★★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Celluloid brilliance meets astounding practical effects innovation.
Directed by John Carpenter.
Welcome back once again, friends of things that go bump in the night!
As I’ve already mentioned, The Thing (1982) is the greatest thing since someone took a knife to an unsuspecting loaf of bread. Writing a simple review for a movie that I’ve loved for so long just didn’t feel right, so I’ve embarked on a trilogy of reviews; one review for each movie based on the same John W. Campbell, Jr. novella written in 1938. Namely, “Who Goes There?”
The trilogy started out with The Thing From Another World (1951), moved on to the artistically tragic prequel The Thing (2011), and has ended up right here with a review of the best of the bunch, The Thing (1982). If you haven’t checked out the other reviews yet, you should probably go do that. Oh, and then watch those two movies, too.
Don’t worry. I’ll wait…
Great! You’re back. I know, right? That 2011 mess could’ve been so much better if Universal had just stayed out of it. Anyway, where were we?
Ah, okay. 1982… Some jackass puts cyanide in Tylenol and forever makes everything impossible to open, the Commodore 64 computer bursts onto the scene, and going to the movies costs you about 3 bucks. Somewhere in the midst of all that, Universal releases John Carpenter’s The Thing and hardly anyone goes to see it.
Unfortunately for Carpenter, the cinematic universe was conspiring against his movie. With a budget of $15 million, The Thing did have the most money to play with of any of his previous movies (can you believe Halloween (1978) had a budget of about $300,000?!), but release scheduling and external factors worked against The Thing. At the time, Universal’s support was behind Cat People (1982) since it cost even more money than The Thing. With the weight of Universal’s advertising pushing Cat People (ultimately to no avail — Universal took a giant bath on that one), The Thing was mostly left to fend for itself. And, with films like E.T. and Poltergeist coming out in quick succession immediately before The Thing… well, it was a brutal summer for John Carpenter.
But c’mon! Who needs the box office? Does the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station have a tradition of watching E.T.: The Extraterrestrial on the first day of winter every year? No! They watch every single movie I’m reviewing in this trilogy of reviews. Since its release, the 1982 version of The Thing has solidified itself as a Cult Classic due to its fantastic script, exceptional direction, and genius-level practical special effects (though, a healthy home video market didn’t hurt).
This 1982 rendition of “Who Goes There?” adheres to the original 1938 story much more closely than its 1951 predecessor. The spacecraft that crashes into the snowy wasteland is still only 100,000 years old instead of the 20 million years in the story, but — due to the advancement of special effects technology (thanks, Rob Bottin!) — the alien onboard said spacecraft matches up better in 1982 than it did in 1951. In 1951, we were given James Arness as a “super carrot” (to quote one of the characters in that movie) and we were forced to like it. In 1982, The Thing was more like a virus — invading a host organism and aggressively replicating/destroying its cells until there were no original cells left. At that point, the host looked and acted normally but was, in fact, a copy of The Thing.
As a continuation of the 2011 prequel, the characters of U.S. Outpost #31 are thrust into the story because a helicopter from the Norwegian’s Thule Station chases an escaping sled dog. Unbeknownst to our hero, R.J. MacReady [Kurt Russell; Escape from New York (1981), Bone Tomahawk (2015)], and his close-knit group of coworkers, the Norwegians are actually trying to save the world. As usual, though, the language barrier and a fumbled grenade thwart any attempts to explain. The movie that follows is a masterclass in paranoia as our group of researchers try to figure out who’s human and who’s just doing a darn good job pretending.
The cast of the 1982 movie was composed mostly of theater trained actors. Aside from Kurt Russell whose career had been entirely Hollywood, most of the rest of the cast came from a theater background. Possibly as a concession to his stage-oriented cast, this was the first (and last) time John Carpenter arranged for a rehearsal period for his people. The members of the cast came together, lived, and worked for two weeks before shooting began which allowed them to solidify their characters and work out all of the interpersonal quirks their characters might have with each other. For example, it was during this rehearsal that the tension between Childs [Keith David; TV’s Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (1983-1985), TV’s Greenleaf (2016-2018)] and Clark [Richard Masur; the TV mini-series It (1990), Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black (2015-2017) was concocted which they carried over into the movie to great effect.
You can’t talk about The Thing (1982) without talking about special effects. A healthy $1.5 million of the film’s budget went in to its groundbreaking practical effects. Under the leadership of the unstoppable Rob Bottin — who, at 23, had already been working in the effects field for nine years — resin, rubber, steam, and slime became visceral, animatronic, and often stomach churning creations bent on devouring the crew of U.S. Outpost #31. As if that weren’t enough, when Rob Bottin determined there were just too many effects for his crew to handle in the time they had, he farmed one of the most iconic creatures out to someone else… none other than the legendary Stan Winston himself. The end result is a movie overflowing with practical effects brilliance, most of which still hold up today.
The Thing (1982) may not have been a box office blowout when it was released, but it’s been out there all this time quietly infecting new fans. Maybe it’s the camaraderie of the cast as they try to push through suspicion and solve the mystery of what’s happening to them. Maybe it’s the wonderful character actors — Richard Dysart, Peter Maloney, Wilford Brimley, David Clennon, the list goes on — putting their hearts and souls into the film. Or maybe it’s the undisputed artistic genius of Rob Bottin and his special effects crew that captures the attention of effects junkies and monster movie nerds. Whatever the reason, The Thing (1982) continues to scare, revolt, and entertain old fans and new alike even 36 years later.
So, go ahead! Put your feet up, grab a frosty beverage, and beat the summer heat with The Thing where it’s always “the first goddamn week of winter.”
The Thing is available for streaming on Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, and Google Play.