November 08, 2011

The Thing (1982)

In 1951, the sci-fi horror film "The Thing from Another World" was released and became a massive commercial success for producer Howard Hawks, who apparently also directed it (though credit went to Christopher Nyby). The film had a tremendous impact in a young kid named John Carpenter, and it prompted him to pursue filmmaking as a career. After film school, Carpenter earned cult status with two independent films: 1976's "Assault on Precinct 13" and 1978's highly influential horror film "Halloween". Both film had shades of Hawks in their making, the former being a spiritual heir of Hawks "Rio Bravo" and the latter directly referencing "The Thing from Another World" by having the film appearing on a TV screen. After having his third major commercial success with the science-fiction adventure "Escape from New York" (1981), Carpenter was set to enter the world of major studio filmmaking. And the film that would mark his entry would be another direct Hawksian reference: a full-fledged remake of "The Thing from Another World".

Titled simply as "The Thing", the story begins in the winter of 1982, in a U.S. research station located in the remote territories of Antarctica. Suddenly, the members of the American crew notice a Norwegian helicopter coming their way, apparently chasing a Husky dog that runs towards the American base. The helicopter lands, and their pilots, showing sings of insanity, try to kill the dog desperately, accidentally shooting towards the Americans. Unfortunately, both pilots end up killed accidentally, leaving the Americans the task of figuring out what made them to be insane and chase the dog, which soon finds itself at home at the base. Being unable to report the incident, pilot R. J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) venture to the Norwegian camp to find out more. To their surprise, they find the base destroyed, and the burned remains of a humanoid corpse with horrid features. Returning to the American camp, they'll Soon they'll discover that the dog the Norwegians were hunting wasn't a normal dog, but a thing from another world.

Adapted by screenwriter Bill Lancaster, this version of "The Thing" is a lot more faithful to its source (John W. Campbell's novella "Who goes there?"), with the monster as a creature able to imitate the crew members (or any living creature), a concept that was blatantly ignored by Hawks' version. This approach makes Carpenter's "The Thing" less a straight remake and more a completely different conception of Campbell's novella. As such, Bill Lancaster's script plays with mystery and suspense with great success, enhancing the sensation of paranoia and unpredictability of the plot with excellent results. Lancaster also builds up a great set of well-defined and complex characters, an instrumental element in the film, as a lot of the tension raised steams from the difficult relationships between the crew members, who trapped inside their camp, begin to distrust each other. Unlike Hawks' version, the film's tone is remarkably bleak and pessimist, as an atmosphere of impending doom begins to surround the crew.

In his seminal slasher "Halloween", John Carpenter placed more emphasis on suspense and atmosphere over gore and shock, and while "The Thing" makes great use of Rob Bottin's remarkable work of special effects, it still could be seen as an evolution of that style. Despite the extensive display of Bottin's work, there is still a greater focus on the ominous atmosphere of isolation, distrust and dread that's imbued in the film. Suspense in fact plays a major role in the film, as paranoia begins to grow within the American camp and everyone is suspect of being the Thing. With the great eye of cinematographer Dean Cundey (Capenter's regular collaborator), director John Carpenter creates a claustrophobic nightmare inside the American camp, which with the storm raging outside, becomes a haunting secluded location through Carpenter's vision. And as written above, the work done by Rob Bottin in the special effects department is simply amazing, a superb work of grotesque and absolute genius.

Since the tensions between the crew members make for a quite important element in the movie, the performances by the cast are instrumental for the success of the film, and in this aspect the cast of "The Thing" is also of great quality. In fact, the performances are so effective that one can almost cut the tension with a knife. Carpenter's regular collaborator Kurt Russel stars as pilot MacReady, a cynical man forced to be the man in charge as the situation gets worse. Wilford Brimley delivers another terrific performance as Dr. Blair, a scientist that goes insane figuring out the Thing's purposes. Brimley conveys perfectly the sense of despair that the whole station is, and in his character's madness is perhaps represented the crumbling of their hope. As the short tempered Childs, Keith David is also pretty good, being essentially MacReady's rival in the crew's leadership. Also of note is David Clennon's performance as Palmer, and Donald Moffat, whom adds a lot of dignity in his role as Captain Garry.

When initially released in 1982, John Carpenter's "The Thing" got a cold reception by both the critics and the audiences. Somber, dark and overtly pessimist, the film was seen as a shockingly grotesque spectacle and ended up overshadowed by Steven Spielberg's "E.T.", which had a quite different and friendlier approach to extraterrestrial beings. Nevertheless, Carpenter's take on "The Thing" stands as a monumental achievement in horror filmmaking, proving to be a nightmarish masterpiece that goes beyond its violence and gore, it's a dark venture into mankind's darkest fear: the fear of the isolation. Not only the crew is geographically isolated, they are suddenly alone amidst a bunch of strangers for, nobody knows who could still be human. In this aspect Carpenter surpasses Hawks, who left the monster as an outsider entity. Carpenter's Thing is astute, evil, and could be anyone in the crew; and as Dr. Blair and Captain Garry crumble demoralized by the Thing's menace, Carpenter makes the point that neither science nor military is enough to face it.

While certainly there are aspects in "The Thing" that haven't aged well, this remarkable film still stands as a wonderfully crafted work that shows the extent of Carpenter's talent as a filmmaker. While probably he'll always be remembered for his landmark classic "Halloween", the level of mastery achieved in "The Thing" makes it perhaps his greatest achievement. One of the most interesting and actually scary horror films of all time, "The Thing" is a perfect example of a remake that puts a different angle to its source and creates a powerful new story out of it. The student surpassing his master. Beyond the horror genre, John Carpenter's "The Thing" is probably one of the finest American films ever made.



Marin Mandir said...

While I would not call it one of the finest American movies of all time (for my taste, it needed more character development and emotional weight), this is still a well made and truly scary movie. Carpenter was the "John Ford of horror" and crafted some fine films, sometimes even with a social commentary. The aspect that stands out the most to me in this this film are the unbelievable special effects: the modern CGI cannot compete with this. I truly cannot grasp how believable and realistic some of the monster scenes were in here.

J Luis Rivera said...

Indeed. While rewatching I stood fascinated wondering how the heck did they managed to do those things! Modern day CGI would look fake and superimpossed. It's amazing.