Friday, November 6, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Thing" (1982)

It would be fair to say that John Carpenter's 1982 remake of the sci-fi/horror classic "The Thing from Another World" was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. Shortened to simply, "The Thing," Carpenter's film was a study in moody atmospherics and eye-popping gross-out special effects.

Unlike the 1951 original, there are no female characters, just a motley bunch manning an Antarctic science station. There's not even much characterization, other than a few broad strokes for each guy: There's Windows, the nervous one, and Doc Copper, and Blair the scientist, and Clark, who likes dogs, and so on. And yet each man is distinct and easily recognizable from one another. It sort of reminds me of the space Marines from "Aliens," where within 20 minutes you knew every soldier's name and identity.

The protagonist is MacReady, the helicopter pilot played by Kurt Russell. He's moody, and a loner, and a heavy drinker. But like a lot of Russell's action characters, he has that uncanny ability to stay icily calm in a crisis. So naturally the other men look to him for leadership, even though Garry is ostensibly in charge.

MacReady's main foil is Childs (Keith David), who's a hothead and the most logical choice to challenge MacReady's status as alpha dog.

Speaking of dogs, the movie begins with the image of a beautiful husky being chased across the snows by a helicopter, with a man aboard firing a hunting rifle at it. This launches us into the plot of the station being attacked by a creature from outer space. It had crash-landed here eons ago, was found and thawed out by some Norwegians who fell victim to it.

The creature is very different from the one in the original movie, which was some kind of plant-based blood-sucking vampire thing. Here the creature is more like a virus that attacks living things, assimilating them and copying them perfectly. In effect it is a changeling, although it absorbs whatever it copies, rather than destroying the body.

The special effects, which were simply amazing back in 1982, still hold up very well nearly 30 years later. The scenes I remember most are when the doctor is trying to shock one of the team members back to life, and the defibrillator pads crash right through his chest, revealing him as infected. Then sharp teeth from either side of the chest cavity snap down on the doctor's arms, severing them.

MacReady burns the body with a flamethrower, but the creature's head -- still wearing the outer guise of a the red-headed guy it had infected -- separates itself from the flaming corpse, crawling onto the floor and sprouting spider-like legs and eye stalks.

I still get a thrill watching this stuff. "The Thing" has lost none of its bite.

4 stars

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