The Thing

Review by Guido Henkel

The Thing  (1982)
Universal Home Video

Length:        109 mins.
Rated:          R
Format:       Letterboxed · 2.35:1
Languages:English, French
Subtitles:    English, Spanish
Extras:        Commentary Track
                     Documentary
                     Still Gallery
                     Trailer

After a long, long wait, Universal Home Video have now released John Carpenter’s "The Thing" on DVD. Subtitled "the ultimate in alien terror" on the front of the box, it is also tempting to add "the ultimate in Special Editions". This Collector’s Edition release from Universal is completely superior to anything I have seen so far. Not only is the quality of the disc simply stunning, the sheer amount of extras on this release makes many so-called "Special Editions" look very pale in comparison. It takes three full screen root menus just to hold all the bonus material entries for this disc and that does not include the obligatory menus for language selection, chapter stops and all the other seemingly "standard" extras.

An American research team at a remote Antarctic research station is startled when, out of the blue, a Norwegian helicopter circles their camp, firing desperately at a loose sled dog, recklessly endangering the men in the camp. Before the Norwegians can harm anyone, the helicopter crashes, killing the pilot; the leader of the American mission kills the remaining man before the Norwegian can fire into the midst of the other researchers. Helicopter pilot McReady (Kurt Russell) sets out with two other men to discover the reason behind the Norwegians’ erratic behavior. When they reach the foreign research station, all they find is devastation. The whole camp is dead, charred beyond recognition. McReady and his men explore the site and make a fascinating discovery: The Norwegians seem to have discovered a spaceship in the eternal arctic ice, and it appears that they have uncovered and unfrozen the alien life form that navigated the ship. They don’t discover exactly why the camp is dead, but they take samples of the corpses and the frozen alien back to their own camp.

Slowly, they discover the secret the Norwegians fought to destroy an alien life form that mimics other beings, mutating itself and all it encounters, absorbing new life into itself. Having used the dog as a disguise, the thing is now loose in the American research camp and suddenly the paranoia mounts as everyone realizes they cannot trust their companions. A fierce battle for their lives erupts in the cold isolation of the Antarctic, and the ultimate survival of humanity is at stake.

"The Thing" is John Carpenter’s most recognized and acclaimed film. While I do not want to belittle "The Thing" in any way, I think it is fair to say that he has created a multitude
of other high caliber films as well, many of which are totally underrated and misunderstood. "The Thing" was the first film Carpenter did for a major studio. All his previous efforts and many after have been crafted in an independent environment, which usually gives the producer and director of a film much more liberties and control over their work. This benefit is usually compensated by rather limited budgets for those films. Being a major production, "The Thing" was created in special location sets, and brought in some absolutely amazing special effects, breathed to life by the incredibly talented Rob Bottin. Carpenter makes heavy use of Bottin’s gory special effects very untypical for a director who usually uses shadows to shroud our worst nightmares in and leaves plenty of room for our imagination to fill in the gaps. However, the effects are never gratuitous and blend well with the story and once again increase the unsettling feeling of paranoia and potential danger lurking within every member of the team.

The film boasts an incredible cast, spearheaded by Kurt Russell. The cast "feels" very real in their mutual animosities within their enclosed, isolated camp. They eye each other suspiciously, building an unhealthy paranoia, fostering a mistrust that becomes just as strong an element as their faith and will to survive. Without exception, the cast puts in brilliant performances that ground the supernatural alien intrusion in reality and make the whole story believable. The plot is so energetic that there is hardly time to establish the film’s characters or give much dimension to them - intentionally so, I would assume, because the pacing of the story dictates a fast progression without spending too much time on single characters. The Thing is the center of the film’s focus and since it works on a schedule of its own, the film has to follow. It actually adds a lot to the movie, because the confusion the people are experiencing directly translates to the viewer, who tries to keep up with the frantic events playing out on screen.

Universal Home Video present "The Thing" in its original theatrical 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio on this disc. Although the transfer on this disc is non-anamorphic, the image quality is superb, with lots of detail and very good shadow work, creating a stunning look for this film. Better looking than ever, the disc does not exhibit any signs of chroma noise or compression artifacts. Colors are strong and vibrant, which adds to the film’s sometimes almost surreal atmosphere. John Carpenter’s visual style has long been influenced by Asian film making and the heavy use of blue and red tones in this film clearly pay homage to many Hong Kong fantasy movies. The strong and faithful color reproduction on this disc is breathtaking and adds much to the film’s overall appeal, making it a very vivid disc with neutral and realistic rendered fleshtones nevertheless.

If I had to pick one bad thing about the film, it would be Ennio Morricone’s musical score, which is presented as a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital soundtrack. Morricone clearly had guidance from Carpenter himself because the director’s signature ostinato synth sounds can be heard as the main theme. Whenever Morricone breaks free from this main theme, however, his score becomes too obtrusive. Although generally a very good composer, Morricone seems to have serious problems spotting music artfully and pinpointing the correct atmosphere at times. The result is awkward orchestrations and themes that actually counter the visuals instead of enhancing them. I have noticed this several times before with his scores and instead of supporting the images we see, he often destroys the illusion with his counterproductive scores. It is a shame, because within the break of a second the magic Carpenter and his cinematographer Dean Cundey have been building is shattered. It makes me wish the talented director himself would have written and orchestrated the music, as he successfully did in other films with his longtime collaborator Alan Howarth. The film is fully dubbed in English and French, closed captioned in English and also contains Spanish subtitles. As a bonus, this splendid disc also contains a very informative and eloquent commentary track by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell.

Universal’s Collector’s Edition DVDs have always been a notch above the rest and this one is no exception. Apart from the film, this RSDL disc contains an 82-minute-long documentary covering different aspects of the production of the film, from the start and location scouting to casting to a detailed explanation of the film’s special effects. The documentary also features some never-before seen stop-motion animation footage that was considered for the film’s finale as well as a number of behind-the-scenes clips. The disc also contains extensive still galleries, featuring Rob Bottin’s effect designs, storyboard sketches, concept art, behind-the-scenes photographs and a number of deleted scenes. Rounded up with pictures from the film’s premiere in Los Angeles with a special appearance by hostess Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson in 1982, extensive production notes, trailers, biographies and much, much more, this is as thick a special edition as you could possibly ask for. The Collector’s Edition has been put together by Sharpline Arts, a new company that has committed itself to producing some of the finest special editions, and I have to tip my hat to them for this debut. David Fein and Michael Matessino, the heads behind Sharpline, have thrown in their experience from creating Laserdisc special editions for films, such as The Abyss, Alien and Aliens, and have literally set a new standard for DVD special editions to come.

Although the film was no major box office hit during its time, its long-term value and popularity speaks for itself. It is a new take on a short story by John W. Campbell Jr., called "Who Goes There?" from the 1930’s, turned into the 1951 film "The Thing From Another World". This version of the story is radically different from its previous incarnation in that it is more claustrophobic and presents the alien as an amorphous shape shifting life form, and touches upon elements that were completely ignored in the previous film. Masterfully staged by one of the most skilled horror directors of our time, "The Thing" is a horror film extraordinaire. Seeing it in all its glory in a widescreen presentation on this disc with a full bodied Dolby Digital soundtrack is definitely a rush.

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August 1, 1998

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