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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

POE REVIEWS – The Thing (1982) ****

American scientists at an Antarctic research station battle a shape shifting alien that can assume the identity of whatever it kills.

Starring: Kurt Russell, Donald Moffat, Keith David and Wilford Brimley

Directed by John Carpenter

In the summer of 1982, film goers had the choice to see two different “alien” movies that were playing in theaters. One was a film about a young boy who forms a friendship with a cute alien that has been stranded on Earth. The film was called ET: The Extra-Terrestrial and it was directed by Steven Spielberg. The other film was about a shape shifting alien that absorbs humans in the most gruesome of ways and then assumes their identities. The film was called The Thing and it was directed by John Carpenter. ET touched the hearts of millions and went on to become the highest grossing film at that time. The Thing repulsed a handful of cinema goers and failed miserably at the box office. Luckily, something called home video gave the gruesome alien movie a new life and it slowly grew into a cult hit. Today, The Thing is rightly considered one of the greatest science fiction/horror films of all time and has taken its place among a handful of alien invasion movies that have stood the test of time.

John Carpenter, an avid Howard Hawks fan, had always been a fan of Hawk’s The Thing from Another World. While that film was one of the early trend setters for science fiction horror, it really didn't do justice to the John W. Campbell Jr. novelette, Who Goes There, that is was based on. Hawk’s film featured a humanoid alien composed of vegetable matter with no shape shifting abilities. Carpenter and writer Bill Lancaster went back to the original source material and not only stayed faithful to it, but bettered it by giving more layers to the story’s paranoia elements. They also paid much more attention to the creature’s shape shifting abilities and created a horror that deserves a throne in Hell.

Brought to life by special effects wizard Rob Bottin, the alien in The Thing is scary, really scary. We never know what its true form really is, and it is only during its metamorphic changes that we catch a glimpse of what it might look like. And oh what sights! Mutated dogs, human heads with spider legs, a man’s abdomen filled with teeth; the visuals are utterly horrifying. These special effect set pieces are separated by stretches of film in which the characters are trying to find out who is human or who is thing and Carpenter sets the tension high with the help of a handful of wonderful character actors. Led by Kurt Russell (in a wonderfully tough performance) the cast includes such recognizable faces as Wilfred “Quaker Oats” Brimley, Donald Moffat and science fiction regular Keith David. Also helping with the suspense is an incredibly somber and eerie soundtrack composed by the always resourceful Ennio Morricone. Morricone scores the film a lot like Carpenter had scored his early movies, filling it with low synthesizer tones and spooky bass chords. This was actually the first film Carpenter did not score himself.

Critical response at the time of the film’s release was not positive. Many complained that the suspense is drowned out by the repulsive special effects. I strongly disagree. While the effects do tend to overshadow the characters at times, I say big deal. You’re not watching the film to find out whether or not Kurt Russell’s character will get over his drinking problem. You’re watching it to enjoy a roller coaster ride of gruesome mayhem and thrills. The Thing delivers and only the first two Alien films can touch it when it comes to blood curdling alien terror. Now we wait and see if the Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. prequel due out later this year can do justice to the original. I’m crossing my fingers, as I’d love to add another film to my “multiple viewing” list of titles to sit up there with The Thing. Currently, it is way up there at the top.