Formative 10: The Thing (1982)

Back to the lost formative ten. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) has consistently been in my top three movies of all time since I first saw it. A masterpiece on many levels, and in fact there are two Carpenter films in my formative ten, and both of them center around his ability to create the most compelling situational horror/scifi/action films. Not only does he play with genres brilliantly, but what’s cooler than having Manhattan Island turned into a high security prison or a group of researchers in Antarctica discovering a shape-shifting alien? Such plot lines make his early films among the best of all time in my mind.

But, I’m gonna hold off on my reflections in this post, because Scott Leslie recently sent me a link to a documentary on John Carpenter’s career,  John Carpenter: Fear is Just the Beginning…the Man and his Movies (freely available on Google Videos), that contains a ten minute clip which does an excellent job of framing the importance of this film and contextualizing its moment. The documentary focuses on a controversy surrounding The Thing that I was previously unaware of. In short, this film was Carpenter’s first big budget project and upon its theatrical release it was critically slammed, designating Carpenter as the “pornographer of graphic violence.” According to the documentary, such criticism scarred Carpenter so deeply that it changed the direction of his subsequent career (arguably for the worse if you look at his earlier work versus his later). Here is a link to the ten minute section of the documentary that talks specifically about the controversy surrounding The Thing. Fascinating stuff, I always found the difference between his first five films and all his subsequent work to represent a radical divide in vision and quality, and perhaps this might provide one theory as to why.

And, as an homage to Carpenter’s masterpiece (which is far better than the Howard Hawkes Hawkes’ original in my opinion), here is the classic scene where MacReady tries to distinguish the real people from the things as told by Legos. Enjoy!

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9 Responses to Formative 10: The Thing (1982)

  1. And he was able to tell the story with what are now pretty rudimentary special effects. As Scott did in Alien (the sequels were weaker, partially because of their reliance on SFX). Escape From New York – laughable “effects” but great story. And then there’s always the formative classic Clash of the Titans!

    For me, Clan of the Cave Bear was important. Another low budget, low SFX movie, with little dialogue, and an amazing, rich, deep story.

  2. OH! Almost forgot! Quest for Fire! Awesome movie. Pivotal. Formative.

    All I could find for clips of Clan of the Cave Bear was a Spanish-language clip on YouTube

    I did find the official trailer for Quest for Fire – from 1981!

  3. Reverend says:

    D’Arcy,

    Interestingly enough, Rob Bottin’s FX were considered the absolute cutting edge at that time. In fact, one suggestion that the documentary makes is that Carpenter let the special fx people do their thing almost separately from his story, and I think his story is so solid that it may not have needed the their craziness, but the combination makes it one of the greatest films for the rare combination of gore-inspired shock value and an awesome plot line. For the film as event and spectacle is monolithic, both of which I don’t think are necessarily bad things if the story is solid and the message is complex as it is in The Thing.

    In retrospect the special effects may look cheesy to some degree, but the are very much a product of their time and day–just consider the graphics on Atari 2600 game at the time. They seemed truly remarkable to me at the time, although 2001: A Space Odyssey was made in 1968–but that’s Kubrick so it doesn’t really count.

    Speaking of which, Quest for Fire is definitely a film that burn in image on my brain, and it still may be the only feature length movie not from the silent age that had no dialogue but I watched through to the end, transfixed. Also, I never saw Clan of the Cave Bear, it is a film of my moment in many ways, I just never had the occasion to watch it for some reason, I’ll change that shortly.

  4. Carpenter didn’t rely on the SFX though – the petri dish was incredibly suspenseful and tense, primarily because he didn’t just throw into SFX clips (although, when he burned the right dish all hell broke loose…)

    I suppose it’s the hindsight that makes the effects so laughable. I remember walking out of the theater after watching Star Wars for the first time, as an 8 year old kid, gleefully telling anyone who’d listen that the effects were AWESOME! IT WAS REAL, MAN! WOW!

    And then, when rewatching the original version, being so disappointed because my visual literacy had advanced while the printed film had not. I had learned to spot shadows, wobbles, scale differentials. All things I had no awareness of in 1977, but after going through the SFX arms race, we’re now able to spot most of the tricks subconsciously.

    Scott’s Alien, only 2 years later (! it seems SO much more recent than Star Wars, but was released only 2 years after it!!!) seems so much more sophisticated, in that most of the time the alien is completely unseen, or is seen but only partially. Storytelling through imagination… Powerful stuff.

  5. Hm. Hmmmmmmm, Rev, I think you have egged me on to re-screen this one. In my memory The Thing pales next to Alien, so I’ll see how it stands up now.

    I admit to fond memories of the CPR scene. And the head on legs.

    PS: did The Thing really come out within weeks of E.T.? Now there’s a litmus test, the real Two Americas.

  6. Just bought Quest for Fire on iTunes. I’d forgotten that it was a Canadian production!

  7. Pingback: quest for fire | D'Arcy Norman dot net

  8. Andy Best says:

    Great, the formative 10 and Carpenter.

    I have to say that D’arcy has hit upon all the stuff I was thinking about. Also, I totally agree with the Star Wars compared to Alien points.

    Ridley Scott’s creation and exploration of a space (as in a space and not Space) is masterful (in that movie). I said before that it’s the same quality I like about early Carpenter. Look at Assualt, The Thing and Escape.

    Andy

  9. Hm. Hmmmmmmm, Rev, I think you have egged me on to re-screen this one. In my memory The Thing pales next to Alien, so I’ll see how it stands up now.

    I admit to fond memories of the CPR scene. And the head on legs.

    PS: did The Thing really come out within weeks of E.T.? Now there’s a litmus test, the real Two Americas.

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