Of the huge crop of directors that came out of the late 60s/early 70s "film school generation", it is John Carpenter who has suffered perhaps the most neglect overall. A lot of that has to do with the fact that his films, following the success of 1984's Starman, are largely unenterprising B-movies with large scale budgets and a lot of overtly hammy acting. But Carpenter also made taut and suspenseful films like Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, and the original Halloween, and, perhaps most provocatively, The Thing.
Ostensibly a remake of director Howard Hawks' 1951 sci-fi/horror classic of the same name, Carpenter's film is more like a reworking, since it goes back to the original source material--namely the story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell--for its depiction of an American research team in Antarctica confronted with a shape-changing alien that had been frozen under the ice for 100,000 years, until it was dug up by Norwegian counterparts. The men involved, including Kurt Russell, Keith David, Richard Dysart, and Donald Moffatt, are at the mercy of this thing, and inevitably at the mercy of each other, because they don't know who is human and who has morphed into "something else." Carpenter cagily explores this for all the suspense it's worth, as was his way in Halloween and The Fog; and the coda, with Russell and David sitting in the extreme cold as the camp burns down, is chillingly ambiguous in the manner of Sam Peckinpah's 1971 classic Straw Dogs.
Usually when Carpenter's The Thing is talked about, it is talked about in terms of the extremely gory special make-up effects work of Rob Bottin, who had worked with Carpenter on The Fog, and also on Joe Dante's 1980 werewolf opus The Howling. And these effects are quite spectacular, though they are also still stomach-turning at times as well. But as a result, The Thing would be nothing more than a high-end splatter film if the story, direction, and acting weren't up to snuff; and thankfully, all of those elements are. Russell shows the kind of Everyman credibility that would serve him well much later on in films like Tombstone and Breakdown. The other special effects work is provided by Albert Whitlock (who worked on many Hitchcock films, including The Birds) and Roy Arbogast (Close encounters of The Third Kind), with a fine synth-laden score by Ennio Morricone, who had composed the ultra-memorable scores for Sergio Leone's westerns, including The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and the magisterial Once Upon A Time In The West.
The Thing, when released by Universal in June 1982, was not initially a success because, for whatever reason, the studio released it right after it had released the far more family-friendly Spielberg classic E.T and much of the horror box office for that year was going to another Spielberg-produced (but not directed) movie, Poltergeist. These things, combined with the largely negative critical reviews it got, seriously damaged The Thing's box office prospects. But time and events have made the film into a memorable, extremely gory, but also extremely intelligent, study of psychological paranoia.
After his following two films (Christine and Starman), Carpenter arguably degenerated into something of a hack. It's a shame that this happened, because The Thing is, if not a masterpiece, then certainly one of the better films of its type from the 1980s.Reviewed by Biohazard - 12/31/07