Universal // 1982 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // September 29th, 2008
Don't trust anybody.
Produced by Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo) and directed by Hawks's longtime editor Christian Nyby, The Thing from Another World is one of the great monster movies of the 1950s. It's a picture that transcends its genre. In telling the story of a giant vegetable monster from outer space (played by James Arness of Gunsmoke fame) that attacks a group of scientists and soldiers in an arctic research facility, Nyby borrowed much from Hawks's style: snappy, fast-paced dialogue; crisp pacing; and a cast of mostly male characters who are not only professionals, but are damned good at what they do (especially the movie's hero, Air Force pilot Captain Patrick Hendry, played with an easy-going masculine self-assurance by Kenneth Tobey). Nyby aped Hawks's style so thoroughly that rumors persist to this day that Hawks actually directed the picture but gave his editor credit because he didn't want to be associated with a B-movie (I've never bought that line of reasoning since the movie was heavily marketed as a Howard Hawks production).
All of this is to say that The Thing from Another World was never a movie ripe for a remake. It was great to begin with. But remake it is exactly what John Carpenter (Halloween) did in 1982. It comes as no surprise that, once committed to the idea of doing a remake, Carpenter would look to Hawks's single foray into horror since the genre is Carpenter's forte and he's always worn his admiration of Hawks on his sleeve (Carpenter's second feature, Assault on Precinct 13, is an homage to Rio Bravo). What is surprising is how much better Carpenter's movie is than Nyby's. Ditching The Thing from Another World's vegetable monster and its presentation of scientists as effete, impractical, and basically suicidal boobs, Carpenter recrafted the tale (based on John W. Campell's novella, "Who Goes There?") into a viciously entertaining examination of paranoia and the darker aspects of the human survival instinct. John Carpenter's The Thing is a prime example of gooey '80s creature horror, as well as a psychological pressure-cooker movie for the ages.
A Siberian Husky races across Antarctica's tundra, pursued by a helicopter. Two Norwegian scientists try to shoot the animal from the air, but fail to do so before he arrives at an American remote research facility. Thinking the shooter has lost his mind and is a threat to his team, Garry (Donald Moffat, Clear and Present Danger), the leader of the Americans, shoots him dead. Helicopter pilot R.J. McCready (Kurt Russell, Escape from New York) and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart, L.A. Law) fly to the Norwegians' camp to investigate but find only desolation and evidence that the Norwegians found something frozen in the ice nearby...something alien.
Meanwhile, all hell breaks loose in the dog pens. The Husky was no canine. It was an alien life form that absorbs other beings and then perfectly mimics them. Any one of the men may have been taken over, may be one of those things in disguise. Matters become dire when Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley, Cocoon) deduces that the aliens' goal is to escape Antarctica to Earth's populated areas, absorbing all biological life forms on the planet. McCready is forced to take a leadership role as distrust festers among the men and the onset of winter cuts off communication to the outside world. They're all very tired. There's nothing more they can do, but wait...
John Carpenter's career as a director may have had an entirely different trajectory had The Thing been released in the winter of 1982 instead of at the end of June, only two weeks after the launch of Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The movie's snowy setting and bleak, psychological story proved no match for E.T.'s cute animatronic hero and Reese's Pieces-eating child stars in the summer box office smackdown. The Thing flopped -- hard. It was an unfortunate turn of events because The Thing was Carpenter's first big-budget picture after a trio of micro-budget successes (Halloween, The Fog, and Escape from New York). During his career since The Thing, Carpenter has rarely been trusted with sizable budgets again. On the rare occasions when he has (Starman, Big Trouble in Little China), the movies were commercial failures. One big-budget success might have done him wonders.
The Thing deserved to succeed at the box office (as it eventually has in the home theater market). It's an artistic success -- not only a great horror movie, but a great movie. Even though Carpenter made it inside the Hollywood studio system, it wasn't watered down by studio interference. If you want to understand the major hallmarks of Carpenter's style -- his masterful use of the 2.35:1 frame; his skilled regulation of pacing and tension; his love of cynical, weary, but pragmatic anti-heroes; his ear for spare, naturalistic, functional dialogue -- you need look no further than The Thing. It has everything that makes the best Carpenter flicks relentless, edge-of-your-seat thrill rides.
