Release Date(s)1982 (September 30, 2008)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: C-
Science fiction and horror have been crossing each other’s path since long before either genre had a name. What is Frankenstein or The Invisible Man if not, at essence, science fiction? After all, you can’t have a mad scientist without the science. But while the best science fiction is free to explore a limitless number of concepts and themes, horror always boils down to something more primal.
Perhaps this is why so many sci-fi/horror hybrids boil down to familiar scary campfire stories with high-tech set dressing. Arguably the most familiar and certainly one of the most effective sci-fear movies in recent years is the original Alien. But with all due respect to Ridley Scott’s modern classic and its fans, my personal favorite is John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Alien and The Thing have quite a bit in common. Both movies have a small group of disparate individuals trapped in a confined, remote location from which they can neither escape nor call for help. Both have a malevolent alien creature awakened after a long period of dormancy. But for all its many, many virtues (and believe me, I do think it’s a great movie), Alien is still just folks being hunted by a monster. It’s a story told with undeniable skill and style but for all that, it’s still a familiar story.
The Thing is familiar, too, but the terror is more insidious than just a monster on the loose. Once this alien gets inside you, it becomes you. Carpenter works this angle masterfully. The real terror in The Thing comes from paranoia, claustrophobia and isolation. These all come from within, not from some external source.
However, when the fear does come from without, as it does in the transformation scenes for instance, the movie works just as well. Carpenter is able to strike a perfect balance between inner and outer terror. Even after the movie ends, you’re still left wondering who you can trust. And the reason that matters to you is because you’ve seen exactly what happens when the thing gets inside someone. It ain’t pretty.
Universal’s Blu-ray presentation of The Thing represents the format at its best and worst. First, the good news. The thirty-plus year-old movie looks and sounds phenomenal. The 1080p image captures the Antarctic cold of Dean Cundey’s cinematography and Rob Bottin’s grotesquely beautiful make-up work at its very best. For me, this movie is Exhibit A in the case against CGI. I’m sure that if this film was remade today (god forbid), it would be chock-a-block full of computer-generated creature effects that wouldn’t pack nearly as much punch as Bottin’s visceral work. You cannot underestimate the importance of actually seeing something physical stretch and tear, or the value in having the actors able to react to something that’s actually happening on set. I was slightly concerned that the high-def image would reveal the limitations of Bottin’s effects. Not in the slightest. The soundtrack is also powerful. It’s a bit less dynamic than films of more recent vintage but it captures both the sound design and Ennio Morricone’s Carpenter-esque score extremely well.
Now for the bad news... the special features have been cut back and compromised compared to the DVD (I never had the HD edition, so I can’t compare the Blu-ray with it except to say that the cover art looks a lot better with the blue case than the red). The audio commentary by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell has been carried over, which is terrific news. Carpenter/Russell commentaries are consistently top-notch and this is one of their finest. The only other bonus on the Blu-ray comes in the form of a “U-Control” feature. The documentary Terror Takes Shape is here, mostly complete, in a picture-in-picture display that runs along with the feature. Now, I’m not such a Luddite that I’m totally against the interactive potential of Blu-ray. What I am against is taking something that is totally not interactive, like a documentary, and trying to retrofit it into being interactive. Terror Takes Shape is an outstanding “making-of” doc in its own right. The fact that the only way you can watch it is through this “U-Control” thing drives me up the wall.
What makes it even more aggravating is the original DVD had several extras that are now completely gone that would have made much more sense as a picture-in-picture feature. Universal should have put Terror Takes Shape on in its original, uncut form as a stand-alone feature and used the U-Control deal to spotlight the storyboards, concept art and archive features that are now MIA. I would love to see the storyboards alongside the scenes they illustrate. I do not want to see bits and pieces of an interview that is only tangentially related to the scene. I would have thought this was obvious. Evidently not.
Despite some extremely disappointing work in recent years, John Carpenter’s place as one of the true giants of genre filmmaking is secure thanks to his remarkable run in the 70s and 80s. Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, Escape from New York, Big Trouble In Little China, They Live... all of these are fantastic movies in every sense of the word and some of my own favorite movies of all time. But if pressed, I’d have to name The Thing as John Carpenter’s masterpiece. I’ve watched it time and time again and have enjoyed every second of it every time. That’s going to be even more of a pleasure now. I just wish the Blu-ray disc was the definitive edition of The Thing that it should have been.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke