Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Film Review: THE THING (1982, John Carpenter)

Stars: 6+ of 5.
Running Time: 109 minutes.
Tag-line: "Man is The Warmest Place to Hide."
Notable Cast or Crew: Kurt Russell. Wilford Brimley (EWOKS: THE BATTLE FOR ENDOR, THE FIRM, BORDERLINE), Keith David (THEY LIVE, MEN AT WORK, MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD), Donald Moffat (CLEAR & PRESENT DANGER, TALES OF THE CITY, ALAMO BAY), Richard Masur (MY SCIENCE PROJECT, RENT-A-COP, LICENSE TO DRIVE, STEPHEN KING'S IT), Richard Dysart (PALE RIDER, THE HOSPITAL), Charles Hallahan (FATAL BEAUTY, BODY OF EVIDENCE, VISION QUEST), Peter Maloney (MANHUNTER, JFK), Joel Polis (FATAL VISION, CHEERS), David Clennon (STAR 80, THE FABULOUS STAINS), T.K. Carter (RUNAWAY TRAIN, DOCTOR DETROIT, JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS), Thomas G. Waites (THE WARRIORS, MCBAIN). Music by Ennio Morricone. Special effects by Rob Bottin (ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL), dog creature by Stan Winston. Cinematography by Dean Cundey (WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, JURASSIC PARK, BACK TO THE FUTURE, ROAD HOUSE, D.C. CAB)- Sven Nykvist, eat your heart out. Screenplay by Bill Lancaster, son of Burt.
Best one-liner: "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!"

Well, apparently, this is the 500th post here at Junta Juleil. Since we've been discussing effective horror remakes versus the muttonheaded ones this week, I wouldn't want to use it to discuss anything besides... THE THING.

Now, if you're one of those unfortunate souls who has never seen THE THING (I'm continually surprised by how many people, even self-proclaimed cinephiles, haven't seen it), stop reading immediately. And don't resume doing whatever you were doing before you started reading this- put on some shoes. Leave your work/school/home behind. Tell them you're going to lunch, or have a medical emergency. Head to the nearest liquor store. You're going to need some J&B. It's not the best scotch on the planet, in fact, it's not even really a scotch (it's a blend), but Kurt Russell seems to like it just fine, so just shut it.

Now you'll need to procure a copy of THE THING. It shouldn't be that hard. It should be easier than getting copies of THE LETTER PEOPLE or HEAVENLY BODIES or BLACK ICE, starring Michael Ironside and Michael Nouri. Also, it's not essential, but if you could get one of these hats before you watch it:

that'd be great, too. Now, watch THE THING, and report back to me immediately. But just in case you're the sort of pantywaist who won't abide by my instructions, I'm not going to give away any major plot developments in this review. Onto the THE THING:

A breakthrough film for John Carpenter. The son finally tops the father––Carpy breaks through and outdoes the Howard Hawks original with this inimitable paranoid masterpiece. It's horror/sci-fi/thriller perfection. It's so evocative you can taste the stinging J&B tempered by Mac's frosty breath, sense the icy dread of the desolate, labyrinthine corridors, 'hear' the resonance of the overpowering silences, and feel the foreboding throb of the Morricone score.

The less the uninitiated knows, the better. This is the 'Red Scare' paranoia film taken through a post-modern meat grinder. Rob Bottin's special effects are so pre-CGI brilliant that it becomes a completely visceral experience.

We are there. Every manifestation of the The Thing is tangible, tactile, viscous, gloppy––it's really there. That tightening in your stomach? That flutter in your heart? That's movie magic. It's real men doing real things, assailed by real monsters (well, almost). There is no disconnect, no cartoonish nonsense, no frills. These are desperate men fighting for survival.

Donald Moffat is an old-school cold warrior wholly unprepared for Lovecraftian foes.

Also, pretty tired of this fucking couch.

Richard Masur is the bewhiskered head of the kennel who toes that fine line between dog-lover and terrifying lumberjack (a major contrast from the 'Dad'-type roles he was confined to, later in the 80's).


Keith David is the gritty, unwavering, ice-cold survivor, Childs. Keith David does 'pissed off' like nobody else. In fact, somewhere, as we speak, he's probably glowering at someone and doesn't know why.

He's one of those rare actors who can serve as the cornerstone for 'suspension of disbelief' in an action picture. I mean, if you don't, he'll will probably show up on your doorstep to twist you into a pretzel like Sarge always does to Beetle Bailey. (He'll do that to you if you call him David Keith by mistake, too.)

Wilford "AH KIL YEW" Brimley is Blair, who possesses a stout, astounding severity.


The way he grimaces and groans while doing the autopsy-

or the way he stares at the computer readout which says the entire population of Earth could be infected in the next 27,000 hours, then nonchalantly reaches for his gun...

(A scene almost exactly duplicated in LEVIATHAN.)

I guess on my scores of previous viewings, I was too caught up in the gravity, the horror of the situation to realize- as I did in the presence of other audience members while seeing THE THING on the big screen––that Brimley is not only brilliant, he is absolutely hilarious. And you are not laughing at Wilford, ohh no. Nor are you laughing at the fact that his reactions to these given scenarios are so stoically over-the-top. You're laughing because- no matter how ridiculous he gets––you believe every second of it. These are merely the ways that the very real 'Dr. Blair' happens to react when faced with The Thing.

I'm all better now

Kurt Russell really comes into his own in this film. Even the era-defining Snake Plissken (a year prior) is a little too Eastwood-derivative (but can you blame him?- he was hanging out with Lee van Cleef!), but MacReady is all Russell. He can pull off that ridiculous Antarctic winter sombrero, which just might be the most awesome hat in the history of film. He can swig the J&B like no other (watch him make sure he doesn't spill a drop when the Norwegians barrel into camp).