The first thing the movie has going for it is a cast of excellent actors bringing life to a precisely balanced ensemble of characters. From Blair's fits of mania (surprisingly reasonable given the circumstances), to Garry's rigidly cool-headed leadership; from Childs's (Keith David, Platoon) steely-eyed menace, to Clark's (Richard Masur, Risky Business) almost creepy affection for his dogs; from the staid professionalism of Bennings (Peter Maloney, Breaking Away) and Fuchs (Joel Polis, Fatal Vision), to Norris's (Charles Hallahan, Silkwood) sweaty, beady-eyed terror; from the pot-smoking antics of knuckleheads Palmer (David Clennon, From the Earth to the Moon), Nauls (T.K. Carter, The Corner), and Windows (Thomas G. Waites, The Warriors), to the whip-smart tough-guy pragmatism of McCready, the entire cast is vivid and precisely drawn for maximum dramatic effect. Kurt Russell thrives in the ensemble environment, heading the cast with easy confidence and delivering my favorite lead performance of his career. R.J. McCready represents the perfect mix of the everyman simplicity and badass heroism that Russell brings to all of his most memorable roles.
The characters' interplay with one another, the ways their personalities both harmonize and clash, gives us a window into the effects of paranoia on the human psyche while still keeping us detached enough that the scares can come fast, furious, and from unexpected directions. We come to know these men -- to like or dislike them -- based on the way they react under pressure. Carpenter doesn't allow us inside their heads. He so expertly doles out both red herrings and genuine clues as to who may have been absorbed by the Thing that we never know what to expect next, yet none of the scares come off as cheap or contrived, and none of the characters feels false or one-dimensional.
As if The Thing's nail-biting psychological horror and memorable cast weren't enough, Rob Bottin's (The Howling) creature effects are so gruesomely awesome that they mostly hold up over a quarter of a century later. Sure, when a character gets bitten in the face and spun around the room by the Thing, you can tell it's a dummy with motorized legs kicking in a dead mechanical rhythm. But the centerpiece of the slime- and blood-soaked effects sequences -- a scene involving Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, defibrillator paddles, a head beating a hasty retreat, and a completely nonplussed David Clennon -- is one of the most memorable (and hilarious) moments in the history of Hollywood horror flicks. Dog lovers should beware another bravura effects set piece early in the film.
This Blu-ray release isn't The Thing's debut in a high definition format (it was previously released on HD DVD), but that doesn't dampen my enthusiasm for this beautiful presentation of the film. The 2004 remastered Collector's Edition DVD has a fine transfer, but the 1080p image on this Blu-ray ups the ante with more detail, more accurate colors, finer delineation in shadow areas, and greater depth and clarity. I've never seen The Thing look better. Audio is presented in a DTS HD mix that makes maximum use of a limited source. The front soundstage sees most of the action. The rear stage is only active during effects-heavy sequences. Low end is limited. It's not an immersive track, but dialogue is always clear and there are no noticeable source flaws.
First up on the supplements front is an exemplary commentary by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell dating all the way back to the movie's release on Laserdisc. Casual, lively, and informative, the conversation between the director and star makes for one of the best commentary tracks I've ever heard (it's even better than the Carpenter-Russell commentaries for Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China). The stellar 90-minute "Terror Takes Shape" making-of documentary as well as the unused effects footage found on the previous DVD releases of The Thing have also found their way to the Blu-ray, but in a form that some fans may not like. The documentary and deleted footage have been diced up and reformatted into a U-Control picture in picture feature. With the exception of the opening and closing credits, I'm fairly certain that all of "Terror Takes Shape" has been preserved, but it can't be viewed as a stand-alone documentary feature. The brief segments of unused effects footage are included, though the picture in picture format makes them more difficult to see in detail. None of the still photos galleries from the previous DVDs are included on the Blu-ray.
Despite its initial box office failure, The Thing has become a genuine horror classic. Its status is deserved. A smart and tightly-paced film, it careens through nearly two hours of thrills, scares, and laughs toward a truly memorable and poetic finale. It ought to be required viewing in every cinephile's home during the month of October -- and this Blu-ray release is the best way to watch it.
Trust's a tough thing to come by these days. Tell you what, why don't you just trust in the Lord?
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Surround (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell
* Picture in Picture