VHS Revival recalls the majesty of John Carpenter’s greatest ever achievement.
In an era of countless reboots, we have come to regard the whole process as a cynical exercise whose primary goal is to slash expenditure, but that was not always the case.
There was a time when remaking movies was about taking a classic conception and upgrading it to meet modern standards. Those in charge of the Hollywood cookie cutter will have you believe that this is still the case, and while the rise of CGI can back that up to a certain extent, movies such as John Carpenter‘s The Thing not only improved the appearance of their predecessors, they found other ways to make their product better, employing elements which set it apart from their source material.
At the time of its release, The Thing‘s main drawing point was its practical effects, which would have been just as astonishing to moviegoers in the early 1980’s as CGI is today. Unlike the majority of today’s productions, that wasn’t the only valuable difference on show. The effects that Carpenter collaborator Rob Bottin brought to the big screen were breathtakingly audacious, but the movie is driven just as much by the subtleties and slow-burning tension of those early scenes: the invading husky which quietly stalks the outpost, the two-faced corpse dripping off the examination table in search of its next victim. This is a venture approached with the utmost care and respect.
The Thing‘s visual set-pieces may be seen as dated by today’s standards, but while CGI can be regarded as looking more realistic, today’s movies tend to have a shorter shelf life in terms of their ‘wow factor’. Each movie is infinitely more breathtaking than the last, but those improvements are a result of ever-advancing technology, each spectacle becoming quickly outmoded. Practical effects, when achieving this kind of magic, are a testament to human resourcefulness and ingenuity. Almost forty years after The Thing‘s initial release, there are still moments when you stop and think to yourself, ‘How in the hell did they do that?’
Dr. Blair – You see, what we’re talkin’ about here is an organism that imitates other life-forms, and it imitates ’em perfectly. When this thing attacked our dogs it tried to digest them… absorb them, and in the process shape its own cells to imitate them.
Like many of the greatest horror movies, The Thing plunges its characters into a hopeless environment of almost total isolation. Its remote location in the Antarctica makes them vulnerable to even the smallest hiccup, adding extreme weather conditions and limited supplies to their paranoia-induced battle with an unknown quantity. MacReady and his snow-bitten comrades have nowhere to turn and nobody to turn to, facing an alien entity in an alien land. Revisiting The Thing, I struggled to think of another movie with such relentless and sublimely paced tension. In this regard, it was, and perhaps still is, unsurpassed in the Carpenter canon.
Although Carpenter was no doubt influenced by Christian Nyby’s 50s alien invasion vehicle The Thing From Another World (the movie is referenced in the director’s low-budget horror, Halloween), The Thing is actually more loyal to John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There?, the literary source material for both productions. While the 1951 film ditches the story’s xenomorphic alien for a parasite of the standard bloodsucking variety, Carpenter concentrates on a creature that is able to assimilate other organisms on a cellular level, ditching the Cold War paranoia and Roswell references prevalent in its kitschy predecessor.
Carpenter’s titular monster is an entity of almost invincible proportions, a creature with the ability to divide and conquer with its miraculous abilities and surreptitious nature, while proving itself an organism of raw intellect, with an uncanny knack for self-preservation. Not only can it imitate the appearance of any other living being, it can adopt their personality and mannerisms, making it almost undetectable. Once the outpost’s specialist, Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) becomes aware of its unique abilities, he immediately reaches for his pistol. He may suspect that his colleagues are infected, but he can’t prove it, and every little action becomes a reason for scepticism and distrust.
With this kind of set-up, the movie grabs you by the throat and never lets go, and there are so many classic scenes to cherish, each one more suspenseful than the last as the community continues to fall apart and infected crew members are picked off with an almost inevitable ease. Scenes such as MacReady’s one-man stand-off with a flamethrower and a handful of dynamite leave you breathless, while the legendary serum test is perhaps the director’s greatest ever set-piece achievement. There is even a scene to rival Ridley Scott‘s Alien chest-burster, as Dr. Copper’s arms plunge into Norris’s opening torso, the creature’s modified form tearing off his arms with its enormous abstract teeth.
MacReady – Watchin’ Norris in there gave me the idea that… maybe every part of him was a whole, every little piece was an individual animal with a built-in desire to protect its own life. Ya see, when a man bleeds, it’s just tissue, but blood from one of you Things won’t obey when it’s attacked. It’ll try and survive…
One of the elements that helps set The Thing apart from Carpenter’s other movies is its cinematic scope and pedigree. The movie is classic Carpenter, but it benefits from a larger budget and all that it entails. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Many a budget has been squandered by directors lost in the cyclone of financial potential, sometimes to their long-term detriment, but Carpenter uses his bounty wisely, retaining the ingredients which made his previous low-budget forays such unbridled successes, while embellishing only those elements that can improve his own inimitable formula.
The Thing also benefits from a superior cast and screenplay, Carpenter’s future go-to star Kurt Russell effortlessly iconic in the role of MacReady, a supporting cast of considerable talent and charisma elevating the overall production. Crucially, the director also brings in legendary composer Ennio Morricone, who produces a minimalist score of brooding isolation, one strangely reminiscent of the tumbleweed-strewn Spaghetti Westerns to which he was also key. His inclusion, along with the location and vast, open landscapes, contribute to create the kind of cinematic experience that his previous movies were lacking.
Is The Thing Carpenter’s greatest ever achievement? That seems to be the consensus amongst fans, and it is certainly the greatest platform for his particular set of skills. Carpenter retains the slow-building tension that was key to his other, low-budget masterpiece, Halloween, those heart-stopping subtleties preserved, his musical prowess lent further credence by a world-renown master of the art form. The Thing is classic Carpenter with a cinematic upgrade, a larger budget allowing him to loosen the leash on the visual limitations that once helped forge the director’s legendary resourcefulness, the kind he is wise enough not to abandon. CGI would one day weaken that resolve, but here he gets the balance just right, staying loyal to those successful, once necessary subtleties of old, while bringing his latest monster out of the shadows and into the spotlight.