All Good Things: a look back at Carpenter's masterpiece The Thing
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With a prequel on the way, Richard Cosgrove celebrates The Thing, 30 years later ...
When it was announced in early 2009 that Universal Studios had greenlit a prequel to John Carpenter's classic 1982 monster movie The Thing, howls of outrage and protest from fans, myself included, could be heard from pole to pole.
Though the exploits of the thing from another world had gone largely unchallenged in other mediums over the years, notably in no less than four intelligently scripted and beautifully drawn mini-series sequels from Dark Horse Comics (creators of many worthy Predator and Aliens graphic novels over the years) and an ambitious but ultimately flawed 2002 video game, the possibility of another celluloid outing for the, errr, thing was clearly a mutation too far for the disciples of Carpenter's movie.
However, as one of said brethren, after seeing the trailers and clips for the upcoming offering, and having followed news of the production with a kind of horrified interest for the last couple of years, I have to say that as the prequel prepares to hit cinemas in a few short weeks, I'm actually a little bit excited about seeing what writer Eric Heisserer and director Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr. have created.
Having stated that to remake Carpenter's film would be like “painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa”, co-producer Eric Newham confirms that the production has the utmost of respect for the original remake, which along with Alien (1979) is one of director van Heijningen's favorite movies. In addition, the initial fears that the film would turn into Sleepless In Antarctica with the addition of Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Final Destination 3, Death Proof, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) to the cast seem to have been laid to rest by the actress herself, who revealed in a recent interview with SFX magazine that while there will be a definite male-female dynamic between herself and her co-star Joel Edgerton, there will be no romantic or sexual overtones in the movie.
The other main worry, of course, was that the legacy of Rob Bottin's stunning and innovative creature effects would be sullied by extensive use of CGI in the prequel. Thankfully this fear also seems to have been largely allayed, with writer Heisserer confirming that Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr. of Amalgamated Dynamics studios would be using traditional practical effects on the creatures where possible, with CGI work by effects house Image Engine - who worked on Neill Blomkamp's superb District 9 (2009) - being restricted to providing necessary digital enhancements to the animatronic creations.
So, with out minds set partly at rest, and our fingers crossed that director Matthijs van Heijningen will have us shaking with terror rather than rage, let's take a look back at John Carpenter's The Thing on the eve of its thirtieth anniversary.
Back in 1982 Carpenter was arguably the most famous and popular horror movie director in the world. Beginning with 1978’s genre-defining Halloween, Carpenter had a run of successful films including The Fog (1980) and Escape From New York (1981) that have all gone on to acquire legendary status. Though this run came to an end with his inspired and brilliantly-executed remake of Christian Nyby’s 1951 The Thing From Another World (a clip from which is used as footage of the Norwegian team's discovery of the space craft beneath the ice, a scene certain to show up in the prequel), it couldn’t have ended on a higher note.
I first saw The Thing one rainy afternoon in 1983 while holidaying in the sleepy British seaside town of Bexhill-on-Sea with my friend Nick (who now works for effects house The Hive, providers of visual sorcery for the likes of Doctor Who and Torchwood) and his family. Thanks to the precipitous weather, we got Nick’s dad to rent a couple of flicks that, as we were already regular Fangoria readers, we knew had just been released on video and were desperate to see.
As luck would have it the video store had both of them, so after devouring Lucio Fulci’s soon-to-be notorious (thanks to the following year's video nasty media storm and subsequent 1984 Video Recordings Act) Zombie Flesh Eaters (1980), we ejected the VHS video cassette and loaded the second of our genre-changing double bill into the enormous machine, settled down on the sofa and pressed play.
At the time The Thing was completely unlike any other horror movie that I'd seen, which had usually fallen into one of two categories – nubile, under-dressed teenagers being pursued by maniacs, masked or otherwise, or nubile, under-dressed teenagers being pursued by freakish creatures, including but not limited to zombies, blobs and flying piranhas.
The Thing, though, was very different. Not only were there no nubile teenagers anywhere to be seen, there were no women at all. Not one. (OK, there is technically one if you're going to get all pedantic – the voice of the chess computer is that of Adrienne Barbeau, Carpenter’s then-wife.) Instead writer Bill Lancaster (working from John W. Campbell, Jr.’s short story ‘Who Goes There?’) had crafted a tale of twelve men effectively locked up together at the bottom of the Earth and their relationships with each other. Each of the dozen men were distinctive and, rare for many horror movies even to this day, believable characters who regardless of whether we liked them or not – from Nauls, the good natured roller-skating cook, to Garry, the belligerent and ineffective head honcho – we actually cared about.
Front and center, of course, was frequent Carpenter collaborator Kurt Russell (the pair also worked together on Elvis The Movie, Escapes From New York and LA, and Big Trouble In Little China), as the lone wolf helicopter pilot MacReady. From the first time we meet him, losing a game of computer chess and responding by pouring his whiskey into the machine's innards (“Cheating bitch.”) to his ignorant shout of “Hey Sweden!” at the Norwegian camp - quickly corrected by the patient, almost fatherly Doc Copper (Richard Dysart) who informs him that “They’re not Swedish, Mac, they’re Norwegian”, MacReady is infused with an enigmatic and likeable quality that brings to mind another classic Kurt Russell character - Snake Plissken.
