronic Press Kit featuring interviews with Carpenter, Russell, and Bottin; the vintage featurettes “The Making of a Chilling Tale” and “The Making of The Thing”; a vintage product reel that contains a condensed version of The Thing with additional footage not in the theatrical version; vintage behind-the-scenes footage; and a 54-minute annotated production archive filled with production art and storyboards, location scouting, special make-up effects, and post production work.

    Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Shout! Factory

    Overall Rating: (4)

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