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Review: The Thing (1982)

The Thing (1982)

Directed by: John Carpenter

Premise: A remake of The Thing from Another World (1951). A group of scientists stationed at a facility in the Antarctic discover a shape shifting alien that infects and imitates whatever it comes into contact with.

What Works: John Carpenter is a director whose filmography has been mixed, ranging from classics like Halloween and Escape from New York to forgettable films like Prince of Darkness and Memoirs of an Invisible Man. The Thing was not a box office hit at the time of its release in 1982 but in the years since it has emerged as one of Carpenter’s best films and one of the greatest monster movies of all time. For a monster movie to be great it must have a great monster and The Thing has one of the most impressive creatures in film. The special effects of The Thing are a high point of mechanical and prosthetic effects and there is a grotesque genius to the way these scenes play out. As a product of the pre-digital era, The Thing is an excellent example of creativity by constraint; contemporary films rely on computer graphics and although digital tools allow filmmakers to conjure almost anything, effects in contemporary films (such as the 2011 prequel to/remake of The Thing) are often overdone to the point that they destroy the illusion. Because the majority of the effects in the 1982 version of The Thing are done practically and retain an appropriate scale they are believable, making the film much more frightening. As a result The Thing has aged very well and many scenes of this film look like they might have been shot recently. The enduring qualities of The Thing are due in large part to the human drama. Like Jaws, The Thing is a deceptively simple film that focuses on the human characters and how they cope with the beast in their midst. The filmmakers introduce a cast of twelve men and although we don’t get to know all of them in a deep way, they are distinguished enough that they remain distinct characters. As the men become aware that any one of them could be infected they begin to suspect each other and the film creates an atmosphere of paranoia like the Red Scare pictures of the 1950s such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Although The Thing is most remembered for its special effects, it’s the tense moments between the men that really make the film work. These long stretches of tension are punctuated by visceral shocks and after each attack the men are more panicked and distrustful, escalating the film and setting up the audience for the next surprise.
What Doesn’t: The finale of The Thing gets away from the primal fear and paranoia that makes the bulk of the picture so strong. As the film transitions into a more traditional monster movie, The Thing becomes less scary and more action oriented. It’s not a bad climax and the filmmakers do provide a satisfactory conclusion but it’s of a slightly different timbre than the rest of the film. The dialogue of The Thing also includes some of the conspicuous one-liners that plagued 1980s cinema. At their best these moments can provide comic relief or give a scene the punctuation it needs but at their worst one-liners create a cheekiness that snaps the viewer out of the movie. In The Thing the one-liners come just often enough and usually hit the right note but they do contrast with the more understated tone of the rest of the movie. 

DVD extras: The Collector’s Edition DVD includes a commentary track, documentary, outtakes, image galleries, production notes, and a trailer. The Blu-ray edition only includes a commentary track.

Bottom Line: The Thing ranks among Alien and Jaws among the great monster movies but it manages to be more than that. This is a story about paranoia and how people react in a crisis and because of that subtext the film is far more frightening.

Note: The 2011 film titled The Thing is a prequel (and an unnecessary one at that) to this film.

Episode: #408 (October 7, 2012)