Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Thing (1982)

Year:  1982
Director:  John Carpenter
Screenplay:  Bill Lancaster, based on the novella "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Starring:  Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Donald Moffat, Richard Masur, David Clennon, Charles Hallahan, Joel Polis
Running Time:  109 minutes
Genre:  Horror, science-fiction, action

The crew of an American research base in Antarctica rescue a huskey from being shot by a Norwegian helicopter.  However they quickly discover that the huskey is not the cute dog it looks, instead it is a shape-shifting alien life-form which can infect and perfectly imitate any other organism which it comes into contact with.  Soon the rapidly dwindling crew are forced to fight against an enemy which could literally be any of them. 

This is probably one of the great horror movies of the 1980s.  It is pretty much a streamlined fear machine, empty of any non-essentials, dedicated to scaring the audience witless.  It is most famous for it's (at the time) ground-breaking special effects, which are only slightly showing their age, and are more convincing and effective than the average computer generated effects used in the recent prequel.

John Carpenter has referred to the movie as being the first part of his "Apocalypse Trilogy" (the other two being Prince of Darkness (1987) and In the Mouth of Madness (1995)) due to the fact that, although the three films are completely unrelated to each other, they each present a potentially apocalyptic scenario.  The film is nominally a remake of the 1951 Christian Nyby-directed The Thing from Another World, which was produced by the legendary Howard Hawks.  However, Carpenter forgoes the 1951 Cold War invasion by carrots from outer space (in that film the Thing is a plant creature and not a shape-shifter) and returns to the 1938 novella "Who Goes There?" which the 1951 movie was based on, and the original premise of the Thing being a shape-shifter which could be posing as any of the team.  This is where the 1982 film really works, aside from the stomach-churning special effects which feature a cavalcade of grotesque creatures which to my knowledge have never been equalled let alone bettered.  The whole idea of a small number of people being trapped together in a situation which they can't get away from (here it's winter in Antarctica and they are completely cut off from any hope of rescue or escape until spring) and anyone of your companions potentially turning against you and trying to kill you.  In fact, the humans in the film are as dangerous to each other as the creature.

The film is unusual in having a completely male cast, which Carpenter thought would make it "more intense", and right from the start you have the pressure-cooker atmosphere of guys stuck together in a hostile environment, and there are hints of tension bubbling away long before the creature presents itself.

The cast are effective and bounce off each other well, especially Kurt Russell as the whiskey-giuzzling leader of the group, MacReady, and bears a striking resemblance to late period Jim Morrison.  Mostly the dialogue isn't particularly memorable, but there are a few great lines.  Another important element to the film is Ennio Morricone's pulsating score, which resonates in the brain for a long time afterwards.

The film was not a success on it's original release, Carpenter and co blaming that on the fact that E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) with it's far more benign vision of an alien encounter was released two weeks earlier, and the movie-going public preferred their aliens sweet rather than sour.  Also many reviewers were put off by the levels of gore (influential critic Roger Ebert described it as "a great barf-bag movie").  However The Thing went on to find a strong cult audience on video and has since been re-evaluated as a key horror work. 

From the moments the opening title burns itself on to the screen to the memorably bleak and ambiguous ending, the film is a perfectly orchestrated ghost-train ride with tension so powerful you could shatter your teeth on it.

The film was followed by a prequel, also called The Thing, which was released in 2011.

It's tough work defrosting the fridge:  Kurt Russell in The Thing.       

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