John Carpenter’s The Thing
Look out: John Carpenter’s chilly tale of shape-shifting chaos at the South Pole creeps back with a new transfer and two fully stocked discs of extras old and new, including the bowdlerized Network cut, just for laughs. The picture still works like gangbusters — the best monsters are still the gooey, rubbery pre-CGI kind.
John Carpenter’s The Thing
Collector’s Edition Blu-ray
1982 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 109 min. / Street Date September 20, 2016 / 34.93
Starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, Joel Polis.
Cinematography Dean Cundey
Production Design John J. Lloyd
Special Makeup Effects Rob Bottin
Film Editor Todd Ramsay
Original Music Ennio Morricone
Written by Bill Lancaster from the short story “Who Goes There?”by John W. Campbell Jr.
Produced by David Foster, Lawrence Turman
Directed by John Carpenter
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
It’s been eight years since the last Blu-ray special edition of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and it’s taken Scream Factory to do the job right. A DVD in 2003 had plenty of nice features, but a 2008 Universal Blu dropped almost everything. This new two-disc edition is an authorized remaster that includes seemingly every extra conceivable: those from the film’s release, earlier DVD goodies, and a fat crop of new offerings.
The Thing may be John Carpenter’s most accomplished thriller. By the middle 1960s, producer Howard Hawks’ original The Thing from Another World had become a television staple for adolescent monster fans, as revered as Frankenstein or King Kong, two other titles that seemed to play in constant rotation in the Creature Feature movie slots. One of its biggest fans was young John Carpenter, who would base his career on Hawks’ style of filmmaking. Assault on Precinct 13 riffed on Hawks’ Rio Bravo; Carpenter puts clips from Hawks’ The Thing on Jamie Lee Curtis’ television set in his breakout picture Halloween. The mega-success of Halloween gave Carpenter the freedom to tackle his pet personal project, a remake to be called simply The Thing.
Enthusiasts of literary science fiction had initially despaired at Hawks’ discarding the brilliant idea from the original short story in favor of a fairly generic Frankenstein’s Monster from outer space. John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Who Goes There? envisioned the alien as a shape-shifting body snatcher that can imitate and replace any living organism. It finds no difficulty infiltrating the ranks of an isolated group of men in a lonely arctic outpost. The genuinely scary story is a paranoid nightmare. One can’t be sure if one’s best friend is not really an alien pretender, quietly waiting for the right moment to attack.
Backed by Universal, Carpenter returned to Campbell Jr.’s original premise, using the latest techniques to show The Thing ingesting its victims and performing gruesome, disturbing transformations. Young makeup effects expert Rob Bottin supervised the gooey metamorphoses, which when combined with clever pre-CGI camera tricks produce some of the most effective gross-outs ever filmed. A sled dog’s muzzle splits open like a peeled orange to disgorge a flower that spits toxic matter. A man’s chest becomes a set of jaws that chew off another man’s arms. When threatened, the head of an ‘imitation man’ rips itself free of the rest of its body, grows spider legs, and scuttles away across the floor. Variety’s review suggested that for this film, the William Castle gag of having nurses in attendance at screenings might actually be a good idea.
As a series of exciting scares Carpenter’s show has few equals. He sets up the conflict with a minimum of fuss and uses telling bits of action instead of expositional dialogue to sketch his interesting characters. The researchers and staffers at an Antarctic science station are quickly differentiated. Longhaired helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) is a loner, yet becomes a de facto leader. Dr. Blair (A. Wilford Brimley) is the first to detect the grave threat to the camp. Palmer (David Clennon) is a pothead helicopter mechanic and a chronic whiner. Childs (Keith David) is a mean man with a flamethrower but prone to emotional outbursts. Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) examines the remains of various Thing-creatures killed in the process of transformation; he’s the first to formulate a test to determine which of his colleagues might really be Things in disguise. Clark (Richard Masur) takes care of the sled dogs and tends to be withdrawn and low-key. Garry (Donald Moffat) is the dependable but unimaginative head of security.
Both film versions center on a group of men under siege by a mysterious and deadly foe. In the original the military men and the scientists establish a group solidarity, and prevail through cooperation. Screenwriter Bill Lancaster’s remake has a less optimistic view, partly because Carpenter’s male group is a loose coalition of nonconformists and partly because the nature of this Thing makes group solidarity impossible. Anybody can be “the monster”; nobody can be trusted.
