"The Thing" (1982) Review
How do you even begin?
How do you even start to talk about a film like The Thing? It's a truly singular entry into the horror genre in too many ways to count. Flopping on its initial release in 1982, The Thing received a second life on VHS that led to a critical re-examination that would make Blade Runner blush. If you look at the original reviews for The Thing in its release year, you'll find mixed reviews at best, and unlike the mixed reviews that came with a film like Blade Runner, it wasn't even because of an ill-advised voiceover or studio meddling. When The Thing was rediscovered on VHS, it was as if horror fans had found a film from a world parallel to our own. After all, how could a film so ahead of its time be so completely unrecognized in its time?
I've mentioned the year "1982" enough here, but in case you don't know, The Thing came out in the wake of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and was subsequently demolished at the box office. That's more or less the answer to its disappearance and reemergence. The Thing is the most brutal example of how a stone-cold classic can be almost lost just through bad scheduling.
The Thing's setup is initially simple, but settles into a horrifically complicated premise that instantly crawls under the skin. A group of American researchers in a facility in Antarctica find themselves face to face with an alien being that's picking them off one by one. Again, sounds simple, except that the alien in question is a shapeshifter. After consuming its prey, it can become a perfect cellular imitation of it. To make matters even worse, the creature can split itself into multiple living beings, meaning that several members of the research team could be infected.
Its worth saying up front that anyone hoping for a dedicated flow-chart of who-infects-who being clearly presented by the film will leave disappointed. John Carpenter, the director, went on record in a commentary that he and Kurt Russell, the main star of the film, have no idea who is infected in what order, and when. That lack of information sounds like it could be frustrating, but in practice it just ratchets the tension up even more. Sending the tension to a fever pitch though are three major factors:
One, John Carpenter's direction. Carpenter's visual language was fully formed at this point in his career. I mean, it was already fully formed when he made Halloween back in 1978, but here he had the kind of budget that he was rarely afforded for massive sets and massive... We'll get to that soon. All you need to know for now is that the film's staging is nigh flawless and represents some of the best horror filmmaking of the 80s full-stop.
Two, the actors. Kurt Russell is always good in a movie like this, but the supporting cast around him all put in some of their best work. Some of them stand out more than others, but no one is outright bad.
Three, and perhaps most importantly, the creature effects by make-up artist Rob Bottin.
Before we really get into this, I want to insert an aside here. I think some fans of filmmaking (I want to emphasize some) have an uncomfortable relationship with special effects through the years, afraid that praising them too much inside of a given film pushes film criticism towards becoming too technical and less emotional. I think sometimes we're afraid that filmmakers will get the wrong message when we praise the work of effects artists instead of the story, characters, pacing, and so on. We've seen plenty of films decide to become giant visual effects spectacles with no beating heart beneath them to not be a little afraid.
But, that's kind of just a bunch of shit. Special effects are like any other aspect of filmmaking, which is to say they're just another essential part of the art. You can make a film without a single special effect (that's what the Dogma 95 folks were kind of all about) but acting as if special effects don't have the power to raise as strong of emotions as an actor's performance or a writer's dialogue is just silly. Also, like any other aspect of filmmaking, it can be abused in the wrong hands. That's worth saying at the end of this aside.
The reason I put that aside in here is because the creature effects of The Thing are not only praise worthy, they elevate the film to dizzying heights. The various forms that the monster takes throughout the film are utterly terrifying and completely disgusting, a stomach-churning mash-up of 1950s alien tropes with Lovecraftian influences. The film would not be remotely the same without these transformation scenes and the film wouldn't occupy its legendary status either. Thirty-five years later and every single creature effect in the film holds up. The only special effects that don't are literally three seconds of stop-motion and some matte paintings of a flying saucer.
That's literally it.
It's a damn good thing that John Carpenter made a super solid and enjoyable horror film with his actors and crew, but I will be forever grateful that Rob Bottin, who literally worked himself into the hospital achieving the transformations of the creature, came aboard and worked his magic on the project. The 1980s is filled with gooey practical monsters menacing their prey, but The Thing is still a gold standard to this day, to the point that when they made a pointless prequel to The Thing in 2011, they used subpar CGI to achieve the effects, almost as if they were demonstrating just how crucial the 1982 film's practical effects really were.
And on top of all of these incredible achievements, there's one I've left out up to this point, one that makes The Thing an undeniable anomaly of greatness.
It's a remake. Of a film from 1954, The Thing From Another World.
Remakes, and horror remakes in particular, have a poor reputation to say the least. The 1980s actually had a few solid remakes here and there, most notably with The Blob in 1988 and The Fly in 1986 (which I will get around to reviewing one day because its also a legitimate horror classic that's always worth discussing), but on the whole, you usually end up with films like The Haunting in 1999 or Nightmare on Elm Street in 2010.
The fact that The Thing is one of the best entries in its genre (or at the very least, one of the best horror films of the 1980s) and is actually a remake is feels downright impossible. It's clear that Carpenter loved the original film, The Thing From Another World played on a TV in Halloween and they even managed to put footage from the original film in as "research tapes." But it stands as a true legend in the genre, the film that died and came back again with a vengeance.
And with that in mind and the fact that film geeks pretty much universally agree that The Thing is a classic, can we get everyone on board with the fact that The Fog in 1980 is easily the most underrated film in John Carpenter's catalog?
That'd be really nice.