Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Film Appreciation - Nobody Trusts Anybody Now

Cody Hamman prepares for winter with Film Appreciation for John Carpenter's 1982 version of The Thing.

Some film fans will refer to John Carpenter's 1982 film The Thing as one of the best remakes ever made, an example that remakes aren't always a terrible idea. Others will nitpick that The Thing wasn't a remake of the 1951 movie The Thing from Another World, but rather a separate (and more faithful) adaptation of author John W. Campbell Jr.'s 1938 novella Who Goes There? Regardless of whether or not you consider it a remake, many viewers do agree that The Thing to be one of the greatest entries on Carpenter's filmography, and it's often listed as one of the best horror films ever made.

I feel that The Thing is a masterwork, an incredible film made by collaborators at the top of their game.

Carpenter was just four years removed from the success of Halloween and fresh off gifting the world with Escape from New York when he took on the job of directing The Thing. He brought cinematographer Dean Cundey along with him from those films, and Cundey brought a fantastic visual style to The Thing, whether he's showing us shadowy, claustrophobic interiors, night scenes bathed in blue lighting, or vast shots of the snowy countryside.

Once again, Carpenter gave his film a great synth score, working this time with the legendary Ennio Morricone. While Morricone did compose a score for The Thing and receives the credit on the finished film, Carpenter replaced much of his music - and some of Morricone's unused music actually ended up being used in Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight.

The story is set in Antarctica, during the first week of winter in 1982. Another dull day at U.S. National Science Institute Station 4 (a.k.a. U.S. Outpost #31) is interrupted when a helicopter carrying two men from a nearby Norwegian outpost come flying in, using a rifle and grenades in an attempt to kill a dog they've been chasing. The dog survives this situation. The two Norwegians do not. When some of the Americans go over to the Norwegian camp, they find the place destroyed and burnt, but there are signs here and there that something terrible occurred before the outpost was set on fire. Signs like a bloody axe buried in a wall, a strange corpse in a makeshift burn pit, and a man sitting in a chair with his wrists and throat slashed, his blood having frozen into icicles as it ran out of him. There's a block of ice that something has emerged or been removed from. And there's video showing the discovery of a large flying saucer that apparently crash landed on Antarctica and sank into the ice thousands of years ago.

The block of ice and the black & white footage showing the discovery of the flying saucer are both reminiscent of elements from The Thing from Another World.

That corpse, which looks like some kind of monstrous mutation, is taken back to the American camp so an autopsy can be performed, but they soon have fresher corpses to examine. When the dog that escaped from the Norwegians is put in the kennel with the American dogs, it reveals its true nature. We see why the Norwegians were desperate to destroy it. This dog is an alien creature passing itself off as a dog, and when alone with the other dogs it starts attacking, trying to assimilate them. We saw the corpses special effects artist Rob Bottin made, but when the dog takes on its alien form we get our first major display of the stunning work Bottin did on this film. The Thing contains some of the most impressive practical creature effects ever created. The things Bottin came up - the dog creature, a shot of a monstrous mouth opening in a man's torso, a severed head sprouting legs and another pair of eyeballs on stalks, etc. - are mind-blowing.

The Americans realize they're dealing with an alien creature that can imitate the form of any living being it attacks and absorbs, and that if this thing were to reach civilization it could be an apocalyptic event. It has the potential of being able to infect the entire world within 27,000 hours of first contact. That's just over 3 years. Earth has gotten a lucky break that this thing landed in Antarctica. But that's not lucky for the men of Outpost #31. They're trapped on a snowbound continent with this thing, they haven't been able to contact the outside world in two weeks, they're on their own.

The remote location enhances the terror of the situation, and screenwriter Bill Lancaster, whose only other writing credits are on installments in the Bad News Bears franchise, did an astonishing job of scripting out the situation and adapting Campbell's story. Lancaster's script is on a level that few could hope to reach. The characters he created when he put the twelve men who inhabit the outpost on the page, the interactions he wrote between them, the way he builds the paranoia between them as they start to distrust each other, not knowing who among them might have been turned into a "thing", realizing how hopeless the situation is... It's awe-inspiring.

The visuals, the pacing, and the music of The Thing made the paranoia Lancaster wrote become a very palpable element of the film.

Lancaster's characters were brought to life by the perfect ensemble cast, with Kurt Russell adding another iconic role to his résumé with his performance as helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady. MacReady isn't a scientist and he's first seen doing something quite irrational, destroying a computer because it beat him in a game of chess, but he turns out to be the most logical and level-headed person at the outpost when life there turns into a nightmare. Carpenter and casting director Anita Dann really did a wonderful job casting every role, with Russell's co-stars including Wilford Brimley as Blair, the doctor who completely loses his mind; T.K. Carter as the music-loving, rollerskating cook Nauls; David Clennon as the pothead Palmer; Keith David as tough guy Childs; Richard Dysart as the middle-aged doctor Copper, whose looks really don't match the ring he wears in his nose; Charles Hallahan as the overwhelmed Norris; Peter Maloney as Bennings, a fellow who frequently complains; Richard Masur as the awkward dog handler Clark; Donald Moffat as pistol packing commander Garry, who quickly loses control once monsters infiltrate his outpost; Joel Polis as Fuchs, a character who confides in our hero MacReady, so of course he doesn't last very long; and Thomas G. Waites of The Warriors as high-strung communications specialist Windows. Most of these guys come to a gruesome end.

As the characters try to avoid those terrible fates, The Thing is packed with memorable moments - many of them monster attacks, but others being when characters accuse each other of being something other than what they appear to be. The paranoia builds up to a "blood test" sequence in which confirmed human characters tie down their friends and test their blood to see if they are a "thing". The test involves sticking a hot wire into blood samples in petri dishes, because even the blood of the thing is enough of a living creature in itself that it will have a reaction to being burned. And when that wire touches the blood of a thing, it does have a reaction.

I am deeply impressed every time I watch The Thing, so many things about it were so perfectly pulled off at every level. Its status as one of the greatest horror movies ever made was well earned, and it's something that came with time. Audiences didn't show up for it when it was released, critics were put off by it... But it didn't take long for moviegoers to realize that Carpenter and his collaborators had truly made something special here. I wasn't even born when the movie was released and didn't catch up with it until around fifteen years later, but it has been an important part of my viewing rotation for the last twenty years or so.

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