My father was stationed overseas in South Korea when I was in High School and Sunday Night was move night. Whatever movie the theater was showing, and note that we got the movies a good six months after it had shown stateside, we went to go see it mainly because there wasn’t much else to do. On this particular cold winter night in 1982, me and my friend’s saw John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, and none of us would ever be the same.
You know the story, because by now who over the age of twenty hasn’t seen this version of ‘The Thing’? Some Norwegians are riding in a helicopter, in Antarctica, trying to kill a dog. Why are they doing this? I mean this is one beautiful dog. Well, Norwegians completely suck at shooting at dogs from helicopters and this canine makes it to the safety of the American science compound. Now in retrospect I’m thinking for this dog to make it all the way from the Norwegian compound to the American compound, considering it takes a helicopter at least an hour to get there… that must be one awesome dog.
Regardless, the dog survives, the Norwegians do not, and now Clark (Richard Masur) has a new puppy for his hound pound. The fact remains that something went terribly wrong with those Norwegians so Doc (Richard Dysart) rounds up the pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) to run him out to the Norwegian outpost for a little recon mission. What they find is a lot of burned out buildings, dead bodies and… uh… other stuff. It’s this ‘other stuff’ that’s problem. They load it up, take it back to their base and begin the scientific process.
Eventually the wolf hound, which had full access to the premises, is placed in the kennel with the rest of the huskies. Those dogs don’t like this dog. Not even a little bit. Everybody will learn why in just a few seconds as this dog turns inside out and begins horribly digesting the other dogs. If Childs (Keith David) could just shake of his weed high and bring the flamethrower… thank you Childs.
So what’s up? Turns out that this thing is an alien, complete with his own spaceship and those idiot Norwegians defrosted it from its hundred thousand year slumber. Idiot Norwegians. Worst still, Doc Blair (the late Wilford Brimley) has figured out this thing has the unique ability to exactly copy its host. To perfection. That means that one or more of our people are probably things. And according to Doc Blair’s calculations, if this creature makes it to civilization, life as we know it will probably end in about a year’s time.
But who is the thing? Who’s human? Paranoia is high, trust is low and tempers are short. Who will survive? Hopefully for our sake, none of those bastards will. Seriously.
So what makes John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ a great movie? And even after revisiting it some thirty years later, it is still a great movie. It’s not character development since we know next to nothing about the members of this Antarctic science crew, and we won’t learn all that much more about them as they go through the process of getting slaughtered in this movie, but the characters and their unique personalities are all infinitely memorable. The plot is a simple one, and the pace is slow, relatively speaking. Nonetheless, it is this methodical pace, the mood, the atmosphere, these memorable characters and Rob Bottin which makes this still a great film. In 1982 we’d never seen anything quite like this, and apparently nobody else had or cared since it I’m told it flopped at the box office back in the day. Maybe releasing a cold, slow moving, monster movie with nothing but dudes in it in the summertime wasn’t the best course of action Universal? But while Bottin’s horrific special effects is what most everyone remembers about this movie, it’s Carpenter’s pace, the mood, and the overall sense of dread that permeates throughout this movie that amplified Bottin’s gore effects to the power of ten. An example of this foreboding mood, ten years or so ago I’m revisiting ‘The Thing’ on DVD and my five year old son walks in. The movie had just started, he asks me what I’m watching, I tell him and he sits down. Five minutes in, with nothing bad having happened yet, his young mind still knew something was wrong with this movie and he promptly excused himself and went to his room to play with Tinky Winky. That’s effective filmmaking right there.
The cast is uniformly excellent and the skill of this cast effectively negates the need for silliness like ‘character development’, the movie also launched the career of Keith David and for this we are forever thankful for John Carpenter. Sometimes when you revisit a movie for the first time in a long time, it often feels new again since a lot of what you have seen has ebbed way. Not this one for me. I saw it just yesterday, for the first time in a long time on defunct HD-DVD disc - The Look and Sound and of Perfect, and every scene was burned in my brain as if I had just seen it a week ago. Takes away some of the jump scares, but again, effective filmmaking.
Of course I tooted up my HD-DVD copy in prep for the new version of ‘The Thing’, a prequel taking place in the camp of those idiot Norwegians, just to make sure I didn’t miss out on anything. I don’t expect the new film to be better, being as how that would be damn near impossible, but I do still expect it to respect the original, a movie that’s near the top of my personal list of the ten best movies ever made.