I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’

I like to feel informed about my passions.  I can dress up my reasons for that by saying it’s because I like being able to have deep, nuanced conversations about those passions.  While there is truth to that, I really just like to be right and show off.

Sometimes, though, I reach a mental block in that quest to inform myself.  Nine times out of ten, that mental block is created by someone — or many someones — being so excited about something that they insist I must see/hear/experience it immediately.  That attitude led to me being disappointed by the good-not-great Blade Runner and avoiding other “best thing[s] ever” like The Wire and, until Friday night, John Carpenter’s 1982 update of The Thing.  

And what do you know, The Thing is a remarkable film.  It has everything I look for in a genre movie: “Real” effects work without a reliance on CGI, an impeccable execution of its themes, and Kurt Russell.  With a beard.  Being the most awesome.

Today, if you see a film open with a flying saucer crash on Earth, you expect unhealthy amounts of kabooms, nonstop action, and razor-thin characters spouting half-assed dialogue.  None of those things are on Carpenter’s mind with The Thing, as evidenced by the movie’s dialogue-free second scene: A helicopter shooting at a seemingly defenseless Husky on the Antarctic tundra.

What follows is a story of dread, seclusion, and the logical extreme of overfamiliarity, with large helpings of body horror thrown in.  Oh, and the scariest score of Ennio Morricone’s career.

Director Carpenter.

Carpenter’s mastery of the technical side of filmmaking pays off in spades.  This being 1982, computer generated imagery had not made its way into the realm of palatability, so he had to employ the best model makers, animatronics experts, and makeup artists to create The Things signature Scream-like monster effects.  There are few things more satisfying in a filmgoing experience than seeing practical effects employed with such skill.  When these monsters are actually bursting from human bodies, you can’t help but be disgusted by the grotesqueries on the screen.  These monsters have depth and mass, both of which create a real connection to what is happening to the characters, far more so than in today’s CGI-paloozas.

Further enhancing those monster effects is Dean Cundey’s widescreen cinematography.  Any movie that uses the 2.35:1 aspect ratio automatically grows in my estimation; it immediately signals your brain to think, “I am watching a film.”  Cundey’s camerawork and lighting make you know, not feel, that danger is around every corner.  The deep blues of terrifying darkness become violently offset by the explosive oranges and yellows of Kurt Russell’s MacReady shooting a flamethrower at his attackers, of both extra- and regular-terrestrial varieties.

While those flamethrower attacks are spectacular and exciting, The Thing is a quiet movie for most of its runtime.  Its characters, like MacReady, Wilford Brimley’s Dr. Blair, and Keith David’s Childs are trapped doing monotonous scientific research in a place the Middle of Nowhere would call remote.  These men have spent far too much time with each other, and they may have a harder time dealing with one another than with the alien threat descending upon them.  These men have been away from home for a long time.  Nothing but snow encompasses them for hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles.  They’re sick of their jobs, their surroundings, and each other.  I get the feeling they were on the verge of turning on each other even before an alien started killing them.

That distrust between characters only exacerbates their problems.  They cannot or will not believe each other, so how can they work together to beat the thing of the film’s title?  It doesn’t help that the alien can shape shift, either.  This says a lot about where Carpenter’s head was while making the movie.  In the world of The Thing, nobody can be trusted because all people are liars only looking to preserve their own safety at the expense of anyone who gets in the way.  This causes immense paranoia for the characters and perpetual excitement for the audience.  At no point does it appear the men will put aside their suspicions of each other to defeat the threat, which is a fundamentally uneasy and thrilling feeling; the outcome is constantly up in the air, and it never appears headed toward happy things.

Russell searching through the Thing’s handiwork.

Testament to the haunting paranoia that runs through The Thing is its star, Kurt Russell.  Marking his second straight collaboration with Carpenter, Russell shows his range by dropping the closed off, Man With No Name vibe he owned as Snake Plissken in the previous year’s Escape from New York and embracing vulnerability and desperation in The Thing.  MacReady, the research station’s helicopter pilot, has a penchant for avoiding others, drinking bottle after bottle of J&B while avoiding others, and wearing the coolest piloting hat ever when forced to not avoid others.  He is a smart person, but may not be as smart at the other men at the base, and he can certainly be bested by the alien.  He knows this and tries his hardest to quickly get an advantage over the other men, then compartmentalize the situation by tying them up and systematically testing their blood to see if they are infected.  That’s a logical approach to the situation, but even logic can’t overcome everything, especially with an unpredictable life form threatening everyone.  It also doesn’t instill much trust in the non-aliens he tied up.

Wiford Brimley, as Dr. Blair, is another of the film’s revelations.  Having never seen him outside his medical supplies commercials, I didn’t know what to expect when I read his name in the opening credits.  Yet, like everything about The Thing, Brimley frightened me with his non-campy approach to the doctor-losing-his-mind role.

Brimley as Blair.

Blair is the source of perhaps the film’s  scariest scene.  After he has a meltdown and shoots at several of the men in the base, MacReady disarms Blair and locks him in a shack outside the main living quarters.  Later, when MacReady goes to check on him, Blair states matter-of-factly, “I’m all better now.”  The coldness and lack of conviction would be enough to cause alarm, but the noose hanging between MacReady and Blair without either acknowledging it is what sends this exchange into the stratosphere of disturbing.  Has Blair been infected by the alien?  If so, when?  If he hasn’t been turned, the exchange explores even more the frightening fragility of the human psyche.

And now, a few words about the ending.  It boils all the film’s pessimism into one dark exchange.  It does not leave you feeling confident in the remaining characters’ fates, the world of the movie, or humanity as a whole, but that exchange perfectly caps a thoroughly thought-provoking and engrossing piece of filmmaking.

“How long will we make it?”

“Maybe we shouldn’t.”

The Thing simply blew my mind.  Carpenter’s ability to direct creeping horror had reached a crescendo with this picture.  Despite its director’s prodigious talents, the film could still have easily failed if it were not for the breathtaking practical effects work, especially the best use of animatronics I have ever seen.  The performances, the tone, and the score all roll seamlessly into a cohesive, perfectly entertaining whole.  No wonder why The Thing is often mentioned in the same hushed tones as Ridley Scott’s Alien and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as prime examples of how great a schlocky genre like horror can be when in the right hands.



Filed under Movies

2 responses to “I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’

  1. A true horror classic! This remake was the very start of my love of monster movies.

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