John Carpenter's The Thing

John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Kurt Russell, Keith David, Donald Moffat, Wilford Brimley
Extras: Audio Commentary, Retrospective Featurette, Outtakes, Storyboards, Stills

A critical and commercial flop when it was first released, John Carpenter's "The Thing" is now considered by many as Carpenter's "magnum opus" and one of the better remakes. Starring Kurt Russell and Keith David, John Carpenter's "The Thing" has its initial roots in the 1951 film produced by Howard Hawks and starring Kenneth Tobey with James Arness (pre-"Gunsmoke") as the Thing. For his adaptation, Carpenter returned to the earlier film's inspiration: the 1938 short story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr. Scripted by Bill Lancaster (Burt Lancaster's son) and featuring 1982 state-of-the-art visual and special makeup effects, "John Carpenter's The Thing" set out with one goal: to create the greatest movie monster ever. Trouble is, as envisioned by Carpenter and makeup effects wizard Rob Bottin, "The Thing" was so visually repellent it kept audiences from seeing the movie. With Universal's HD-DVD release of this now classic excursion in science-fiction horror, every blood drop and drool glop glistens in high-definition detail… to a point.

Whether 1938, 1951 or 1982, the set-up is pretty basic: A group of scientists holed up at an Antarctica encampment discover a being not of this Earth. Hostile in nature and action, they quickly realize the intruder must be destroyed, not only to ensure their own survival, but of the entire human race. The similarities end there. Whereas the original "The Thing" was a lumbering, Frankenstein's-monster type palooka, Carpenter and team resurrected the concept from the original short story: an insidious shape-shifter capable of physically mimicking any life form it encounters. Now, the crew led by Macready (Kurt Russell, sporting a serious beard) not only contend with the fear of battling an extraterrestrial MacGuffin but also the paranoia of not knowing who's human and who has been contaminated.

Looking back a generation later, John Carpenter was at the top of his creative powers with "The Thing." Lean and efficient in its storytelling, this version has no love interest sub-plot, the film's few humorous elements are born out of hysteria or incredulity, and the film's ending is a real downer, one of the bleakest committed to film. And there's no denying that Rob Bottin, the makeup maven behind the werewolves or Joe Dante's "The Howling" or Tim Curry's satanic Darkness in Ridley Scott's "Legend," struck a raw nerve with his special makeup effects. Flesh, sinew, blood, viscera, and multi-colored body fluids are in ample supply here, tearing and spurting with the kind of surreal abandon that only exists in a Dali painting. Even with the advent of CGI, the scenes of the creature's metamorphosis and re-shaping are so ugly and vile, they are downright, um, beautiful. After all, when a head literally tears itself off a body and sprouts crab legs in an effort to escape, one can only admire the sheer chutzpah of such a visual. That scene also features the film's best line: "You gotta be f**kin' kidding!"

The HD-DVD incorrectly states on the package that the aspect ratio is 1.85:1. Rest assured, the actual image displays the correct 2.35:1 Panavision framing. The transfer is detailed and sharp, but I have to admit it didn't bowl me over. Colors are solid and bold, but not eye-popping. Shadow detail is a bit wanting and there are scenes, mainly the exteriors, where some source print wear is visible. Flesh tones are accurate and there is visible grain in some of the night scenes. Compared to the 1998 non-anamorphic DVD release, the HD transfer is a revelation; matched against the 2004 anamorphic remaster (especially when upconverted on the Toshiba HD-A1), it's not necessarily the same slam-dunk for HD.

The 5.1 audio gets a little goose from the higher bit rate of Dolby Digital Plus than the standard DVD, but I really couldn't hear that much different between the two. When I saw it in the theater (in 70mm and six-track Dolby), I don't recall being blown away by the sound. The front soundstage is wide and encompassing, dialogue comes through cleanly and clearly amid the more bombastic moments and there are some fun rear-channel sound effects and music fill. While the Dolby Digital Plus gives the soundtrack a little goose in the LFE and rear channel definition, again, it's not a "night-and-day" difference.

The supplements are ported over from the previous DVD releases. The audio commentary with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell is wall-to-wall from title to end credits. They joke a lot about what's happening on screen and interject various anecdotal tidbits; the end result more jovial than archival. "John Carpenter's The Thing: Terror Takes Shape" runs practically feature-length (over 80 minutes) and is a thorough and enjoyable documentary about the film's making and legacy. Featuring practically every living cast and crew member, it covers every aspect of the film and I mean EVERY aspect, down to the apocryphal "happy ending" (as recalled by Editor Todd Ramsay) that was shot but never used. Roughly five minutes of outtakes, including stop-motion creature effects, location footage, still and conceptual art galleries and a theatrical trailer make up the remainder of the extras.

The question arises: Should HD-DVD owners run out and buy "John Carpenter's The Thing?" A real toss-up, this one. While the image detail is improved to a degree, I can't definitely say it's worth shelling out the $30 for it. Also, in many ways, it shows how a well-mastered standard 480p DVD can still hold its own in the era of 1080i.

Footnote: I first saw "The Thing" at the Hollywood Pacific Theater in Hollywood, California. Long since closed as a regular movie theater, in the last few years the auditorium was the base for the Digital Cinema Lab, run by USC. There's a still of the theater façade during the movie's theatrical run in the documentary. Just a few weeks ago, it was announced that the building housing this once fine movie palace will be closed permanently.