WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
In June of 1982, a film would be released that would change the world’s perspective on our first contact with an alien species. It would go on to become a blockbuster hit, earn accolades from critics, and further cement its director as a household name. That film was E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL. Weeks later, another film featuring a visitor from outer space premiered in theaters nationwide.
It was released to lukewarm audience and critical reception, failed to produce a big return at the box office, and didn’t become a hit until its premiere on home video! That film was John Carpenter’s THE THING. While it may not have been a success during its initial release, this film has since inspired a video game adaptation, several comic book mini-series, a comedic musical, animated shorts, action figures, and a big-budget Hollywood prequel. But is Carpenter’s film truly worthy of all the praise it now receives? (Spoiler alert: Yes!)
The THING takes place during the Winter of 1982 in Antarctica, and opens with a Norwegian helicopter pursuing “Jed the wolf-dog” across the frozen tundra. The sled dog eventually finds shelter at a United States’ Scientific Research Station, seeking safety with the confused Americans. The Norwegians land nearby and soon end up dead: One drops a Thermite grenade in the snow and fails to retrieve it in time, while the other is gunned down by Garry (Donald Moffat), the station commander.
Bewildered as to why their Norwegian “neighbors” have seemingly gone insane, Doc Copper (Richard Dysart) and helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) fly to the neighboring base to check on things. Upon arrival they find the burnt husk of the Norwegian camp. Inside, they discover the corpse of an apparent suicide victim, and a block of ice that seems to have once contained something. But their most disturbing discovery is the charred, twisted body lying outside of the base. They wrap it up, and fly it back to the outpost, where Blair (Wilford Brimley) performs an autopsy on the horrific remains.
Blair begins to quietly formulate a theory after harvesting seemingly normal human organs from the monstrous corpse, but he doesn’t learn more until later that night, when Clark (Richard Masur) locks “Jed’ in with the base’s other sled dogs. Moments after Clark leaves, the dog rapidly begins to transform itself into a writhing mass of screeching tentacles. It then attacks the other dogs, making a huge commotion in the process.
Eventually MacReady and the others arrive at the kennel and gaze in horror at the mutating monstrosity before them. When bullets fail to do any real damage, Childs (Keith David) fetches a flamethrower from storage and immolates the creature. Once they’re sure it’s dead, they put out the flames and give the barbecued remains to Blair for study. He then (correctly) deduces that they are dealing with a life form that assimilates, and perfectly copies other living things. And that’s when the group’s paranoia begins to kick in.
Soon everyone becomes distrustful of each other and tensions begin to flare. Who is still human? Who is THE THING? How can they tell the difference? When will it strike next?! Can it truly be killed?! These are the questions the men of Outpost #31 must wrestle with, until their final showdown with the mysterious invader from outer space during the film’s fiery third act!
THE THING is one of my all-time favorite films, and is easily one of John Carpenter’s best! Dean Cundey’s cinematography is fantastic, the ensemble cast is brilliant, and Ennio Morricone’s minimalist soundtrack (which was nominated for a Razzie Award, if you can believe it) perfectly suits the proceedings. The impressive matte paintings utilized in the film were made by the amazing Albert Whitlock, and Rob Bottin created the film’s gruesome effects, which remain as impressive as ever. In comparison to previous adaptations of the source material, this version hits closer to the mark, while paying some fan-service to THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD.
Carpenter tosses a few little nods to the Hawkes’-produced original by recreating several scenes in this film. The found footage of the Norwegian crew fanning out into a circle around the frozen alien craft (and their attempts to thaw it with Thermite), plus the inclusion of the mysterious block of ice in the Norwegian compound, are all callbacks to key moments in the 1951 classic! Carpenter also cribs a scene from the original film, by having a flame-engulfed creature smash its way out into the snowy wastes, in a desperate attempt at self-preservation.
As is the case with Eugenio Martin’s HORROR EXPRESS, John Carpenter’s film creates a palpable atmosphere of paranoia. However, THE THING pulls it off more effectively because you’re never quite sure who is still human and who isn’t. Even as the film ends, you’re left contemplating the fates, and identities of Outpost #31’s last survivors. In HORROR EXPRESS, the identity of the alien is always obvious, which I think downplays that film’s attempts at creating tension.
And it’s the shapeshifting alien that makes THE THING so damned interesting to me. After seeing this movie dozens of times in just about every format available, I’ve begun to formulate a few theories about its antagonist. My main theory is that the alien did not intentionally come to our planet. (If it did, you’d assume it would land in a more hospitable region, right?) Perhaps it was caught in Earth’s gravitational pull, or maybe its craft “short-circuited” due to our planet’s magnetic field. Whatever the cause, “The Thing” lands in the Antarctic and ends up frozen for centuries.