Like Snake, MacReady is a reluctant hero, thrust into the role of leader by default. Though Garry might walk around with his revolver slung at his hip like some modern-day cowboy, it is Mac in his battered Stetson (cool even back then) who commands the respect of the men, instinctively taking charge by demanding a flamethrower to take care of the first jaw-dropping thing transformation in the dog pen after Garry freezes, unable to react.
Though not quite as cool as Snake Plissken, and not quite as entertaining as Jack Burton, Big Trouble In Little China’s reluctant hero (hmmm, spotting a pattern here), MacReady is nevertheless utterly believable, and remains, for me, Kurt Russell's greatest role to date. His mannerisms and interactions with the other eleven men are completely credible, and it is this ordinariness that is at the heart of The Thing’s real horror. Though the first thing that springs to mind about the movie is the special effects, and there's no denying that they are beyond stunning, (more of which in a moment) The Thing is not so much a movie about a bloody, murderous alien creature as it is about the way human beings are quick to turn on each other when threatened with the unknown, rapidly becoming consumed with paranoia and suspicion about their fellow man. (For all its faults, Eli Roth's Cabin Fever also does a great job in exploring this theme.)
The moment that the truth about the alien organism is revealed, that it can imitate any one of them, any trust that the men at the Antarctica based Outpost #31 may have had for each other evaporates into a mist of distrust, and Carpenter cleverly draws us, the viewers, into the midst of this by never showing us who has been assimilated. Instead we only find out who is not quite themselves when the rest of the men do, which makes for a tense and ultimately very satisfying ride.
Though the interaction between the twelve increasingly angry and frightened men is at the heart of The Thing’s story, it is the skin, legs, teeth and blood of the special effects that have guaranteed its place in the annals of celluloid history. In terms of what could be achieved with models, puppets, gelatin and karo syrup, the movie completely smashed the mould and remains a permanent reminder that not matter how seamless and photo-realistic your CGI is, it will never be a credible substitute for ‘real’ creature effects.
Take spiders, for example. There was nothing technically wrong with Shelob in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, but she came nowhere near evoking the sense of disgust and unease that I felt at watching the Norris spider-head sprout legs and scuttle off down the corridor, accompanied by the immortal line “You gotta be fucking kidding!” I remember rewinding and watching that scene again and again, trying to figure out just how the hell they did it, and even though, thanks to the wonders of DVD extras and commentary tracks, I now know exactly how Rob Bottin pulled it off, it still instills a sense of awe that nothing I'd seen before had, and that very little that I've seen since has been able to.
It was quite literally movie magic, and all the more impressive when you consider that the wizard behind The Thing's myriad jaw-dropping effects, Rob Bottin, was a mere 22 years old at the time. Essentially living at the studio due to the intense pressure to come up with the design and execution of the effects that have since gone down in cinematic legend, Bottin infused more imagination and innovation in this one film (with a little help from three-time Oscar-winning effects grandmaster Stan Winston (for Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Jurassic Park), who assisted with the transformation in the dog pen after being brought in by Carpenter as a favour to the exhausted Bottin) than there are in entire franchises.
The Thing is a truly great ensemble piece and holds a special place in the hearts of legions of fans as being the last great non-CGI horror movie. Even after countless viewings, and thanks to its remote setting and totally believable cast, The Thing will never truly age, apart from perhaps the now primitive chess computer that MacReady plays with at the start of the film, a game that foreshadows the stalemate in the final shots of the movie as the two surviving men size each other up and try and decide whether either, or neither, of them has been assimilated by The Thing. A classic bleak ending that works perfectly, with even Carpenter and Russell maintaining that to this day they don't know which of the men was the thing. (An alternative scene was shot showing MacReady having a blood test that confirms that he is not affected, but this was only ever as a safety net in case the studio didn't like the original ending.)
As brilliant as the human performances are, however, the last word must go Jed, the half wolf / half husky who plays the original incarnation of The Thing. (I wonder who plays him in the closing moments of the remake?) I’ve seen a lot of animals in movies over the years, but this dog truly seems to be acting. His every look and nuance so perfectly captures the brooding, patient intelligence of the creature that had the technology existed back then you could have been forgiven for believing he was a CGI character. Were Oscars given for canine performances, Jed would have been a cert.
With such a masterpiece to live up to, I hope that Matthijs van Heijningen can bring a similar heart, soul and believability to the upcoming prequel. Judging on what I've seen so far, I'm cautiously optimistic, but even if I stumble out of the cinema yelling “You gotta be fucking kidding!” then I can take (cold) comfort in the fact that Carpenter's original is always right there on my shelf.
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