Guest writer Ken Cho’s favorite horror movie is The Thing.
“You gotta be FUCKING kidding.” — Palmer (David Clennon)
And thus, in a single profanity-laden statement, sums up John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). It’s an audacious film that has outlived many of its contemporaries, despite having completely bombed at the box office and garnering some of the most malicious critical reviews upon the film’s release. The vitriol toward The Thing drove its director to depression and the completion of the production drove its special effects designer to exhaustion. The Thing is a film that should not be and yet, it is now beloved by most film fans/snobs, including myself.
I am a self-professed horror film HATER. I cannot stand the genre, one that relies on cheap thrills and tactics and doesn’t require good acting nor special effects to be considered “good.” I am in fact a self-professed film snob, where The Thing’s contemporary – Blade Runner (1982) – is my favorite film of all time. So how does a film fan who actively avoids horror/suspense films come to love The Thing and consider it one of his top ten greatest films of all time?
First, you stock it full of quality character actors. Wilford Brimley? David Clennon? Richard Dysart? Donald freaking Moffat? How Carpenter got all these guys to sign on is still beyond me. I would also argue that The Thing is Kurt Russell’s greatest collaboration with his favorite director. Yeah, yeah I can feel the Escape from New York (1981) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986) fans eye-stabbing me already but when it comes to his best, restrained and thus controlled acting chops, this is it for Kurt Russell. All his following sins, INCLUDING Escape from L.A. (1996) can be forgiven by this one performance.
Next, you put this cadre of actors out in the middle of nowhere and set the oven to “smolder.” For most of the film, The Thing punches up the suspense and relies less on overt scares. The isolation of the South Pole research center (mostly filmed on sound stages in L.A.) creates an environment of loneliness, suspicion and boredom. The soundtrack, by the great Ennio Morricone, plucks at the tension in the air. And the cold… the snow and ice and cold brings on the depression. Having grown up and lived in Chicago for over 25 years, I can say nothing brings on wallowing like the winter weather.
And lastly, you have a kick ass special/visual effects department, restrain them for the first 2/3rds of the film, holding them within the shadows and out of sight corners, and then let go of the leash. Rob Bottin, the VFX designer for the film, and Hollywood legend Stan Winston (in an uncredited role) created some of the most horrifying yet mesmerizing sequences in horror films THAT STILL HOLD UP TO TODAY’S STANDARDS. No computers were used, no stop-motion. What these guys did with what they had in the early 1980s is down right amazing. And knowing that fact just adds even more appreciation for the film, at least to me, that these guys essentially said, “Eff it, we’re doing it live.”
The Thing opened the same day as Blade Runner in 1982. Both films opened up a few weeks ater E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and thus both got clobbered financially. The critics absolutely loathed The Thing while Blade Runner was a dystopian darling. Blade Runner was able to gain mainstream cult status sooner when a director’s cut was released on a theatrical run in the early 1990s. It took The Thing a bit longer which arguably was kicked off by a 1998 laserdisc release that included a bevy of documentaries and behind the scenes specials.
The legacy of Thing seemingly has managed to outlast Blade Runner, in a way. While no other related film project has ever been released concerning Blade Runner, The Thing spawned a sequel almost 30 years later in 2011. The prequel details what happened at the Norwegian research station found in the original film. I liked it and the attention to detail to recreate that station and how things came to be was amazing. However, the use of CGI for the visual effects made me yearn for the original even more.