Jarv’s Birthday Series Redux: The Thing (1982)
Welcome back to The Birthday Series. For those that don’t know, this is how it works: Pick a film released each year as close to your Birthday as possible. In my case, that’s 23rd August. As I get nearer to my actual date of Birth, finding, for the most part, the films can prove to be difficult. There’s one year, though, where it’s easy: 1982. 1982 was a vintage year for genre films, the kind of year that we just don’t get any more. Still, the 26th August in the UK saw John Carpenter’s classic The Thing released, a film that has rightly gone down as a classic with one of the most iconic taglines of all time: Man is the warmest place to hide.
May contain crazy Swedes and Spoilers below.
With that, it pretty much sets its stall out early, we know now that this is set somewhere remote, and the poster (not the one I’ve used here) shows the frightening image of a hooded man with blazing light shooting out from under the cowl. When the film opens with the Alien spaceship crash landing, you can put all this information together to work out that what we have here is an alien possession film. What a film though: atmospheric, frightening, jammed full of great characters, fantastic practical effects and with a paranoid but eminently quotable script. The Thing can lay genuine claim to being the greatest remake of them all. This, really, is how you do it.
Carpenter was on one of the hottest streaks of any director of the modern era at the time. He’d made his name with Halloween, but had also turned out Assault on Precinct 13 (another great reimagining), Escape From New York and The Fog. The Thing is arguably the greatest of them all, a simply brilliant and visceral film and the fact it disappointed remains one of cinema’s most unfair failures. It, according to Carpenter, simply didn’t find its audience, and he rues it to some extent.
OK- this is the story, just in case you’ve been living in Wales or something and totally cut off from civilisation. We’re at the American base in the Antarctic. A dog is seen running through the snow, being pursued by a helicopter throwing grenades at it. Our American heroes rescue Fido, and kill the Norwegians that were pursuing it. However, the dog has a secret- it’s not so much man’s best friend, rather it’s an alien that assimilates whatever it touches, producing a perfect replica of its victim. Adopted into the camp, the dog may have infected one of our heroes. Who can you trust, when literally anyone could be a monster, and you’ve no way of knowing?
I have no idea how to do this review, frankly. It’s such a well known and such a stunning film that there’s not a lot I can talk about that hasn’t already been covered. The cast is stunning, with a career best turn from Kurt Russell as Macready and Keith David as Chiles, the monsters feature some of the finest work of Rob Bottin’s career, and Morricone’s score is chilling. Really, this is an almost perfect storm of director, cast and material all at the top of their game. Carpenter, for instance, went on to make some stunningly entertaining films, most notably Big Trouble in Little China, but he never again reached the peak he reached with the Thing, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that he was certainly never as frightening as this again (although Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness both have their moments).
The Thing, strangely considering how good the monster is, doesn’t rely on the beast for atmosphere or terror. Instead, what we have here is a deeply paranoid film, a movie populated with characters who have been isolated, and the internal divisions already present have been widened by terror to take them over. It’s clear from the very first introduction that many of these men have been here too long, that they don’t like each other and above all else don’t trust each other. When you inject the added trauma that they can’t even tell who’s human and who isn’t into the mix then it’s no wonder the situation becomes raw, and the Thing is indeed an emotionally visceral film.
Take, for example, the very famous couch scene. While Donald Moffat’s stupendous “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!” line is hilarious and brilliantly delivered, it follows a genuinely unnerving scene where Macready, at the limits of his character, has tied them all to the sofa to test their humanity. Garry is terrified, rightly, as by this point, the crew are already convinced that he’s one of the Things, and he has no-one to appeal to for help. This scene is stunning, actually, and just one highlight in a very celebrated movie.
While the Thing is high on atmosphere and paranoia, it doesn’t mean that the monster doesn’t pack a punch and that the film is free of jump scares. The CPR scene (see picture above) made me shoot up when I first saw it, and even though I know it’s coming now, it does still make me wince. The initial transformation of the dog from loveable family pet into tentacled nightmare is superbly handled, and all in all it’s very hard to argue against the quality of the special effects or Carpenter’s use of the monster. In all honesty, I can’t believe how well the effects still hold up, and the Thing’s practical work still looks fantastic today.
Finally, before I sum up and move on, there’s the end itself. This has been much debated, but by this stage of the film there’s only Mac and Chiles left. Mac and Chiles don’t like each other, and haven’t liked each other since the first sight of them. They’ve both fought the Thing to a standstill, and are sitting in the ruins of the camp waiting for hypothermia to take them. The question remains however, are they both Human? Superbly Carpenter never tells us, instead he allows the audience to decide and Macready’s final line is the enigmatic “Why don’t we just wait here for a little while… see what happens… ” Carpenter doesn’t need to tell us that they’re both Human or that Chiles is a monster because it doesn’t matter- either way Macready is as a doornail. It’s a brutal ending, as harsh and uncompromising as the landscape that it is set in.
Overall, this is a magnificent film, and actually one of my all time favourites. I’ve struggled with this review, because it’s so famous, but the rating and my recommendation are simple. The Thing is a legitimate classic of Horror, and arguably the finest work of Carpenter’s fairly distinguished career. I have absolutely no hesitation at all in awarding it 4 buckets of fried chicken out of a possible 4, and please, John, put them, the weed and the X-Box down and make another good film. I know you can do it. Oh and stop whoring your back catalogue around to utter hacks like Rob Zombie while you’re at it.
Next up is Honky Tonk Freeway. Which I’ve never heard of but am willing to bet is a hi-larious zany comedy of some sort. Yay.
The Full List for the Birthday Series Redux:
- 2011- The Skin I Live In (2.5 out of 4)
- 2010- The Last Exorcism (2.5 out of 4)
- 2009- Post Grad (1 out of 4)
- 2008- The House Bunny (1 out of 4)
- 2007- Knocked Up (1 out of 4)
- 2006- Volver (1 out of 4)
- 2005- Red Eye (2 out of 4)
- 2004- Dead Clowns (Orangutan of Doom)
- 2003- Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (1 out of 4)
- 2002- Talk to Her (4 out of 4)
- 2001- Jeepers Creepers (2 out of 4)
- 2000- Gossip (1 out of 4)
- 1999- All About My Mother (1 out of 4)
- 1998- The X-Files (1 out of 4)
- 1997- Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (2 out of 4)
- 1996- The Last Supper (3 out of 4)
- 1995- The Usual Suspects (4 out of 4)
- 1994- Color of Night (2 out of 4)
- 1993- Surf Ninjas (Orangutan of Doom)
- 1992- The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (2 out of 4)
- 1991- Pump Up the Volume ( 3 out of 4)
- 1990- Wild at Heart (3 out of 4)
- 1989- Bull Durham (3.5 out of 4)
- 1988- Crossing Delancey (Orangutan of Doom)
- 1987- The Big Easy (3 out of 4)
- 1986- Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1 out of 4)
- 1985- Better off Dead (3 out of 4)
- 1984- Oxford Blues (Orangutan of Doom)
- 1983- MetalStorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn (2.5 out of 4)
- 1982- The Thing (4 out of 4)
- 1981- Honky Tonk Freeway
- 1980- Schock
- 1979- Rich Kids
- 1978- Coma