The Test of Time: The Thing (1982)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.



Ah, THE THING! What better way to say goodbye to Christmastime and officially welcome the vast wintry whiteout than by doubling back to frigid Antarctica and kicking it with MacReady, Childs, Blair, Fuchs, Windows, Bennings, Nauls, Palmer, Clark, Garry, Norris and Dr. Copper for a little while? I seriously can’t think of a better destination. Now, we all know John Carpenter’s masterful reimagining of Howard Hawks’ THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD arguably ranks as the single greatest sci-fi/horror film ever made (to me it’s a tossup between THE THING and ALIEN), and rightly so. The film is not only an industrious high-water mark for makeup, practical SFX and VFX – a visceral sensory assault of gory bodily mutation – it’s also a superlative example of crippling psychological dread, deep-seeded paranoia and anxiously-awaited-alien-assimilation. And let’s not forget about the deadly duplicity of the Thing itself, an extraterrestrial organism whose keen sense of self-preservation takes absolute primacy over all else.

Speaking of preservation, you know the deal. THE THING turned 25 years old this past June, and as we’re fixing to celebrate another flip of the calendar here pretty soon, what more opportune time to whisk in the new year than by taking a hard look back at John Carpenter’s THE THING and assess, as sober and objectively as we can, how well or poorly the film as aged over the course of a quarter century. You down? Let’s get it. It’s THE THING vs. The Test of Time below!

THE STORY: Based on the short story “Who Goes There?” written in the 1930s by John W. Campbell Jr., THE THING takes us to Antarctica in the winter of 1982. A chopper full of Norwegian scientists are trying to gun down a loping malamute, which happens to be unknowingly inhabited by an alien life form, as it makes its way across the dense snow to an American research outpost. Here, amid a priapic maelstrom of bearded testosterone, the alien being will evolve into a lethal mutated contagion with the ability to assimilate and replicate its host body down to the minutest of details. That is, save for inorganic material such as dental fillings, metallic jewelry, etc.

Marching our mass of mustachioed macho men is badass MacReady (Kurt Russell), a scotch-swilling, chess-playing man’s man whose wary instincts of always staying one move ahead will pay handsome dividends by the films end. As the film opens and a helicopter crash calls for their reconnaissance, MacReady and crew - Childs (Keith David), Blair (Wilford Brimley), Fuchs (Joel Polis), Windows (Thomas G. Waites), Bennings (Peter Maloney), Nauls (T.K. Carter), Palmer (David Clennon), Clark (Richard Masur), Garry (Donald Moffat), Norris (Charles Hallahan) and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) – recover a smoldering extraterrestrial being from the Norwegian site-wreckage and bring it back to the American base to examine. Once there, THE THING animates, begins subsuming the various human beings one by one, assimilates their being and replicates their bodily appearance, kills the originating host, and moves on to the next one…all the while going unnoticed by the remaining crew members. It’s ultimately up to MacReady to suss what the hell is going on, and like a true boss, put THE THING down for mother*cking good!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: You know it, I know it, and it’s 100% true: very little about THE THING does NOT tower tall and proudly in 2017. It’s an undisputed classic for a reason. Many reasons, actually. For a movie so heavily designed around its menacingly marvelous visual FX and underlying narrative mystery, its undeniable impact in this regarded has not retarded a single iota over the past 25 years. In fact, the nebulous nature of the films enigmatic finale has sparked decades-long debates about the true identity of the Thing, who survives, who succumbs, etc. There are many reasons for why the movie has held so strong over the years, but if we had to boil it down to a few key ingredients, we’d have to say that it’s the peerlessly prescient makeup and VFX, the though-stirring ambiguity of the films conclusion, and easily overlooked, the emotionally-stunted thud of Ennio Morricone’s deceptively simple score. Of course, many other accoutrements are mixed in to create the ultimate unassailable flavor, but it’s these three primary binders that have made THE THING so damn durable over the years. So let’s slide these suckers under the microscope, shall we?!

No doubt, THE THING still features some of the best, most credibly buyable, graphically believable makeup, SFX and VFX of all time. No hyperbole. So fastidious was a young 22 year old upstart in Rob Bottin that he’d have to be admitted to the hospital for exhaustion at one point during the shoot after essentially living in the studio 24/7. The dogged dedication speaks for itself. Wait, did I say dogged? Ironically, it was the great Stan Winston who was brought on set to achieve the Dog-Thing alien VFX seen early in the film, but was so selfless that he omitted credit in order to let Bottin’s work deservedly shine. And boy does it. Whether it’s the infamous spider-crawling head, the gnarly bear-trap chest-opener, the flesh-flower that attacks Childs, the jaws-like-monster that kills Windows, the dog-tongued whip-ties, the gory tentacled-terror, the half-man-half-beast cave mutation, whatever…the uniquely inspired work of Bottin and his team (over 40 individuals) in THE THING is the stuff of absolute legend!

Now back to the Alien-Dog scenes, about which Bottin has shared in the past:

"It got to the point where I was thinking 'if I have to do another stinking mechanical dog, I'll go nuts!...I'd already done The Howling, and I didn't want to see another dog! I didn't care if it was mutated, I didn't care if it was riding a skateboard. And I did not want to do Cujo either. No more dogs!"

Agreed, “no more dogs” will ever be as monstrously menacing as those seen in THE THING. Props go to the head honcho, John Carpenter, who actually oversaw a number of other exorbitant FX set-pieces, including the use of stop motion animation, but because his bullshit meter is so damn keen, he discarded many sequences that looked to fake to be taken seriously. So, it’s not just the work of Bottin and his crew, it’s the deliberation of what to use and what not to use by Carpenter that, in the end, makes THE THING the inviolable paragon of sci-fi/horror VFX.

Now on to the provocatively ambiguous ending of the film…

Let’s start with the $64,000 question? Do you think Childs is an imitation? How about MacReady? In the end, do you think they’re both human? Both alien? Well, this subtly shrouded secret has been generating heartened debates for years, with many taking one side of the argument or another. One popular theory seems to posit that, yes, since Childs cannot be seen exhaling his own breath in subzero weather, at least not as prominently as MacReady, that he is in fact an imitation. But not so fast. According to Keith David himself, he had this to say during a 2008 horror convention:

"Well, I don't know about (Kurt Russell), but it sure as hell wasn't me."

Interestingly, the clues don’t stop there. Remember how Mac was firing Molatav cocktails made from Scotch bottles throughout the camp? Well, another theory posits that Childs, if human, would have recoiled from the taste of gasoline replacing the scotch. But he doesn’t, which indicates his alien clone couldn’t tell the difference between two flammable liquids. Moreover, at the precise moment Childs swigs the scotch, the musical cue by Morricone gently swells up, which could also indicate an alien presence, as the same bit of music had been used to accompany alien presence earlier in the film. Of course, the fact that Childs still has an earring in his ear, this despite the fact that the thing cannot replicate inorganic material, would serve to debunk the Childs as alien theory.

Putting it all to rest is Carpenter himself, who, in order to continue the story via the 2002 videogame (The Thing), confirmed that both Mac and Childs are indeed human at the end of the THING. He also stated that Mac is rescued, blood-tested and proven to be human, while Childs freezes to death in the snow. The former part with Mac was actually filmed but never even tested in front of audiences, as it was never a part of Carpenter’s original vision of the ending. Still, rabid debate about the subtle hints and clues in the film continue to flourish, and it’s precisely this vaguely chilling conclusion that has made it such a fecund topic of conversation.

Last but not least is Ennio Morricone’s Razzie nominated film score. So basic, almost laughably so, but in the end, it’s so damn brilliantly integral to the story. Being the only score Carpenter didn’t compose himself for one of his own films, Morricone set out to make a simplistic Carpenter-style sound, and damn did he succeed. The thudding pounds of the simple bass-line almost feel like pulse-jolting heartbeats. And the thing is, they actually play at crucial moments in the film, doing so not just as an emotional cue, but as a story clue as well. When the Thing plays prominently onscreen, so does the score, but never so obvious that it becomes distracting, and never too subtle that it can’t be noticed. The score not only sets the mood, it plays as if it too is its own character in the movie!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: I always thought making each character look indistinguishably alike was a mistake as a kid. It seems like every character has a thick beard, similar clothing, ways of speaking, etc. I’ve since come to suspect this was done very intentionally, for reasons that are sure to vary. It could be to keep the identities as shrouded as possible. Or to indicate how similar humans are to one another, being in stark contrast to the thing itself. Whatever the case, I cannot say this or any element of THE THING does not work today.

THE VERDICT: In fact, not just opinion, THE THING is a great movie, through and through, and looks perfectly healthy at 25 years old. The shows-stopping makeup and FX in the film not only set the bar high for the industry standard in 1982, they’ve yet to be surpassed a quarter-century later. The enigmatic nature of the story’s conclusion has made the movie a timelessly debated classic, as has Ennio Morricone’s pitch-perfect musical score. And though we only brushed on it here, the palpable sense of abject paranoia, mistrust, tension, suspense, anxiety and unrest developed among the characters is what gives THE THING its eternal staying power!




Extra Tidbit: According to IMDB, Nick Nolte turned down the role of MacReady, as did Jeff Bridges. Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood were both considered. On top of this, a relatively unknown Fred Ward campaigned for the role.
Source: AITH



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