I also believe that, much like the alien in HORROR EXPRESS, the creature in THE THING just wants to return home. It was trapped in suspended animation for thousands of years, and when it was finally discovered and thawed, it found itself surrounded by strange beings (AH! NORWEGIANS!) that immediately lashed out at it in fear. What if it’s not an apocalyptic evil, but an intelligent being that is hiding among humans until it can develop an escape plan?
I came to this conclusion after multiple viewings because the “Thing” typically doesn’t make its presence known unless it feels threatened. This is evident when Norris (Charles Hallahan) suddenly has a heart attack when he and Nauls (T.K. Carter) attempt to get the drop on an edgy, dynamite-wielding MacReady. Moments later, when Doc attempts to resuscitate Norris with a defibrillator, the electrical jolt triggers a defensive response: Norris’ torso morphs into a huge toothy maw that bites off Doc’s hands.
Another example can be seen during the infamous “blood test” sequence. (Which boasts one of cinema’s all-time greatest jump scares!) When MacReady shoves a heated wire into a blood sample belonging to Palmer (David Clennon), the blood leaps out of the petri dish. Outed as a non-human, Palmer immediately begins transforming, then lashes out at Windows (Thomas Waites) because he is armed with a flamethrower. (This was clearly a case of self-defense! You must acquit!)
As for my belief that the alien wants to leave Earth, the evidence is found later in the film when MacReady discovers a saucer-like craft being constructed beneath the outpost’s tool shed. I surmise that this was destined to be a small escape shuttle that would have allowed the creature to return to its ship, as I doubt it would be powerful enough to escape Earth’s atmosphere. (Then again, it would be an ideal transport to reach a more populated area, thus confirming Blair’s worst fears.)
I have also recently heard another theory (thanks for sharing Adam Dolan!) that those that are assimilated by the alien, do not realize that they are no longer human. Essentially, the Thing creates an imitation that is so perfect, that even the duplicate is completely unaware. And instead of trying to mimic human emotions and behavior on its own, maybe the Thing lies in wait and allows the host organism to act like it normally would. (Damn, that is diabolical!) So at any given moment, tentacles, claws, teeth, and/or spider legs could begin erupting from your body without any warning!
This would sort of explain why the “Norris-Thing” experienced a heart attack: The alien doesn’t improve upon the imitation, it just recreates its unwilling host perfectly on a cellular level, which in this case included Norris’ bad ticker! (I wonder if there’s a scene on the cutting room floor showing Norris taking meds for a heart condition?) Obviously the heart attack wouldn’t have killed the Thing, but it was probably an unexpected shock to the creature’s system. (“Why has this doughy construct stopped functioning?!”)
This would also explain why Palmer called attention to the disembodied crab-head in the previous scene, then allowed himself to be tied to a couch during Mac’s impromptu blood test. Palmer seems mostly calm, as if he has nothing to worry about, and doesn’t “thing out” until MacReady reveals that he is an imposter. So theoretically, in that split second Palmer realized he wasn’t himself any longer, thus allowing the Thing to take over and instinctively protect itself from harm. Of course, this is all conjecture on my part – I’m most likely reading too much into things.
And seeing as how THE THING is the first part of Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” (followed by PRINCE OF DARKNESS and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS), I wonder if I’m being far too sympathetic towards what is more a less a sentient virus. Maybe it was Carpenter’s intention all along to keep things simple and straightforward (good and evil; black and white) or maybe he purposely left room for interpretation? I don’t quite know.
In closing, I don’t have much more to say about THE THING, because what can I possibly add that hasn’t already been said by other reviewers and critics? In my eyes, the movie is absolutely perfect, and I’m extremely pleased that it found a dedicated fan base decades after its original theatrical release. It truly warms my heart to see THE THING regarded by many as a legitimate classic, and I can’t help but award it my highest honor of:
Packaging: This Collector’s Edition comes in a standard Amaray case with reversible cover art, and a cardboard slipcover featuring new artwork by Paul Shipper. While I’m a big fan of Drew Struzan’s classic poster, I have to say that I really dig Shipper’s poster design! (Note: If you were lucky enough to score the limited Deluxe edition, you would have been endowed with a second slipcover featuring new artwork by Nat Marsh!)
Audio & Video: Under the supervision of Dean Cundey (who was the Director of Photography on THE THING), the folks at Scream Factory did a 2K scan of the film’s original interpositive. Featured in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, this Carpenter classic has never looked so good! (I’d actually put it a notch above the previous Universal Blu-ray release!) I am extremely pleased with the quality of this transfer!
As for audio options, we get three separate tracks: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and a new DTS-HD Master Audio 4.1 track that was created from the original 70MM six track Dolby Surround mix! I have yet to sample the new 4.1 option, but I have watched THE THING in 5.1, and have no issues to report! The movie looks and sounds fantastic! Great job Scream Factory!