On a scene-by-scene level Carpenter’s mastery cannot be denied. Every monster attack is a jolting surprise. Unlike the characters in a thousand haunted house movies, nobody behaves entirely stupidly. MacReady makes good snap decisions, not hesitating to kill when necessary. We appreciate the commonsense approach when MacReady first hears the howling dogs. In a movie like Ridley Scott’s Alien fearful characters choose to go wandering alone, and are invariably attacked in the dark. MacReady instead plays it smart and hits a fire alarm. The whole camp is alerted.
As in his Halloween Carpenter makes excellent use of the Panavision canvas, showing himself a master of extreme widescreen composition. He also directs action for maximum excitement. His main failing has always been scripting, and in The Thing contains a number of frustrating story decisions. The first problem is the lack of understanding about what The Thing can and cannot do. The ‘rules’ of its modus operandi remain hazy. The few attacks and ‘takeovers’ we see are noisy affairs, yet The Thing is able to absorb several humans without being detected. The exact sequence of Whom is taken over When is so unclear that our desire to understand what’s happening dies for lack of information. Some of the film’s suspense exits along with it. It’s been reported that Carpenter undertook some reshoots to give the audience what little expositional information is there, which indicates that he initially didn’t think we needed to understand what was going on.
The identity test is the film’s most original scene, and the most frustrating. Observing that any bit of The Thing can function as an individual creature, Dr. Copper proposes that every Thing Cell is capable of acting independently. MacReady puts blood samples from all the surviving researchers in separate Petrie dishes, and burns each with a hot wire. If any of the blood is really ‘imitation Thing blood’ it will try to save itself, and reveal who isn’t who they seem to be. What happens next is just too good to spoil. The problem is that the test ‘graduates’ never properly exploit what Copper and MacReady have proved. They can finally be certain that none of their number is infected, but instead of staying together to fend off the one or two men still untested, they split up to search the camp. The ‘haunted house’ scenario comes back after all.
In the rush to a Super-Cool Finish, The Thing takes a detour into nihilism. The existential standoff at the fadeout is a tough-guy pose that rings false, with ‘real men’ opting to freeze to death rather than let The Thing survive. We wonder why nobody has taken a single photograph as evidence of the menace, or why notes haven’t been written warning relief missions not to thaw out anything organic. The audience doesn’t want good men like MacReady to just give up like this. Carpenter and Lancaster resurrect heroic film formulas, only to revert to ‘eighties clichés of hollow pessimism.
The Thing is a riveting scare show and a rewarding one to see more than once, even if frustration sets in when the monster’s gnarly bio-logic proves so difficult to straighten out. The acting is uniformly excellent. Carpenter usually avoids multi-character dialogue scenes but in this film pulls off several beauts. Kurt Russell’s understated performance turns MacReady into a dependable hero. Charles Hallahan’s Norris looks for an authority figure to follow. David Clennon’s Palmer is sarcastic and Richard Masur’s Clark sullen and defensive. Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat and Keith David trade accusations when the outpost’s blood supply is sabotaged. The hipster radio operator Windows (Thomas Waites) quietly freaks out behind his dark glasses. And Wilford Brimley’s eyes glaze over when his first assessment of the problem establishes that the alien enemy has more likely than not already won the battle.
John Carpenter’s sci-fi horror show was a theatrical underperformer. When The Thing hit the screens the welcome mat for gory monsters had already been withdrawn. Just a week or two before its premiere, Universal also released the sugary E. T. The Extraterrestrial, which captured the country’s heart. I saw E.T. at the Cinerama Dome on its first weekend. Universal tacked on a scary teaser trailer for The Thing. With the audience jammed with little kids, several irate mothers stomped out to the lobby to complain!
At the time, John Carpenter was frequently compared to John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) and especially David Cronenberg, whose films highlighted Thing– like bodily tumors, mutations and other incitements to squeamishness. Cronenberg’s flights of intellectual weirdness were fascinating but at that time even his remarkable Videodrome had difficulty cohering as a satisfying narrative. Not until his gruesome, transgressive remake of The Fly would Cronenberg truly come into his own. Both filmmakers revisit ’50s Sci-fi classics but Carpenter gets bogged down in thriller mechanics. Cronenberg re-imagines his remake from the inside out (literally) and transcends the original.
Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition Blu-ray upgrade maximizes the impact of John Carpenter’s overachieving creature feature The Thing. The company lists a new 2K scan, supervised and approved by director of photography Dean Cundey. The film has a vivid setting, with breathtaking Canadian and Alaskan scenery. The elaborate sets for the research station still impress; the all-organic, filmed-with-a-camera special effects have remained outrageous show stoppers. Only an icy matte painting or two seem to suffer, and look a little flat. A 5.1 audio mix is included, along with a new 4.1 mix engineered from the theatrical 6-track soundtrack. Ennio Morricone’s score lays minimalist rhythms over the titles and credits that often sound identical to Carpenter’s own film scores, but he also adds tense strings to heighten the mood of several scenes.
The long list of extras below show that Scream Factory has really gone to town on this Collector’s Edition — disc producer Cliff MacMillan has gathered every docu and extra put together in the past and unearthed more key original bits of film and video — some of it including footage not seen in the completed film. Most appear on the second disc, also a Blu-ray. Scream Factory’s newly produced items are lengthy interview-based docus. Every Thing filmmaker still breathing seems to have been contacted to talk about their contribution to the project; all have aged well and look back at their movie with pride. Producer and director Mick Garris hosts a long, candid talk with Carpenter. They even discuss Carpenter’s new career as a performing concert artist.
It’s good to see old friends Susan Turner and Randall William Cook hosting satisfying looks at their unused miniature and stop-motion work… that is sampled in clips that appear to be up-rezzed from SD. The second disc also contains outtakes, alternate scenes and a cut-down promo version to entice exhibitor. An entire alternate cut of the film done for Network TV is here, and can be called the ‘where’d the gore go?’ version. The quality of some of this material looks like something rescued from old VHS recordings, but it’s still good to have it for reference.
John Carpenter’s ‘go for broke’ take on The Thing remains an exciting circus of scares, with scores of mind-blowing visuals and unexpected shocks. The storytelling may stumble somewhat, but it’s still a powerhouse Sci-fi horror show.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
John Carpenter’s The Thing Blu-ray
Supplements: DISC ONE:
NEW Audio Commentary With director of photography Dean Cundey; NEW Audio Commentary with Co-producer Stuart Cohen; 2003 Audio Commentary by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell; Teaser Trailer (1 minute); Theatrical Trailers (U.S. and German) (5 minutes); TV Spots (1 minute); Radio Spots (2 minutes); Still Gallery (Behind-The-Scenes Photos, Posters and Lobby Cards) (15 minutes)
NEW Requiem for a Shape Shifter, an Interview with director John Carpenter in conversation with filmmaker Mick Garris (28 minutes); NEW The Men Of Outpost 31 — interviews with Keith David, Wilford Brimley, David Clennon, Thomas Waites, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur and Joel Polis (51 minutes); NEW Behind The Chameleon: The Sights of The Thing — Interviews with Visual Effects Artists Peter Kuran and Susan Turner, Special Make-up Effects Artist Rob Burman, Brian Wade and Stop Motion Animators Randall William Cook and Jim Aupperle (25 minutes); NEW Sounds from the Cold — Interviews with Supervising Sound Editor David Lewis Yewdall and Special Sound Effects Designer Alan Howarth (15 minutes); NEW Between the Lines — An Interview with novelization author Alan Dean Foster (16 minutes); NEW Back Into The Cold: A Return To The Shooting Locations Of The Thing — An animated photo Gallery Narrated by Todd Cameron; NEW The Art of Mike Ploog Gallery (12 minutes); John Carpenter’s The Thing: Terror Takes Shape — documentary on the making of The Thing Featuring Interviews with John Carpenter, Kurt Russell, Special Effects Make-up Designer Rob Bottin, Legendary Matte Artist Albert Whitlock, plus members of the cast And crew (80 minutes — SD); Network TV Broadcast Version of The Thing (92 minutes — SD); Outtakes (5 minutes — SD); Vintage Featurettes from The Electronic Press Kit featuring interviews with John Carpenter, Kurt Russell And Rob Bottin (13 minutes — SD); Vintage Featurettes — The Making Of A Chilling Tale and The Making Of THE THING (14 minutes — SD); Vintage Product Reel, a condensed version of the film with additional footage not seen in the film (19 minutes — SD); Vintage Behind-The-Scenes Footage (2 minutes — SD); Annotated Production Archive — Production Art And Storyboards, Location Scouting, Special Make-up Effects, Post Production (54 minutes — SD)
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: October 30, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson