There are films that fall from our view -- after the initial heat-rush of their release, they quickly cool and fade, their flash of incandescence dimming like a dying ember until they disappear. There are other films, however, that do not fall from view, or fade, but rather shine constantly, unceasing and unwavering in their quality. These enduring films are not all high art; some of them (indeed, many of them) are excellent trash, casual masterpieces. Their enduring glow is like the sickly undimming light of radioactivity; their tenacity is like that of the cockroach. Many of these films were made on a shoestring with a legion of low-level actors and without a single original bone in their bodies -- and yet, something in them reaches us, resonates, tapping -- deliberately or accidentally -- into some primal aspect of our psyches to endure as dreams or visions or, in some cases, nightmares. John Carpenter's The Thing, released in 1982, endures even though we might not want it to, much the same way we'd try to shake off a bad dream -- it's a remake of a d-grade b-movie that rises head and shoulders above the source material and still sends both wet, visceral disgust and cold, clinical terror keening through you 25 years later. As Stephen King points out in his genre study Danse Macabre, there's a difference between revulsion and fear, between shock and suspense. But The Thing has all of those: the bloody terrors of sudden death, the terrible quiet in the icy halls as our heroes are eliminated one by one; the existential nightmare of the other replacing you and the more immediate concern of the other in the room with you, snarling and slashing and hungry.
And you'd be hard-pressed to imagine The Thing enduring at the time of its release; it was conceived as a mid-level moneymaker, with a $10 million budget and (with the exception of Kurt Russell and director Carpenter) completely devoid of marquee value. Screenwriter Bill Lancaster's previous credits were for the Bad News Bears films -- which hardly suggest that sci-fi horror was his forte or his passion. The Thing was a flop at the box office; in a cruel twist of fate, Steven Spielberg's E.T. opened two weeks before The Thing made its debut, and Spielberg's kinder, gentler visitor from beyond went on to rake in money hand over fist. And yet, there's a reason why we remember bitter nightmares more fiercely than sweet dreams. ... p>
Based on the 1938 short story Who Goes There?, by Sci-fi pioneer John W. Campbell, The Thing was actually the second filmed version of Campbell's story. You would think that the passage of time would send the story out away from the source material, but in fact Carpenter's version is far closer to the tone and tenor of Campbell's story than 1951's The Thing from Another World, directed by Howard Hawks. Both movie versions hew close to the essential plot of Campbell's short story -- a group of icebound researchers uncover the frozen corpse of an intruder from beyond which, when thawed, stalks and kills the staff one by one. The difference between the 1951 and 1982 film versions is that in the 1982 film, the Thing is not a Frankenstein-esque shambling hulk (as played by James Arness in the '51 version) but rather the predatory, protean, flowing flesh-forger of Campbell's original story. The Thing can become ... anything. Whatever it eats, it can replicate. Lancaster's script actually conveys big chunks of tech-talk and bio-speak in quick, ugly moments that hit you hard and need no further exposition or explanation. And, as Carpenter's film makes clear, the Thing seems to have been very hungry in the life it had before crashing and freezing in Antarctica, with a vast selection of nightmares to choose from in the inhuman libraries of its mutable, monstrous flesh. ...
As concepts go, it was nothing new -- look up the roots of the word 'protean' for proof -- but the execution was, and is, a thing of wonder. Rob Bottin and Stan Winston's make-up effects -- gooey, grisly and grim in a way only pre-digital effects can be -- made for a constant carnival of nightmares, and every new horror was followed by another quick on its heels. And, yes, the effects are better by virtue of their analog nature -- puppets and pulleys and props and pumps. Digital creations are great on-screen, but they can all too often fail to convey mass and presence; think of Peter Jackson's King Kong sailing about like a Macy's Thanksgiving Parade float, or Optimus Prime moving with the hollow buoyancy of a mylar balloon. Bottin and Winston's effects were often in the same frame as the actors reacting to them; at the very least, they were in the same plane of existence; that's one of the things that helps makes them impressive and amazing.
Another wonderful thing about the effects is that they aren't just wonderful. They spring out of script, plot, performance. As Campbell's original question of "Who goes there?" gets (literally) down to the wire, the research station's staff lashes out at each other in the fear that one of them -- or, worse, more than one of them -- might be the Thing. And there's the worse possibility that the Thing might somehow get away. As Russell's MacReady wearily, warily notes, "I know I'm human. And if you were all these things, then you'd just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn't want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It'll fight if it has to, but it's vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it's won." Those are the stakes: Stop the Thing or die. Stop the Thing or everything dies.
The Thing seems to borrow from many places -- Campbell's jut-jawed tale of can-do heroism, Agatha Christie's perversely paranoid And Then There Were None, the slithery, sinewy body-terror of David Cronenberg -- and yet it stands tall on its own, as a singular piece of horror film making. The news that someone was eager to re-make The Thing didn't infuriate me or depress me; it's the sort of Hollywood news you greet with a weary shrug, one that says "It figures." But until that remake comes along -- pumped full of pixels, probably -- I'll be content to enjoy The Thing as I do at least once a year, throwing it on and sinking uneasily into the bleak and hushed terror of it. You can talk all you want to about pioneering effects and great performances and clean, clever writing and a tense Morricone score and sure-handed direction by a talent working on the biggest canvas he'd yet had -- but, in the end, The Thing comes down to a simple, terrible few sentences: Outside, the weather will kill you. Inside, something wants you dead. You can't trust anyone, and no one trusts you. And death, when it comes, will look like a friend before it reveals hidden teeth and talons and claws then strikes with a cruel and vicious hunger. That's the stuff of nightmares. That's the bleak, brutal heart of The Thing.