The Cult of John Carpenter: THE THING

Directed by John Carpenter

Written by Bill Lancaster & John W. Campbell Jr

Produced by David Foster, Lawrence Turman & Larry J. Franco

Music by Ennio Morricone

Starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur & Donald Moffat

Original UK release date: 26th August 1982

Feature running time: 109 minutes

thething

GENERAL PLOT:

Antarctica, 1982. The first week of winter. Two Norwegians in a helicopter are chasing a sled dog, which flees through the snow to a United States science station, where the 12 occupants emerge to see what’s happening. One of the Norwegians accidentally blows himself up, the other is shooting wildly, and is himself shot dead. But the dog survives. Up to a point. The Americans don’t know it yet, but their camp has just been infiltrated by a shape-shifting alien. And, as the tagline so succinctly puts it: ‘Man is the warmest place to hide.’ (SOURCE: Anne Billson, The Guardian, 27th August 2009)

THE GOOD:

For those that really know me have a general idea of the type of films that I really cherish by watching them over and over and always discovering something new, loving those specific films a little bit extra more. For those that hardly know me at all, I’m a huge all round sucker for science fiction and horror. Always have been, always will be. But its when sci-fi and horror splice themselves together as one within a sub-genre, then you know you’re going to be in for such a treat, and John Carpenter’s The Thing is absolutely no exception. Placing it somewhere in my top 20 favourite films of all time and my 2nd favourite film from Carpenter (it comes so close with Assault on Precinct 13, which is also a masterpiece), finally being able to have the opportunity to see it on the big screen, courtesy of BFI as part of their ‘Cult John Carpenter’ film season, was seriously a big deal for me.

First thing’s first, the cinematic experience of seeing The Thing was by far one of the greatest cinema going experiences I’ve had (and I don’t say that lightly), I worried at first that I made a mistake getting seats so near to the front (second row from the front to be exact) but thankfully the screen at the BFI Southbank isn’t hugely massive. Also the sound was cranked all the way up to its absolute highest volume, so sitting there watching it in a dark room being that close to the screen, it just felt all the more immersive and that’s what made the experience of seeing it all over again all the more awesome. I felt like with both the picture and sound being of the best quality I’ve ever bare witnessed to, it really gave myself and I’m pretty sure the rest of the audience too; a greater sense of the feeling of isolation, paranoia and the freezing coldness of where these twelve characters are in the Antarctica. Even though I’ve seen this film dozens of times, it had been a while since I last saw it before making the trip to London for its big screen re-release so there were some small details I had forgotten about that I quite liked, for example: the moment where they performed an autopsy on the alien, finding out what its main function was, in this case having the ability to imitate anyone or anything it touches.

For a film released an unbelievable 34 years ago now, the make-up and special effects designed by Rob Bottin are completely astounding, long before CGI ever thought to come into these kind of films; I honestly believe that these visuals have never once ever been bettered or equalled as of yet in terms of its inventiveness and creativity. This can kind of be argued to an extent when comparing it to the visual effects and extraordinary action set pieces in another timeless sci-fi horror classic such as Ridley Scott’s Alien, but I do think that Carpenter’s film takes all of that one amazing step further.

Sadly, the film received a less than warmly kind reception from all the critics upon its general release with some being quoted as saying ‘This movie is more disgusting than frightening, and most of it just boring’ or ‘too phony looking to be disgusting. It qualifies only as instant junk’. It also doesn’t help much either that this film was released during the same summer as Steven Spielberg’s E.T: The Extra Terrestrial, a mere two months between both films. Of course, American critics and film goers would favour a more cute family friendly alien film than an all out gory, blood soaked alien invasion one. Fortunately though, the years since then have definitely been a lot more kinder to the film, which happens to so many of Carpenter’s films from the 70s and 80s it seems, while he was still in his prime, producing and making films every 2 or 3 years. His films from these decades have always been heralded as masterpieces once having gained classic cult status from such a loyal fan following, and The Thing could quite possibly be his most arguably biggest masterpiece that he would ever make.

