Directed by John Carpenter

Written by Bill Lancaster; adapted from the novella Who Goes There?, by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Donald Moffat

The terms shock and awe in a horror film have gone through several changes over the decades.

Anthony Perkins donning his mater’s clothes and gutting a nude Janet Leigh in 1960’s Psycho, the inimitable and notorious crucifix-masturbation sequence in 1971’s The Exorcist adaptation, David Naughton’s full-light transformation in 1981’s An American Werewolf in London – these are images that resound through our fearful American consciousness, both in their quavering shock and ahead-of-their-time awesome affect (and effects).

Nowadays cheap thrills with no real thought litter the dreck that eager producers shill out (think quiet bathroom, pretty girl turning on the faucet and washing her face, the camera following her as she goes to look in the mirror – cue deafening violin stroke – there’s someone behind her!) in myriad obnoxious and unfortunate numbers.

In the 00’s and 10’s the only decent American horror came from successfully piggybacking on old staples (Zach Snyder’s stylized-action version of Dawn of the Dead in 2004, Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes in 2006), taking ideas from our Japanese friends (Gore Verbinski’s pitch-perfect The Ring remake in 2004) and the rare example of originality (2001’s The Others, 2007’s Borderland, and maybe  popcorn-spilling Paranormal Activity of the same year, which will for better or worse be the template for most horror for the next few years).

The awful recent remakes of Wes Craven’s seminal A Nightmare on Elm Street and Last House on the Left, 1980’s Friday the 13th and John Carpenter’s father-of-all-slashers Halloween have soured – regrettably but understandably so – the idea of a determined cadre of filmmakers paying homage to a beloved classic.

But when it is done right, that same set of filmmakers can create a legacy unlike any other.  David Cronenberg and Jeff Goldblum did it with The Fly in 1986, Philip Kaufman did it in 1978 with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Carpenter and effects wunderkind Rob Bottin did it in 1982 with The Thing.

Carpenter, a huge fan of 1951’s The Thing from Another World and the John W. Campbell, Jr., story that preceded it, used the standing he had accrued from his earlier successes to mount a remake of his own particular vision.   Carpenter looked to expand on the idea of alien replication; not the hulking Frankenstein-esque creature of the original film, but a shapeless parasitic organism that makes a perversion of cellular structures, whose appetite is limitless.

Carpenter’s idea, yes, but it was Rob Bottin’s vision that made The Thing the cult classic, the unparalleled marvel of pre-CGI makeup and special effects expertise and improvisation that it is.

Bottin had just come off of the set of Joe Dante’s The Howling in 1981 all of 20 years old, and the most gifted youngster in his field.  Having worked with Carpenter already for 1980’s The Fog, the director called up Bottin and they started collaborating almost a year before production started.

The story is well-known; an isolated research outpost in the icy wastes of Antarctica, teamed by a group of twelve, unknowingly brings in an alien organism that can replicate any cellular structure it encounters.  As winter approaches, the dozen men find themselves in an atmosphere of paranoia unlike any other; where anyone could be a thing, and those that attempt to isolate themselves from the infection cannot truly know whether they themselves are indeed human.

From the opening sequence – a husky being chased through the south pole’s icy steppes by a gun-blasting helicopter – to the spine-shattering, terrifying blood test conclusion, The Thing establishes itself as truly immersive horror picture.  The plot is straightforward, but executed simply and brilliantly.  The perplexing first half hour gives way to horrific discoveries catered by mind-numbing effects that leaves even the most veteran of genre gurus cringing.

Stan Winston, the fame of 1984’s The Terminator lying ahead, collaborated with Bottin for the first gruesome appearance of the eponymous “Thing” – the huskie wolf-dog carrier from the Norwegian camp explodes into a mutilation of flesh and bone, forming into an unspeakable mottled mess of a creature that Winston controlled animatronically.  But Bottin himself developed, through almost a year straight of exhaustive labor, the sequences that make the film a classic.  The surreal, inexplicable beauty of the goo-covered sculptures recovered from the burnt-out Norwegian camp, and most distinctly the defibrillation-gone-wrong scene are all his brainchildren.

The latter is the reason The Thing to me is the benchmark of special effects since its release, and in my opinion the best example of horror/sci-fi special effects ever made.  The head slowly tearing off of the Thing-creature, escaping by wrapping its tongue along a chair and dragging itself under, only to sprout insectile legs and stalk-eyes to walk away – a fantastical, impossible sight, etched in the mind of nearly every peer of mine who has viewed Carpenter’s film.

Shock and awe, exemplified.  Not for the sake of a reaction alone, but as a whole.  The shock of the sequence is disorienting, almost traumatic, but the excited astonishment exhibited by those who are seeing but not believing totally, is the crux – the awe.

The Thing drips with pervasive, dripping dread and claustrophobic paranoia.  Kurt Russell, wisely cast as tough everyman R.J. MacReady, is the film’s protagonist – the apparent backbone that paling viewers can fall on – but even he can’t truly escape the confined mistrust that the alien’s presence brings to the outpost.  Alone, freezing, incapable of truly knowing who to trust – a true nightmare.

Prolific composer Ennio Morricone hangs a musical tapestry of thrumming bass and dissonant, crawling strings, while it is my firm belief that the sound team on the film are the true heroes after Bottin.  With a friend in his room talking I stopped him, hearing the most terrible noises coming from his family’s surround sound downstairs: howling, ethereal and completely unearthly screams and moans.  “Oh God,” I said.  “That’s got to be The Thing.”  It was.  Carpenter’s vision remains one of the few movies that can be just as unsettling even without visuals.

The Thing is a series of effects, images and sounds that continue to trickle reverently through my film-loving mind much like the dripping jelly that covered its creature marvels.  It’s a film where, while each viewing reveals something new or adds something deeper, one always remembers their first time watching it – slack-jawed in front of a screen brought into a lovely moment of childlike wonder, shocked into paralysis, awed into venerated revulsion.  A true gem of the horror genre.

Images courtesy of feoamante.com, film4.com and reflectionsoffilmandtelevision.blogspot.com, respectively.

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