He can fly a chopper through the eye of a needle, brandish a flamethrower with élan, and tell that electronic 8-bit chessmaster (the uncredited voice of Adrienne Barbeau) what's what.

He's a character written by Bill Lancaster, Burt's son- and if you squint a little and clench your jaw, you can almost see the sturdy, benevolent shadow of Burt looming over Mac, like a hardass guardian angel-

In short, he's just the kind of man you hope is on the front lines when the heavy stuff starts to go down.

Six stars. Maybe seven.

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

"It's real men doing real things, assailed by real monsters (well, almost). There is no disconnect, no cartoonish nonsense, no frills. These are desperate men fighting for survival."

Hell yeah! Hands down, Carpenter's masterpiece. I love the tangible quality of the cold. You can see people's breath, see them shiver - it's fucking cold! Not to mention that gradual paranoia seeping into the group, turning man against man, culminating in that chilly moment where Russell wastes Richard Masur's character and we find out that he was HUMAN. Yikes.

And, as you pointed out, some great dialogue, including one of my fave throwaway lines, "I dunno what the hell's in there, but it's weird and pissed off, whatever it is." Love that one.

And let's hear it for Bottin's groundbreaking make-up. When I saw the severed head sprout spider legs for the first time, I almost lost my lunch. And these effects still hold up today, showing what lasting power they have. Will we say the same thing about CGI rendered blood and gore 20 years from now? Probably not.

Anonymous said...

About 10 or 12 years ago, this was shown on the Sci-Fi Channel without commercials in the middle of the night in Letterbox. I was up that night, and had never seen the movie.

I taped it for no other reason that it was late and I did not think I would be able to stay up to watch it. I was wrong. I was up for the whole thing, and that tape is no longer with me because I wore it out watching it again and again. I have 3 copies of this movie since then, DVD, VHS, Letterbox VHS.

The commentary on this movie on the DVD between Kurt and John C. is probably one of the finest commentary tracks on a film ever. You can just picture them passing that same bottle of J&B back and forth as they talk it over.

Anonymous said...

Finally! My favorite horror movie, too much to say about this flick. Hopefully your review will inspire other to experience it like we have.


Sean Gill said...

J.D., Anon, & D,

Thanks for your comments, fellas- THE THING simply strikes a chord with every sci-fi/horror lover I've encountered, and it's really an undisputed classic. Building off of what you say, J.D.- I think that the sort of people who laugh at stop-motion in comparison to CGI today will in 50 years (and beyond) be poking fun tenfold at how silly CGI looks (though they'll still probably trash stop-motion, the assholes!), whereas I have no doubt that films like THE THING will still hold up splendidly.

And definitely the line "I dunno what the hell's in there, but it's weird and pissed off, whatever it is" is a keeper. That was runner up for 'best one-liner.'

And Anon., you're right- that commentary track is phenomenal. In fact, John Carpenter's are some of the rare commentary tracks that are actually worth a thorough, feature-length listen. Pass the J&B.

J.D. said...

Agreed on JC's commentary tracks - the one he does with Russell is a real keeper as they veer wildly off topic (even talking 'bout their kids) but it just sounds like a couple of old buddies talking over some beers.

Anonymous said...

I tell every film lover I run across that this is thee best horror film of all time, thanks for acknowledging this classic! I read a "prequel" to this is in the works taking place at the Norwegian's camp. Should be interesting if anything else.

"somewhere, as we speak, he's probably getting pissed off and doesn't know why" - I LOL'd

PrimitiveScrewhead said...

Greatest film ever made. Ever. This shit belongs in the Louvre.

Sean Gill said...

Primitive Screwhead,

I'll not argue with you there! There's more than a few Carpys that belong in the Louvre.

Anonymous said...

It's funny how the old "do-it-yourself" special effects from the 1982 film look so much more realistic than the CGI effects in the 2011 movie.

Sean Gill said...


Absolutely! And thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

No problem, I enjoyed the post. And I did take your advice and watch the movie with a bottle of J&B in hand, though I couldn't find a sombrero. By the time Garry had his couch line I was pretty lit and laughed pretty hard. Also Palmer's "Hey, thanks for thinking about it though" line cracked me up like it never did in my previous hundreds of viewings.

I recently read an article that makes the "Red Scare" aspect of this film even more interesting. Although it's never said in the film, the backstory of Dr. Copper is that he is in fact a Russian spy. At least that was the backstory Richard Dysart came up with (the nose ring was his idea too) and Carpy didn't object. This could possibly explain who got to the blood. Of course it's all left to the imagination, but I like to think Copper had some Carter Burke type plan to get a sample of this thing back to the Ruskies, right up until Norris' chest ate his arms for dinner.

I'll have to check out the commentary. I'm not a big commentary guy, although I found Roger Moore's commentary on Moonraker (yes I've actually watched Moonraker with the commentary on) to be very entertaining and informative.

Sean Gill said...


Nice. Yeah, I'm always finding new stuff in THE THING that cracks me up (in a sincere way). The apocalyptic intensity of it is all so perfectly shored that it's nice to find levity where you can.
That Dr. Copper stuff is pretty fascinating. The matter of who got to the blood has perplexed me (along with the mystery of at what point exactly that Blair gets infected- I say early on during his cabin sojourn).
And I've been meaning to revisit MOONRAKER for a while, so I may check out the Moore commentary while I'm at it!

Mongoose said...

I watch this one every year, and I always see something new...Carpenter outdid himself...what a classic.

Sean Gill said...


Hear, hear! Pretty much the only thing I look forward to with winter on the way is my annual viewing of THE THING.