John Carpenter was awarded with the Carrosse d’Or at the 2019 edition of the Cannes Film Festival. In the masterclass that accompanied the ceremony, and in order to continue to make himself adored by everyone in Hollywood, he defined himself as the anti-Spielberg. I’m sure he did it so to be sure to continue not to be allowed to make films anymore and make the most of his free time (in the last fifteen years he has only made one movie, The Ward, nine years ago).
In any case, among the multiple reasons of his being the anti-Spielberg, one is that in 1982 he too, like Spielberg, directed a film about an alien on Earth. Except that one of these aliens was an adorable puppet created by Carlo Rambaldi who loved children and was able to return to his people by fooling some gullible authorities (E.T. The Extraterrestrial). The other alien was a shapeshifting monster perfectly capable of exterminating the whole humanity. There’s a big difference! And so today I’m writing about John Carpenter’s The Thing!
The Thing is a unique masterpiece and it seems incredible that it marked the beginning of the end for the career of John Carpenter. Not only was it an economic flop (it barely recovered its $15 million budget), but the director was accused of mistreating animals and of being a sadist… but in the film, obviously, there are only splendid special effects (by the great Rob Bottin who also worked on Ridley Scott’s Legend and Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall, to name a few) supporting a claustrophobic story about paranoia. After this movie came out, the American director was forced to alternate between commissioned projects (Christine, Starman…) and personal ones (Big Trouble in Little China, They Live) that regularly failed at the box office.
Back to The Thing, incidentally it’s also the best remake ever made, even considering that the original The Thing from Another World by Howard Hawkes (1951) is a good movie! John Carpenter didn’t limit himself to merely remaking a movie he adored (in Halloween, before going to bed, the kid babysitted by Jamie Lee Curtis watches the 1951 movie on TV), but directed the best horror/science fiction film ever made. And yes, I haven’t forgotten that Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is also a horror/science fiction movie. The Thing is superior.
Let me summarize the plot briefly. We are in a US research station in Antarctica run by twelve men (initially there was a woman in the cast, but the actress got pregnant and left the project). One of them is the helicopter pilot MacReady played by Kurt Russell, in his third collaboration with Carpenter after Elvis (1979) and Escape from New York (1981). Suddenly, a dog chased by a helicopter arrives at the base. It comes from a Norwegian base not far away and the two occupants of the vehicle are doing everything in their power to kill the dog using rifles and dynamite. At the US base, in a few moments the two die (one in an explosion, the other killed by the commander of the base, Garry, interpreted by Donald Moffat), and the dog joins the other animals of the base managed by Clark (Richard Masur). It doesn’t take long before MacReady and company go to investigate what happened at the Norwegian site and find traces of something disconcerting. There are only smoking ruins, with strange malformed corpses inside, and even evidence of an unusual finding of something that was under the ice…
And I stop here. I think that everyone knows that the thing awakened by the Norwegians is a shape-shifting alien who assimilates one by one all the life forms of the base up to the last wonderful scene in which MacReady and Childs (Keith David) sit facing each other and decide to wait for the fire to go out (and, with it, any hope of surviving) while sharing a bottle of whiskey. But are they really them, or is one of them the thing? This is one of the most debated endings in the history of cinema, although Carpenter has always maintained that the truth is obvious. But is it useful to try to understand who’s who? No, it’s better to talk about the qualities of the film (and Childs is obviously the thing, believe me).
The film is perfect. It’s a study on paranoia, on (not) believing in others, a perfect transposition to the cinema of the economic crisis atmosphere and of the American system which led Reagan to become President in 1981 (he remained President until 1989). In an era dominated by paranoia with the Cold War raging on with an unstoppable arms race and the fear of Communism, The Thing is an unmissable proof of the destructive power of paranoia itself. In it we witness the gradual deterioration of society symbolized by the twelve colleagues of the Antarctic base who, when they no longer believe in each other, even speed up their inevitable demise by beginning to kill each other! Society breaks down first at the individual level (you don’t know who you are anymore), and then at the collective level. The metaphor is not too subtle, but it’s certainly effective!
But, apart from that, the film is also incredibly entertaining. All the actors did an exceptional job and gave life to twelve characters each with his own personality, each with his own specific role in the story (not an easy task, given that the film is not even two hours long). The soundtrack by Ennio Morricone is the most tense and atmospheric music you could wish for. The special effects, as already mentioned, are incredible. 100% practical, even today they are still effective: think about the scene in which the thing assimilates the sled dogs, or the one in which the head of Norris (Charles Hallahan) detaches from the body and goes away using spider legs!
And John Carpenter’s direction here reaches unprecedented levels. Not that he hadn’t shown his great talent in his previous works, from Assault On Precinct 13 (1976) to Escape From New York (1981), and including Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980), but with The Thing he really proved to be a master of his art. His style reached a new height with an incredible mix of static shots and slow dolly movements, with the frame composition always at the service of the story, with an amazing cinematography, with the clever use of jump scares which is now so abused in mainstream horror movies praised for no reasons (take Andy Muschietti’s It: Chapter One, for instance)… The Thing is a joy for the eyes, every frame could be a painting, every minute offers so much.
What else could I add? I never get tired of seeing this film again. I would certainly put it in the director’s top three movies, and it perfectly fits his apocalypse trilogy along with Prince Of Darkness (1987) and In The Mouth Of Madness (1994). The Thing contains the typical elements of Carpenterian cinema like a group of people barricaded in a closed space and the anti-hero who tries to save the day, in this case the lonely MacReady who becomes the leader against his own will. Every time I watch it I find new things to enjoy, new details that I hadn’t noticed before. I even enjoy watching it with the DVD commentary by Carpenter and Russell which is a fun way to discover the dozens of anecdotes about this masterpiece! Should I watch it again tonight? Ciao!
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