As keeping with horror remake month and the rules set out by the Insomniac Movie Theater blog that all movies must be on Netflix Instant, late-night television, or from my personal collection, I got to rewatch one of the all-time great horror movies on a technicality.
Less of a remake and more of a total overhaul, John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is a remake of “The Thing from Another World” the same way that Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale” is a distant, distant cousin to the 1966 original. This is the sum total of commonality the two films share: Scientists at an arctic research base discover an alien life-form that means them harm.
But while the original was a schlocky monster movie in the same vein as the Universal classics of the era, Carpenter wisely focused on the isolation and paranoia that begins to creep in as a group of men are slowly picked off by an alien that emulates organic lifeforms, assuming the form of the research station’s crew in the process.
Of course, Ennio Morricone’s minimalist soundtrack compliments the sparse landscapes and close-quarters that the crew inhabit perfectly and in the process raises Carpenter’s already high sense of danger and vacancy.
And inhabiting this lonely environment of eminent doom is a perfectly cast set of character actors, who all fill their roles perfectly, giving believable performances without ever trying to outdo one another. The cast is lead by Carpenter favorite Kurt Russell, but also features great work from Donald Moffat, Keith David, and, yes, Wilford Brimley. Russell is given starring credit as RJ MacReady, but he shares screen time with the rest of the cast to the point that the title is almost inaccurate.
As MacReady, Russell demonstrates that he is capable of a metered performance in the hands of Carpenter, who often had him playing one extreme (Snake Plissken) or another (Jack Burton). MacReady is the best kind of action hero, in that he’s unpredictable and uncertain. He reacts to the events that unfold in front of him indistinctly and because of that, sometimes he saves lives and other times people die.
The real star of “The Thing” is the creature itself. Roy Arbogast who has worked on special effects milestones such as “Jaws,” “The Return of The Jedi,” and “The Fugitive” leads a crew that did a lot with a little, using a combination of complicated puppets and mechanical creatures and old school camera tricks including reverse photography. The first appearance of the creature is still as creepy as it was 28 years ago:
But if there’s any one scene that defines “The Thing” it’s the blood-jump scene, as it epitomizes everything the movie does right. In the scene MacReady has established that he’s in charge, fending off the remainder of the crew with a blowtorch and forcing them all to tie themselves up. But MacReady has a plan. He takes blood from each of the survivors, collecting it in a Petri dish and then explains that while the blood is just blood in a human, in the creature, it’s living tissue that will react to stimuli. He then heats up a copper wire and prods each sample of blood.
The anticipation, MacReady’s instincts, the uncertainty and unpredictability, and the sudden, but earned scare, all go a long way in creating a memorable scene and defining the movie as a whole.
“The Thing” may technically be a remake, but if all remakes were this good, then Hollywood might not need inflated ticket prices to stay in the black. And I might not cringe every time I see a trailer for “Valentine’s Day,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street” or any other horror movie that was made once and now gets to be made again with even more gimmicks attached.