The terrific score from the one and only Ennio Morricone also adds extra character and depth to the film, really driving home the right blend of feared atmosphere and tension it was aiming for. With a very male dominated cast at its helm without a woman in sight, the main intention of this being to remove all possibilities of any romantic subplots or battle of the two sexes, was a good direction to go in as I felt these would distract the actual story and all its important elements from staying on track. When Morricone’s score isnt being orchestrated, we often hear the strong gusting blows of a heavy ongoing blizzard taking place outside, all around the science station base; nailing it on the head that these 12 characters can’t escape and there’s no sign of anyone coming to rescue them anytime soon; perhaps never considering no radio contact can be established from their base.

I’ll be honest, even though I knew what was coming, some of its most frightening moments never failed to make me jump in my seat. Still, I wasn’t the only one who wimped out having attended the screening with my friend Sarah – known on twitter as @sarahbuddery  – if you have twitter and don’t follow her, then you need to rectify that as soon as possible. She wrote a wonderful piece on her film blog linked with her profile entitled ‘Horror Movies for Wimps’ which, as you may have guessed, is targeted at all film fans who are afraid to even attempt to watch anything in the horror genre. The Thing is one of them on her list and thankfully, she had nothing but high praise for it, although she was still terrified having seen it already; she did really well getting through it a second time without covering her eyes too much.

Aside from its most jumpiest moments, lets not forget about all the gross out body horror sequences that really make this film stand out from the rest of the crowd. Whenever I think of The Thing, the blood test scene is always the first thing that comes to my mind. Its the most intense moment in the entire film where Kurt Russell’s MacReady takes a drop of everyone’s blood and uses a hot needle to check who is still human and who is ‘The Thing’. When the alien, seen in the film as more of an amorphous entity that infects a host organism at a molecular level, feels its being threatened or gets interrupted before its work is complete, the result of that isn’t pretty; in fact its Hell all broken out. Its main purpose is to be a perfect imitation of anyone and everyone it can unfortunately clutch hold of, its basically a virus moving from one organism to another, acting more faster and deadlier than any STD.

There have been films released since The Thing that have been similar to its premise and characters but rarely has it ever been equalled so masterfully by other film-makers. Quentin Tarantino is one such director who has probably taken Carpenter’s The Thing as his most biggest influence on his films. You can see the similarities being made in his feature debut, Reservoir Dogs; as we see a group of colour coded criminals hide away in an abandoned warehouse following a robbery gone horribly wrong as they try to figure out which one of them is a rat and set the rest of the group up. Its in Tarantino’s latest, The Hateful Eight, that the similarities with The Thing stand out a lot more. Not only is it set in an isolated and deserted cabin within the middle of a winter blizzard, but also stars Kurt Russell and its accompanied yet again by another majestic score from Ennio Morricone, who gets to orchestrate music that was intended for The Thing but wasn’t able to make it into its final cut.

THE BAD:

That no one survives at the end!? Lets face it, this isn’t the kind of film that would have had any happy ending of any kind but you’re kinda left sitting there hoping that MacReady and Keith David’s Childs would get picked up and rescued as they sit there in the snow by the fire, waiting it out through the night after finally defeating the shape shifting alien before having the slightest chance of spreading across the world. It seems that neither of them could ever have survived the entire night. That’s all I have to say really on the critical side of what I believe to be a firm five star film in this sub-genre.

OVERALL VERDICT:

If you want to branch out and see what all the fuss is about when it comes to horror enthused with science fiction elements, then you can’t do no more wrong than making John Carpenter’s The Thing as your first entry. It’s engaging, the ensemble characters are all very fleshed out, it has so much mystery coupled with extreme paranoia and laden with the most eye popping special effects you will ever see.

★★★★★

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