Generally disregarded by the mainstream, John Carpenter's THEY LIVE ('88) is a prophetic piece of sci-fi cinema.
John Carpenter’s The Thing. 1982. Directed by John Carpenter. Screenplay by Bill Lancaster, from a story by John W. Campbell Jr.
Starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Richard Masur, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, and Donald Moffat. Universal Pictures/Turman-Foster Company. Rated R. 109 minutes.
It’s hard to choose a favourite filmmaker. For me, and for many, there are tons of great directors out there. Especially when you consider the different genres. I often have a hard time saying I like one director – who happens to stick with a certain genre – over another, simply because I feel particular directors are best within certain genres. Still there are a handful of them I’d place at the top of my personal list.
One such filmmaker is John Carpenter.
Not only does Carpenter direct, he is a master of his craft. Something I’ve always admired about his style is that he likes to do his own scores, which is a big part of his overall aesthetic (funny enough – this movie isn’t scored by him: it’s the prolific Ennio Morricone, so fucking awesome regardless!). He pretty much has what I’d call an auteur style. Nobody does horror-thriller as good as him.
The Thing brings all of the best aspects of Carpenter together, alongside the solid performances of the likes of Kurt Russell and Keith David, as well as Morricone’s wonderfully suspenseful and effective score. This is not just one of the best horror movies from the 1980s, it’s one of the best horror movies. Ever. What starts out like a tense thriller evolves into a horrifically existential science fiction film, all based on John W. Campbell Jr’s short story “Who Goes There?” (also the basis of this 1951 film). I can never get enough of the dreadful, isolated horror Carpenter brings out in this movie. There’s a reason people always talk about this one. And a damn good reason Carpenter is a master of horror.
At an American base in the Antarctic, a chopper chases a dog across the snowy mountains equipped with a man holding a high-powered rifle. When the American crew – including R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley), Childs (Keith David) +more – come out they discover two crazed Norwegians. One tries to throw a grenade but blows up their chopper. The other, aiming for the dog, shoots George Bennings (Peter Maloney), so one of the crew shoot him dead.
At first it seems as if the men simply went insane up in the wilderness. However, after the dog transforms into a hideously deformed creature, MacReady and the crew start to deal with a situation beyond their control. Some sort of virus seems to be spreading, but no one is able to tell who it’s infecting – moving from person to person, The Thing inhabits anyone’s skin it wishes.
Will any of them survive? And if they do, is it really them?
Carpenter really sets up his atmosphere well, in every film. Almost none better than The Thing, as he starts out first with a long cinematic stare into space. From there we move to the Antarctic wilderness, vast landscapes of nearly nothing except for the white snow stretching on for miles and miles. It’s an appropriate way to give us that immediate sense of isolation. Once the exterior isolation is setup, Carpenter moves inside to where all the human elements of the story come into play. Then, furthermore, we start to get their sense of isolation – from the moment you see Mac drinking, playing around on the computer and then dumping a couple shots of J.B. into it, there’s an obvious idea of how sick this guy is with his lodgings up north. It only gets better from there, but I’ve always thought the film’s opening sequence really made the isolation sink it quickly, yet easily.
Not only the isolated feeling, either. With the Norwegians chasing the dog, the chopper exploding after a fumbled grenade toss, adrenaline is flowing hard. The tension is instantaneous and you’re already champing at the bit for what’s coming next. The music, the cinematography, the actors – all pistons are pumping. Carpenter is good for this usually. Again, though, I’m inclined to say one of his best instances is here in The Thing. Carpenter’s sense of atmosphere and tone is so important to what makes him great, as well as unique in the horror genre.
While most Carpenter movies have stellar effects, The Thing boasts such an innovative and terrifying creature. It’s truly epic (a word that is overused improperly; I used it in seriousness). Honestly, after the dog becomes that hulking, massive monster, the first time I witnessed it I was awestruck for a minute or two. I still am, really. Such good effects, plus it’s unexpected. Even as I watch it again now, for the who-knows-how-many-times, there is an aspect to that scene I always find reels me in. Plus, afterwards there’s the scene with Dr. Blair (Brimley) dissecting The Thing; even the look on Brimley’s face, his disgust, it makes you almost smell the nasty reek of this alien creature’s insides. Downright incredible, these special effects. From start to finish this movie has such carefully crafted practical effects, you can’t help but admire the work put in.
The entire film isn’t built on effects, nor is it solely leaning on horrific elements to make its mark. Only other stuff Bill Lancaster wrote was Bad News Bears-related. With The Thing, adapted from Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?” (great read by the way – check it out), Lancaster did some solid work. The screenplay is tight, it’s mysterious and has a ton of suspense, which the master Carpenter draws out perfectly with his style. There are genuinely creepy aspects I find unsettling. Such as when the crew starts watching the grainy videos, then they make their way out to the crater where the ship is sunk down, I find that entire portion so impressive! Morricone’s score is beyond perfectly fitting, it has that classic horror movie feel to it and at the same time there’s stuff you could call very archetypal Morricone (a.k.a dig it). So I’m actually amazed Lancaster did so well with this script, considering he’s never done anything else science fiction or horror. Hats off. Put into the hands of Carpenter this story soars to a new level of terror.
There a few performances in The Thing which help it greatly. Kurt Russell, obviously, is one of the reasons this movie kicks ass. They could’ve put a lot of actors in this role and it would’ve been all right. But with Russell there’s that little extra charisma, he’s tough and yet there isn’t some kind of superhero-ness about him. He gets afraid like anyone else in the same situation. Russell and Carpenter work well together, this may be the pinnacle; I dig Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China, but there’s something so perfect about this movie I can’t help single it out as their best collaboration. Then on top of Russell’s skill, Keith David does a nice job – he also did They Live 6 years later with Carpenter, wish he’d been in more of his films. And as much as Brimley gets shit for the “diabeetus” kick, he is spot on here; that scene when he flips and everyone tries to bear down on him, I always thought it was a great moment and shows how well Brimley can play a good character when he wants. Plus his fit lends to some more of the isolated, desolate feeling happening from there on in. All around excellent cast.
The Thing is a 5 star film. Without any shadow of a doubt. There’s so much happening. Above anything else, there’s a supremely existential terror flowing throughout almost every scene. Once The Thing takes hold, nobody knows who is who, who to trust, and it moves from one person to the next, some times even to animals. So there’s this incredibly dreadful horror at play. Then you throw in John Carpenter’s tense style, Ennio Morricone and his suspense-filled score, a well written screenplay with good actors to play it all out. What a mix!
If you’ve never seen this, my god, get out and watch it soon. Not only that, read the original short story by Campbell, as well as see the 1951 adaptation The Thing from Another World, which was a huge influence on Carpenter overall but especially for this film (obviously). I can never forget this movie, and it’s one I’ll put in any time I need a real creep.