17 July, 2010

John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)

A thing of darkness...

In 1999, renowned Italian composer Ennio Morricone was honoured with an EFA Liftime Achievement Award - we pay tribute to a truly creepy film that featured one of his creepiest scores.

Late 2009 provided a rare chance for certain upper-echelon critics to admit they got it wrong at the time, as they tend to do (get it wrong, that is, not own up and retract) with all the very best horror (Peeping Tom (1960), anyone?) – in a master stroke, presumably to celebrate, erm, the 27 years that had passed since its original release, John Carpenter’s masterpiece of paranoia, suspense, still-incredible S/FX and terror, The Thing (1982), was briefly re-released in UK cinemas.

And those critics of the time? Virtually to a man (with the notable exception of horror historian Alan Frank and, more recently, Anne Billson, who wrote a superb appreciation of the film for BFI Modern Classics) they slammed it – to be fair, the last truly great horror boom was in full swing, and one might forgive some commentators for being a little jaded with the blood-and-guts excesses of films such as Friday the 13th (1980), The Burning (1981) etc, and it was the same year as Spielberg’s mega-smash ‘cuddly alien’ E.T. – The Extraterrestrial (1982), but they missed so much in what is now rightly regarded as one of the 20th century’s landmark horror films, with shape-shifting effects from Rob Bottin (accomplished way before the days of CGI) that are still jaw-dropping.

Bill Lancaster’s tight and spare screenplay, a brilliant adaptation of John W. Campbell’s 1930s sci-fi short story Who Goes There?, focuses on the paranoia of an enclosed group, facing the fact that one (or more) of their number is a monster in hiding, with remarkable characterizations from the all-male cast, each of which provides a nuanced, subtle evocation of their reaction to the deteriorating situation. Backed up beautifully by Ennio Morricone's haunting, singular soundtrack, this is the real deal.

Alcoholic ‘copter pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) becomes the group’s reluctant leader, gradually transforming into Everyman as the implications of the infection become apparent – basically, the thing has big plans, but it didn’t count on Mac…

Macready: I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.

In fact, it is Dr. Blair (a wonderfully manic Wilford Brimley) who first realizes the enormity of what the group (Nauls (T.K. Carter), Palmer (David Clennon), Childs (Keith David), Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), Norris (Charles Hallahan), Bennings (Peter Maloney), Clark (Richard Masur), Garry (Donald Moffat), Fuchs (Joel Polis), Windows (Thomas Waites)) is facing, but he quickly develops his own agenda (he goes stir-crazy), leaving Macready to take up the cudgels against their extraterrestrial ‘guest’.

The story was also the inspiration for the Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks/Orson Welles (?) film The Thing from Another World (1951) which, while still a thrilling sci-fi epic, reduced the monster to James Arness running around in a Boris Karloff-esque outfit and dispensed entirely with the paranoia elements essential to Carpenter’s vision.

The film forms part of Carpenter’s self-proclaimed ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’ (the other two being In the Mouth of Madness (1995) and Prince of Darkness (1987)), and, even though he is the director who redefined horror with works such as Hallowe’en (1978) and The Fog (1980), The Thing was without question his finest hour. Arguably the first film to incorporate horror and a ‘whodunnit’ theme, it’s full of intricate, ambiguous detail. Who was the shadow on the wall? Who was first infected? Who stole the keys? Who survives? Well, that would be telling…

Childs: What do we do now?
MacReady: Why don’t we just wait here for a little while… see what happens…

Horror of horrors, a ‘companion piece’ prequel is now being promised for 2011. Now, there’s a scary thought…

Awards: Click here for details.

109 mins.


Unknown said...

You can remove the reference (with ?) to Orson Welles. He didn't have anything to do with the original.

James Drew and Colin Moors said...

Hello Edward,

Thanks for your comment - I placed the question mark simply because, like Howard Hawks actually directing most of the film instead of the named director, Christian Nyby, the suggestion that Welles was involved has entered apocrypha, ie it is strongly rumoured that Welles did in fact assist with some of the writing direction of the original.