The Thing

The Thing ★★★

I guess the risk of revisiting old favorites is that you never know when you’ll suddenly go lukewarm on one. I’m a big fan of Carpenter’s classical widescreen compositions and almost subliminal sense of unease, which he uses to such magnificent effect in the dread-filled first hour of Halloween. And The Thing certainly looks fantastic; the film is at its best in the nearly wordless opening sequences, with the ominous bass thumps and blank vistas portending true isolation. I’m also partial to the kind of practical, inventively grotesque creature effects that Rob Bottin achieves here (and that went extinct many years ago). So along with a terrific premise and claustrophobic setting, not to mention that doom-laden Ennio Morricone score, it’s all here on paper. It’s the formulation that’s way off.

While even Halloween doesn’t particularly rely on its script, The Thing’s thinly-sketched and mostly interchangeable characters are a much bigger problem. For a plot that turns on figuring out who to trust, there’s no sense of the relationships or personalities beyond some perfunctory exchanges more suited to an average slasher movie. It’s the same reason that Invasion of the Body Snatchers (any version) wouldn’t work without being psychologically attuned to the characters as they descend into paranoia. Even Kurt Russell gets very little to do that any other actor couldn’t, and the rest are defined more by visual cues: The One Who Looks Like Danny Masterson, The One Who Listens to Stevie Wonder, The One Who’s Keith David, etc. Scenes that should be emotionally fraught instead tend to be rather flat, marking time until the next fluid- or flame-drenched set piece.

Speaking of fluids, as much as I admire Bottin’s work, the sheer volume of gross-out effects actively works against Carpenter’s anxiety-building. We start getting lovingly detailed shots of the monstrosities so early that it’s hard to go back to the insidious suspense that is the director’s forte; there a few effective jump scares, but nothing here really gets under my skin the way Michael Myers simply disappearing behind a hedge does. (The closest is Bennings’ Body Snatchers-esque inhuman shrieking.) That leaves this to be enjoyed mostly as an old-fashioned monster movie, though goofy sights like the head with spider legs would be more at home in something more overtly playful like 1988’s The Blob, rather than in this elegantly portentous thriller. The result plays more like an effects showcase than was surely intended.

To sum up: love the photography and a few scenes where the movie's competing interests work together (the whole blood testing scene, “clear!”), wish the creatures were in a different movie, still can’t keep track of who is who even after years of viewings. I know this won’t be a very popular opinion, and as recently as this morning it wouldn’t have been with me either. But the heart wants what it wants. I’ll at least go to bat for the closing moments, which re-establish a sense of chilling fatalism that had gone sorely missing. And if Russell had to sit out one Carpenter film, I wish it were this– with its very modest demands on leading-man charisma— and not They Live.

Marc liked these reviews