Ticking away, bleh.
–Not the Editor (?)
Little White Lies is an English movie magazine that uses a unique rubric for reviewing movies: three standards, each rated from 1 to 5. First is the reviewer’s anticipation for the movie, followed by their initial enjoyment, and lastly their opinion after they’ve sat with the film for a while. It’s a great system that factors in bias and the test of time. I wish I would’ve thought of it. I refer back to it occasionally in reviews I write (Dracula Untold, for example, gets a 2, 3, 3 out of me.) When the idea popped in my head this week to review John Carpenter’s The Thing, my level of anticipation, from 1 to 5, was a 6. I’m currently over the moon.
It’s hard to be a fan of horror, and really movies in general, being blissfully unaware of Carpenter’s 1982 remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World, released in 1951. Carpenter professes his love for the film incessantly, enough that he had it playing on the TV in Halloween. He saw the original as a young boy, which terrified and amazed him so that he decided to read the story the film was based on, Who Goes There?, by John W. Campbell in high school. Noting differences between the film and novel, he chose to remake the movie, and along with screenwriter Bill Lancaster, wrote a script that more so followed the novel.
The story features a crew of twelve men working on an Antarctic weather institute. They discover a malevolent alien presence which has the ability to consume and replicate any organism, imitating their appearance perfectly. As the alien picks off the crew one by one, the rest try to survive and figure out who among them may be the Thing.
Where Carpenter and Hawks differ is in how versatile the Thing is in morphing into other life-forms. Hawks’ Thing looks similar to a Frankenstein monster: a tall humanoid with a shovel-shaped face. Carpenter follows the novel’s description, where the Thing changes its appearance often, choosing stealth rather than brawn. These transformations, created by special effects designer Rob Bottin, are a hallmark in creature creation. Bottin teamed up with comic artist Mike Ploog (the initial artist for Marvel’s Ghost Rider) to storyboard. The drawings are ghastly, contorted amalgamations of teeth, tentacles, legs, eye-stalks. You name it, Bottin already thought it.
For as much hype I was inundated in before viewing, the spectacle exceeded expectations. When I think I’ve seen the worst, the Thing transforms again, using the memory of its previous imitations to craft a bastardized version of a crab out of a human head, or a humanoid with a dog gnashing from its torso. A dissection of one of the Thing’s victims is repulsive by sound alone; the squelches and slurps as intestines ooze out are almost impossible for a stomach to withstand. There’s pus, there’s blood, there are organs. This is a Valhalla for gorehounds.
However, as much as The Thing highlights the best of 1980’s special effects, it’s most effective when layering paranoia on top of confusion. When the crew learns of the Thing’s replicating capabilities, their insecurity envelops to the point to where they can’t even trust themselves not to be the monster. Carpenter makes sure to leave all his cast open to suspicion; everyone, at one point or another, could realistically have been taken over. The worst part about the whole ordeal is that any hope for none of the crew to be infected is futile. There’s a fatalism about the scenario that drains the characters and, subsequently, the audience. We’re left, like the crew is, constantly on edge; the terror doesn’t come from what is coming, rather when…and by whom.
Editor Todd Ramsay cuts with mathematical precision, raising the tension until the moment just before or after the audience anticipates it. I could feel my chest tighten, breath cut off, and the brilliance of something like this, versus more modern films like The Conjuring. The payoff “pays off” spectacularly, and so well the first time that there wouldn’t really ever be a need to show the monster in its full glory.
Luckily for us, we get the entire package. In a list of the ten best movie remakes of all time, Carpenter’s The Thing frequently makes it, and there’s no question why. In a desolate, claustrophobic wasteland, Carpenter brings his characters to the brink of madness, testing their resolve as paranoia and fear envelop. It combines spectacle with suspense, resulting in one of the most terrifying, entertaining thrillers of all time. This is the type of stuff classics are made of.
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