What I Watched Last Night: The Thing (1982) w/ commentary from John Carpenter and Kurt Russell

Director: John Carpenter

Cast: Kurt Russell, Thomas Waites, Keith David

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First writhing its way into cinemas in 1982, John Carpenter’s The Thing still stands proudly as a cult master-class of blockbuster science-fiction. It builds tension and dread on an incremental level that ensures your constant immersion, and the shockingly garish practical effects – unprecedented for that time – far outlast most of the films of the era (apart from An American Werewolf in London, obviously). The Thing draws you in with its believable, almost cosy set up, and then rips right back to reveal something so disgusting, so abhorrently alien, that it brings out in you an irrepressible primal response (the ‘BURN IT! BURN IT WITH FIRE!’ kind) that lasts the duration.

Chestbursters could learn a thing or two from The Thing. It’s a truly horrifying film, but stifling the belly laughs as a geologist’s head peels away from his body, sprouts legs and scuttles away is just about impossible. You don’t get anything near that same sensation with most films today; take something like I-Frankenstien (aka Frankenranken) or even the brand new Hercules movie with The Rock (trailer released today) the CGI of which is unforgivably awful. You know it’s not real, and you know the actor’s reactions are totally contrived. Just like observing the fear of The Thing’s cast makes you more afraid yourself, bad effects make for a cinematic veil that’s all but transparent.

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Bigger philosophical issues arise in The Thing than some may give it thought. For example, does the Thing have any autonomous choice? It’s not malicious in the way that humans are; it kills people in hellishly gruesome ways yes, but that’s what its species must do to survive, it was born that way. People murder for money, power lust etc. but for all we know, the Thing is just trying to get home in one piece, like some kind of metamorphic Greek demi-god (Oozedyseus?) and it’s everyone else’s fault for forcing it’s tentacle and making it to turn them into pieces. It’s over a ‘hundred thousand years’ old, who the f*** are we?

Another thing that makes John Carpenter’s horror so brilliant is its human element. The cast, excellent without exception, bonded over the course of the punishing filming schedule in a way similar to how a group of men manning a cut off Arctic outpost might well do in reality. In such tight confines there is nowhere to hide, so emotions come to the forefront to sow unchecked terror and doubt. The scientists question those that they count as brothers, and by the end they start to distrust themselves. Kurt Russell is on career high form as the alcoholic loner McCready, and it’s a breath of ice-cold fresh air to find a hero that not only resists his role but doesn’t even make a single pun.

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In summary, John Carpenter’s The Thing is an out and out classic and a Movie Quibble lifetime favourite. It deserves your admiration and horrified fascination, as does the hair-raising Ennio Morricone score. Here’s a clip anyway, and below that some wisdoms and witticisms from John Carpenter and Kurt Russell as they reminisce on The Thing special edition DVD commentary.

– This is the first film in John Carpenter’s ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’, the other two being Prince of Darkness (1987) and In the Mouth of Madness (1995).

– John Carpenter became a licensed helicopter pilot after filming because of how much he enjoyed shooting the husky chase intro.

– Carpenter on shooting in the tundras near Juno, Alasksa: ‘The only problem with this location was that we couldn’t get any beer’. Don’t worry about the Arctic snowstorms and weeks of social isolation then, John.

– Kurt Russell, on their British Columbia Outpost #31 set: ‘It was fantastic skiing! But nobody brought skis.’

– As a kind of initiation for the cast and crew, Kurt Russell had everyone ‘hydrolised’. This involved downing a glass of Everclear (grain alcohol) that had been set alight.

– In the theatrical cut of the film (and the regular DVD version) the song ‘Superstition’, by Stevie Wonder, is playing before the Thing makes his first kill. Strangely, in this commentary track, the song during the scene is still Motown but it’s plain to hear that it isn’t Stevie Wonder.

– Most of the non-blood gore effects in the film were made using carpabole, a type of foodstuff adhesive used in Twinkies.

– Kurt Russell’s beard and hair for his character McCready took almost 12 months to cultivate from his initial acceptance of the role.

– AIDS was first reported in the media when The Thing was filming, and the method that the alien kills its victims (taking them over on a cellular level and corrupting them) gave way to speculation – even hostility, within some press circles – as to the political standpoint of John Carpenter’s movie.

– ‘Asteroids’ is both Carpenter and Russell’s favourite arcade game. They had a machine installed at the Universal backlot for the duration of the shoot there.

– Apart from one production assistant that quit on maternity leave, there were no women involved on set at all. The Thing was the first blockbuster to not have a female in the cast for ‘a long time’, and Kurt Russell believed it made for a ‘more interesting atmosphere’ because of the particulars of the story and the isolation experienced by the characters.

– Halfway through filming, Keith David (who plays Childs) was involved in a car accident. He spent the rest of filming wearing a painted skin-coloured glove over the cast on his left hand.

– Kurt Russell says that making The Thing was probably the most fun he’s ever had on a film production; ‘I had a fabulous time. They can’t take that away from me’; ‘Never!’, confirms Carpenter.

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One comment

  1. One of my favorite movies. It solidified my love of both sci-fi and horror.

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