Thursday, October 22, 2009

John Carpenter's The Thing

Man is the warmest place to hide.

Back in 1982, I was dating my future wife when, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, we took in the strangest double feature pairing at a local theater I have ever seen, the musical Annie and John Carpenter’s horror movie The Thing. Both of us fell in love with the violent, gory The Thing, and since the advent of home video, it has become a pre-Halloween tradition to re-watch it in October.

One of the key elements in a lot of good horror is isolation of the protagonists. When you have no backup and there’s no possibility of being rescued, the fear is intensified, and The Thing handles this well by placing the movie at a scientific research station in Antarctica during the relatively inaccessible winter months. There the boredom of the station’s staff is interrupting by a fleeing dog, with men shooting at it from a helicopter. It turns out the men are from a Norwegian base nearby, and a visit to the base finds devastation. The entire Norwegian contingent has been wiped out in some desperate battle. The Americans also learn the Norwegians found something buried in the ice.

It is slowly learned the thing found in the ice is an alien organism, with the ability to consume and replicate any living thing. Unfortunately, by the time this realization is reached, the staff knows that at least one of them has already been replaced, and if they don’t stop it here, the thing will escape and menace all life on Earth.

The story began as a novella called “Who Goes There?”, written by Don A. Stuart, a pseudonym for legendary science fiction editor John W. Campbell, Jr. Campbell had grown up in a home with a mother who loved him and his aunt, his mother’s identical twin, who despised him, which seems to have led to the themes in the story. I first read a reprint of the novella when I was nine. The nightmares had mostly subsided by the time I was fourteen, and if you’re a fan of the movie but have never read the novella, I encourage you to do so. The novella was filmed under the production of Carpenter’s hero Howard Hawkes in 1951 as The Thing From Another World. It, too, is a classic, but due to the limitations of special effects at the time, as well as the mores of the day, it bears only a superficial resemblance to the source material.

Although The Thing is now recognized as a horror classic, the best horror movie ever in many people’s minds (including mine), it was a box office disappointment upon its release, which came shortly after the release of the very different alien movie, E.T. Most of the reviews of the day were amazingly hostile, with one prominent science fiction magazine dubbing it the worst movie of all time.

Regardless, this movie is the great John Carpenter at the peak of his talent, and it has gone on to be recognized as a classic of filmmaking. I have never seen anything else that communicated paranoia and looming menace as effectively as this film. Debates still rage among fans as to which of the characters in the movie (including the lead character Macready, well played by Kurt Russell) had been taken over by the entity. And talks of a sequel/prequel still arise now and then.

The tight script was written by Bill Lancaster, son of legendary actor Burt Lancaster, whose only other produced screenplay was the decidedly different Bad News Bears. There were plans at the time for Carpenter and Lancaster to continue with their collaboration, and Lancaster had written a couple of scripts, including a reportedly excellent re-working of The Creature From the Black Lagoon, but the failure of The Thing at the box office scuttled all those plans.

If you own the DVD, I would also recommend you check out the audio commentary with Carpenter and Russell. Their banter is informative and humorous, among the better commentaries I’ve ever heard. If you want a drinking game, take a shot every time you hear one of these apparent chain smokers flick the wheel of his cigarette lighter. You should be dead of alcohol poisoning by the time the first creature appears.


Winston said...

MacReady: How you doin', old boy?
Dr. Blair: I don't know who to trust.
MacReady: [swallows, sighs] I know what you mean, Blair. Trust's a tough thing to come by these days. Tell you what - Why don't you just trust in the Lord?

KentAllard said...

And we see how well that works out.

Fred Trigger said...

I find it hard to believe this was a box office bust and had hostile reviews. I freaking love this movie and even if no one liked the storyline, it still had amazing special effects for its time. I like the part where the guys stomach opens up and devours the scientists hand. Just a badass movie.

As I think about it, wasnt Scarface a box office bust as well? I personally think its a vastly overrated movie, but I think its one of those movies that has gained popularity since coming out on video.

KentAllard said...

It seems it was just the mood movie-goers were in at the time. Probably too dark a movie for everyone who had just watched E.T., and the ending was controversial (the studio insisted that an alternate "happy" ending be filmed - where Kurt Russell is rescued and doctors find he is not infected - though it has never been seen).