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Posted on 8/06/10 09:34 AM
John Carpenter's The Thing still sticks in my mind as one of the most disgusting and disturbing films I've ever seen. I first saw this on video as a kid, although I do remember the original trailer on TV and thinking 'I wish I could watch adult films!'. It scared the living shit out of me as a kid.
The story itself (from a 1930s sci-fi novella) is a fantastic idea alone. An alien creature that can assume the identity of any organism it 'comes into contact with' (this is a very mild expression next to the slime-fest we're exposed to in the film!). Not only that, but it can assume the form of any, part of, or all the things it has *previously* come into contact with.. And this Thing has been around! We know this as it arrives via Flying-saucer-in-trouble some time before the dawn of mankind. This is shown right before the titles giving this film one of the most memorable intros I've seen (to match the memorable ending - see below).
Thus we are given arguably the best monster to ever appear on celluloid.
This film will be compared to 'Alien' a lot simply because the premise is similar (close-knit group of vulnerable people in claustrophobic prison-like environment, locked in with unknown man-killer) and they were released at a similar time. BUT the *big* difference you have to recognise between the two monsters is that The Thing can look like anything and therefore you don't know who the monster is, and Alien was ultimately, a bloke-in-a-suit which has been done since the dawn of cinema!
Now we have established why the monster is so good in concept, you have to go on to talk about Rob Bottin's gruesome realisation of the monster. These have to be amongst the most violent and disturbing creature effects ever made, along with possibly the original Evil Dead, An American Werewolf In London and, of course, Aliens.
This guy was 20 when he started his work on The Thing. Yes *20 years old*. Obviously he's read a lot of sci fi and comic books, and the excellent DVD will tell you he worked on The Howling before this movie, so knew his stuff where latex and goo was concerned. This guy helped to create one of the most memorable movie scenes ever made (the infamous resuscitation scene). His effects are a work of genius and even the filmmakers had doubts he could pull some of it off. To my mind this stuff is more difficult and gives better results than the modern CG equivalent. One of his creations was described as 'beautiful' and 'a work of art' by cast and crew. Those images will stick in your minds forever once you have seen this movie, I guarantee it! Even after watching the DVD extras you have to marvel at what they pulled off and how it was accomplished.
Rob worked so hard on this movie he was sent to hospital for nervous exhaustion after working 18 hrs a day, 7-days a week for months. That's when the second-unit effects team were called in to do some of the kennel scene - led by Mr Terminator himself, Stan Winston.
Next mention goes to Kurt Russel. Personally this is my favourite Kurt film and to be honest, one of a very few genuinely good films he's been in. His understated Macready character is immensely watchable, and more importantly believable, as the alcoholic ex-Nam copter pilot who is forced into becoming the reluctant leader. Whenever I hear the name Kurt Russel now I always think of this bearded character standing in the snow with a flamethrower and a squashed mexican sombrero!
Next we have the rest of the cast who do a great job of getting across the potential flashpoint mix of all-male characters. Yes there are no women in this movie and in my mind it's better for it. So we have this initially confined group (who never seem to do any work!) tolerating but knowing very well each other's habits, becoming an intensely paranoid and potentially murderous bunch of frightened men looking to their leader to deal with this Thing. This changeover from friends to enemies happens over the course of one maybe two scenes and so becomes great cinema, without the monster.
Next the sound and music. For some reason Carpenter mentions Ennio Morricone's music once in the DVD extras, and does not mention the sound effects at all! Russel actually asks him in the Director's Commentary how they got a certain sound and Carpenter laughs the question off with 'who knows'. Shame on you John Carpenter! For the sound effects are some of the most disturbing I've heard in a movie, especially when the dogs are suffering, and also at the conclusion of the blood test scene. The violence that comes across in this scene is carried 50% in the screaming of the men, the smashing furniture, the coughing of the broken flamethrower ('Windows, blast him!!') and the horrible gurgling of the Thing itself.
I am still confused as to how much of the main musical score in the film is John Carpenter and how much is Mr Morricone. It certainly sounds more Carpenter than Morricone, with that trademark simple sinister baseline and dread-inspiring chords. Whoever it is the soundtrack is also extremely fitting and memorable, right from the first credits.
Mention has to go also to the set designers and builders who create this incredibly realistic environment, perfect for the story, in snow-covered British Columbia. They built it in summer when there was no snow so that by the time it came to filming it would look as real as possible. Much of the internal shots were done in refrigerated sets in a very hot LA summer. I still wonder how much research was done into, er, research posts - especially with regard to the amount of firepower they store in the film! - racks of shotguns and 2 flamethrowers!! Maybe those copters take a little more defrosting in the mornings than most ;) Anyway we worry about the details after the film because the flamethrowers are such an integral part of the action and fire is the only method our victims know of killing this Thing.
Last mention to Carpenter himself who does a great job of realising the vision of the original story, bringing some great performances out of the actors who didn't have a lot to work with, and giving us one of the most memorable endings to a movie: the last 2 survivors sit in the burning wreckage of the base, exchange a bottle of whisky, knowing they eventually will either freeze or be eaten by their colleague and Macready says 'lets just see what happens..' Fade to black. Fantastic stuff!
So, 20 years on, a lot of sci-fi, monsters and computer graphics have passed us by but The Thing still lives on as a very disturbing but believable take on the alien takes you over nightmare. I had very real nightmares for years which were a cross between this version of The Thing and the 70s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Perhaps Kurt Russel, Rob Bottin and John Carpenter's finest hours. Buy the Collector's DVD!!
Also watch the original 1951 classic, "The Thing from Another World".