Thursday, 5 April 2012

Personal Favourites: The Thing (1982)

The Thing (1982) 

Many whom have listened to my podcast, RespawningCouch, will already know that I have a massive crush on John Carpenter’s sci-fi/ horror classic The Thing. And would undoubtably add it to my ‘Top 10 Favourite Films’ list. Funnily I owe my interest in gaming the credit for my discovery of the film. While I had heard about it from various sources after watching Ridley Scott’s Alien at the age of 12, it wouldn’t be until the announcement of EA’s sci-fi/ horror game Dead Space that would spur my interest. Like my love for John Woo’s over-the-top action films (The Killer, A Better Tomorrow and Hardboiled) emerged from Midway’s Stranglehold, Dead Space’s necromorph infested corridors obviously took inspiration from the gory assimilations of Carpenter’s film.
So what do I love about The Thing. First and foremost, its story. A relatively simple affair, the plot follows a group of American researchers as they battle against an alien entity which has the ability to assimilate its victims. Based on John W. Campbell Jr.‘s novella Who Goes There?, Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster stick close to the source material. Trust and paranoia are the two major themes of the film’s narrative, and the writing and direction truly portray these. The whole concept of the actual ‘Thing’ is one that allows for a departure from the stalking psychopath, which was very much the horror genre during the late 70s and early 80s. Instead the plot creates a constant uncertainty over who is the ‘thing’, and cleverly the audience is continuously left in the dark, creating even more tension. The characters themselves are a good mixture of personalities that are sufficiently developed through the course of the runtime. On first glance, they aren’t the most original bunch of blokes, but somehow the performances and Carpenter’s direction equate to memorable individuals. From Kurt Russell’s bearded, sombrero wearing MacReady to the stern and dispassionate Clark, played by Richard Masur, The Thing’s cast is solid and really conveys the growing anxiety and delusion. 
Key to any horror film is atmosphere. Cinematography and sound-design are pinnacle to any director wanting to successfully create a genuinely scary and unsettling feature. Sure a well-portrayed character with a psychotic personality, who whispers gleefully into the camera, is threatening and unnerving. But it’s even more effective if he’s shrouded in shadows, and with background audio consisting of droning tones, or high-pitched and prolonged crescendos. The film’s location plays a major part in the creation of this foreboding atmosphere. Set on the snowy research camp in the Antarctic, it’s the perfect setting for an intimate and intense horror/thriller to take place. Secluded from the outside world, Carpenter keeps the scale small but focused. Consequently, The Thing lends itself to those intricate and utterly intense moments. From the long, travelling shots through the claustrophobic corridors and spaces of the base, to the intimate closeup nature of each confrontation, The Thing’s camerawork, while isn’t the most artistically constructed cinematography ever, frames the locations, characters and tension perfectly.
Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic Halloween showcased his ability to construct a brooding and threatening atmosphere in a genuine horror film. Meanwhile a year later Ridley Scott’s  Alien had become influential in the solidifying the ‘Sci-fi horror’ genre, with its sheer intensity and intelligent technical and narrative composition. The constricted atmosphere, the sudden changes in mood and unexpected bloody carnage are similar notes to that eventually seen in The Thing. However compared with Alien, scares are few to the point that I shy away from calling it a ‘horror’ film. Yet when those moments are used, they’re timed perfectly. Unlike the clichéd affairs of modern horror, Carpenter doesn’t flood the film with jump-scares and forgettable, stupid characters. Instead he goes more for the ‘thriller’ vibe, focusing the attention on the character’s relationships. He then uses the gory “revelations” to startle and shock the audience. The obvious “Blood Test” scene in particular, offers a dramatic change of events that transpires into a spectacular mess of devastation and mutilation. Speaking of which, Rob Bottin’s special effects are grotesque, yet stunning works of ‘art’. And to be honest, they’ll surpass any CGI ‘creature’ a modern artist could conjure up, as seen in the prequel. From the makeup to animatronics, there’s a brutal and ugly attribute to each creature, with the special effects on the ‘head spider’ really showing the commitment and complexity to Bottin’s work. The late and great Stan Winston offered his expertise for one of the monster designs, and it’s truly amazing. 
The overall sound composition of The Thing is fantastic. Bennings’ scream still leaves me with goosebumps every single time I watch that scene, while every squelch and snap during the ‘Thing’s’ exposure really contributes to the brutal and visceral nature of the film. In terms of the soundtrack, the great Ennio Morricone and the musical talents of John Carpenter deliver a perfect musical score that blends dreary, continuous, synthesised beats with the long strokes and shrills of stringed instruments. The iconic opening title track remains engraved in my head.
Overall The Thing, in my eyes, is a masterpiece of the sci-fi thriller/ horror genre. From its atmosphere and performances, to its gory and intense nature, John Carpenter blends everything together to form a film that is constantly engrossing and a joy to watch. 
Check out my review of 2011's prequel, The Thing 
And check out my other 'Personal Favourites' in the Features section. 

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