Extras: Egads! Though I do typically work my way through all of the special features before I review a Blu-ray disc, I have to admit that isn’t the case here. In fact I’m still going through the bulk of the extras as I write this review! But at the very least, allow me to break things down for you, and comment where I can.
Along with the feature film, there are three audio commentaries for the movie! One is with Co-Producer Stuart Cohen, the second is the John Carpenter & Kurt Russell commentary that was ported over from the Universal disc, and the third is a brand new track featuring Dean Cundey. Out of the three, the only one I have listened to (in the past) was the Carpenter/Russell commentary, which I highly recommend.
Also contained on this disc are a slew of trailers, TV spots, and radio spots, plus a huge collection of still galleries! Divided into posters, promotional materials, and behind-the-scenes photos, the total running time of these galleries clocks in at roughly seventeen minutes!
Here’s the real honey pot THING fans! Prepare to spend hours pouring through the insane number of new (and vintage) extras contained on this disc, which is divided into three sections: Interviews, More of The Thing, and Featurettes.
The “Interviews” section contains six newly created interviews with various members of the cast and crew, including Director John Carpenter (Requiem for a Shapeshifter), editor Todd Ramsay (Assembling and Assimilation), Visual Effects Supervisor Peter Kuran (Behind the Chameleon), Alan Dean Foster, who authored “The Thing” novelization (Between the Lines), sound effects creator Alan Howarth (Sounds from the Cold), and actors Keith David, David Clennon, Wilford Brimley, Joel Polis, Richard Masur, Peter Maloney, and Thomas Waites (The Men of Outpost 31).
Thus far I have only watched The Men of Outpost 31, but I assure you it offers up some fascinating stories with the majority of the film’s cast. (Sadly Charles Hallahan, Richard Dysart, and Donald Moffat are all deceased. Also, I found it curious that Kurt Russel and T.K. Carter didn’t take part.) There is a wealth of information about the production here, with various accounts about scenes that were altered, and others that were shot and never used.
There’s also a bunch of fun anecdotes about various pranks that were pulled, near-death experiences when driving to the set in British Columbia, as well as input on the sequence of events that may have led up to THE THING’s poor performance at the box office. (Not pointing any fingers here but…. CAT PEOPLE!) When (not if) you get a copy of this release, make sure to make this one of your first stops after you watch the movie.
The second section on the disc, “More of The Thing,” contains a second version of the film. Sourced from what appears to be a VHS tape, this “Network TV Broadcast Version” adds in unnecessary narration, alters the ending, and trims a bunch of the effects and violence, creating a shorter PG-rated cut of the film. It’s neat to have, but I am admittedly not a fan of it.
Also included is the fantastic John Carpenter’s The Thing: Terror Takes Shape documentary. Ported over from a previous Universal DVD release, this doc features interviews with just about everyone involved in the production. It gives a very in-depth look at the making of the film, and is full of great information on how they shot many of the effects sequences.
I think my favorite portion is when Rob Bottin talks about how he experimented with a chemical gumbo (which included melted plastic and bubblegum) to help create the illusion of Norris’ head breaking itself off from his body. It turns out that the mixture was flammable, and ended up causing a small (and mostly harmless) explosion on the set.
The remainder of this mini-archive is made up of two short vintage “making-of” featurettes, that are almost indentical. They are basically puff pieces that give a little behind the scenes glimpse at the making of the film. While they don’t bring much to the table, it is still very cool to see them included.
And finally, there’s the “Featurettes” portion of the disc, which includes over two more hours of special features! The Art of Mike Ploog showcases Ploog’s storyboard designs which helped better define the design of the Thing’s various forms, and Back into the Cold a slideshow chronicling a 2003 shooting location visit to Stewart, British Columbia.
There’s also an outtakes reel, vintage behind the scenes footage and featurettes, and a “Vintage Product Reel,” which acts like a cliffs-notes version of THE THING. It’s interesting to watch because it contains footage not used in the final cut of the film.
To cap it all off, the last extra on the disc is the wonderful Annotated Production Archive. Running at fifty-four minutes, this collection of storyboards and behind-the-scenes production photos, plays out like a silent movie. Occasionally, a few paragraphs of trivia will appear between a series’ of photos, resulting in a painstakingly detailed chronicle of THE THING’s production.
Final Verdict: Without a doubt, this is the definitive home video release of THE THING! The transfer is beautiful, the audio is impeccable, and there’s over seven hours of extras to wade through. The only thing missing from this two-disc set is the still unreleased alternate ending where MacReady is rescued, and proven to be human.
This Collector’s Edition is just another reason why I love Scream Factory and support their continued efforts to release classic, and contemporary genre fare. So I suppose it comes as no surprise that I give their superb Blu-ray release of THE THING: