You know what the worst shot in John Carpenter’s The Thing is? The very first one. We don’t need to know where the strange shapeshifting creature comes from; let us infer for ourselves. I prefer to think that it’s not an alien, but instead something prehistoric; something that the dinosaurs and hominids could sniff out and avoid, its survival under the ice a sort of evolutionary punishment to humanity for expanding our brains at the expense of our hunting instincts.
From then on this movie doesn’t make a single mistake. It has a tough path to walk, because it has to establish its own identity as a film even though it’s a remake (of Howard Hawks’ 1951 film The Thing From Another World) and it only got made as a result of the huge success of Alien. Both The Thing and Alien are haunted-house movies with a setting that artificially removes the question, “why don’t they just leave the house?” Both care very little about the actual science, and focus on a bunch of working stiffs straining to stay alive.
The big difference is that The Thing really emphasizes the monster. With Alien, as with a lot of monster movies, it doesn’t really matter what the enemy can do; the key points are that it’s bigger and stronger and it’s going to eat you. I liked that The Thing gets the maximum amount of milage out of what its monster’s abilities are, and does so slowly. The creature kills a few dogs, and we get a good look at it and know it to be bad news, but the idea that it could replicate a human being still seems far-fetched, until…
…well, I don’t want to spoil it. Suffice it to say that this is not a movie where the monster leaps out of the dark accompanied by a musical stinger. Instead, the Thing’s first attack on a person is built around the best special effect I’ve ever seen, courtesy of the great master Rob Bottin (Total Recall, among others). It’s not gory or ugly, it’s unsettling: something which is trying to be human and not quite getting it yet.
There are other great effects in the movie, which film buffs have learned to describe by the scenes they turn up in: The Autopsy, The Blood Test. The amazing thing is how real they look. Even when the Thing is taking shapes that no Earth creature has ever imagined, it still looks completely real, as though Baker found it in the wild somewhere instead of building it out of plastic and wire. The actors in this movie are great, and I love the paranoid mood the script creates, but my mind always comes back to those monsters. There’s just nothing like them.
As I’m sure everyone reading this knows, they’re remaking The Thing; it’s being released this month. I’m not opposed to that. I doubt that any special effect will ever be as horrifying as Bottin’s original work, but why not try? After all, Carpenter’s film was itself a remake: I like to imagine people like my parents remembering the campy Thing from the ‘50s, frowning at Carpenter’s gritty realism and graphic violence, and wishing there was some kind of series of tubes whereby they could find other frowners. It’s the circle of life.