The Thing is one of those films that is incredibly hard to review now, because it’s been dissected to death, not unlike the way the deformed humanoid corpse with two faces is discovered and dissected in the film. When The Thing came out in the summer of 1982, it was on the same day as Blade Runner and E.T. was still playing to packed out movie theatres. E.T. was a kind of runaway success that cinema hadn’t seen before, so unsurprisingly The Thing suffered at the box-office, as did Blade Runner; both films were also savaged by the critics. Now probably every critic who hated them then would now consider them two of the greatest films of all time.
The Thing came about after Tobe Hooper had been contracted to write and direct a remake of the original Howard Hawks film, but Hooper soon left the project. The best and really only choice, John Carpenter, then came aboard. Carpenter was a massive fan of Hawks’ The Thing (and Hawks’ films in general) but also of the vastly different John W. Campbell novella that was its source. It also marked the first time Carpenter, who up to this point was an independent filmmaker, worked with a major studio. The director had just one actor in mind for the lead role of R.J. MacReady, was his frequent collaborator Kurt Russell, with whom he had just made the surprise hit Escape From New York.
Carpenter went back to the original story and used it to envision this infinitely paranoid film. It’s all set in a remote outpost in the Antarctic where a group of men are becoming increasingly frightened about a shape-shifting “thing” that finds its way into the base. It can take the form of anybody, so naturally the paranoid tension reaches a breaking point. Quentin Tarantino admitted very openly that The Thing influenced his last film, The Hateful Eight, and he even cast Russell in one of the key roles. During a press interview Tarantino said: “The paranoia amongst the characters was so strong, trapped in that enclosure for so long, that it just bounced off all the walls until it had nowhere to go but out into the audience”—which perfectly sums up why the film is still so effective.
The cast is led by rarely better Kurt Russell, his performance as the anti-hero Snake Plissken is the only other role in his career that comes close. The other main highlight of the cast is Keith David, who also ends up appearing in Carpenter’s anarchist masterpiece They Live. The rest of the ensemble cast are just really solid character actors: people you don’t know by name but whose faces you recognise, like Wilford Brimley and David Clennon.
Overall, The Thing has stood the rest of time because of its unrelenting sense of dread and paranoia, and the excellently chosen ensemble cast led by Kurt Russell. The special effects and transformation sequences by Rob Bottin are still impressive to this day, partly due to the fact that they are in-camera effects. Carpenter may have made a couple of other films that I prefer, but The Thing remains one of his four or so masterpieces. It also has a sense of ambiguity at the end, which is atypical amongst Carpenter’s usual streamlined narratives with clear resolutions.
The Thing was one of Arrow’s most requested titles for years, and they finally were able to secure the rights. Naturally, given the fan demand they went full-out on a new 4K scan of the original negative, and it looks great. The first of the two big additions to the special features are a new feature-length documentary that covers the film from the original novella to Carpenter’s film. Sadly, Carpenter and Russell were not involved, but it’s a solid documentary. The other doc is about the films that came out in the summer of 1982. It’s a bit too fanboy for my liking, but it’s OK. The legendary commentary with Carpenter and Russell is included, as is the older feature-length documentary on the making of the film, which still remains one of the best DVD making-of features. The rest are archival featurettes, trailers, and stills galleries, and the limited edition version includes a book on the film.