Plot: What’s it about?
“Scream” was to the horror genre what Nirvana was to rock music. Both were brilliant for their time. Neither sought to be revolutionary or to change the world. In fact, I doubt if it would have bothered Wes Craven to have made a campy little horror satire that attacked all the conventions of its stereotypical craft and attained a small, devoted following along the way. I doubt that Kurt Cobain would have minded being remembered as a small-time guitar player in a garage band from Seattle who just happened to understand his generation’s angst and apathy like no one before him. But both the film and the band created a subculture of their own that began to unravel the very foundations of their respective inspirations and turn every cliche and convention in on itself. In essence, both have become today what they rebelled so passionately against back in the early to mid nineties. Nirvana’s style has since become “the” style, serving as a catalyst for a slew of imitators and rebels with their own agenda. More often than not these days, that agenda unfortunately has less to do with the importance of music than the quick road to easy and petty stardom. “Scream” has paved the way for countless post-modern, self-aware travesties that bombard us with more laughs than scares, more camp than substance and, as derivative marketing tools, have far more in common with modern day rock music than with the classic horror genre by which they are supposedly inspired.
So just what does all of this have to do with John Carpenter’s 1982 version of “The Thing”? The best way to answer that for yourself is to watch the film. But then, this is a forum for me to tell you what I think. And what I see in “The Thing” is not merely a film that has, after many years, finally achieved its rightful status amongst fans as a horror classic. I don’t just see the film’s undeniable effectiveness, even considering its age and a few outdated special effects. I don’t only see its ominously dark tone, so expertly and rigidly adhered to throughout the film’s 109-minute running time. I see this as one of the last true horror films. I see it as the work of a master of his craft at the top of his game. I see it as horror was before “Scream” changed it irreparably forever. I see it as it can only be seen by someone who’s grown up watching with disdain as horror has been rearranged, repackaged, and sold to the lowest common denominator as a shadow of what the genre used to represent. This film doesn’t bother us with unnecessary and inappropriate humor. It doesn’t know about the conventions of the horror film within itself. It doesn’t poke fun at a terrible situation or get more tongue-in-cheek as it plods shamelessly through innumerable pop-culture references. This film is serious, and though it may engender its fair share of unintentional giggles here and there for its sheer earnestness and audacity, I would argue that these are qualities in horror to be commended.
Anyone not already familiar with the plot of this film needs to ask themselves what they’ve been doing with their lives for the last two decades. This is an incredible movie that truly frightened me when I first saw it years ago, and I was taken aback by the liberal use of blood and gore. This, of course, garnered the film a much-deserved R rating. The cumulative performances by the cast, misinterpreted twenty-two years ago as dry and aloof, are enriched ever greater with repeated viewings. It’s the kind of film that only gets good once you know everything about it. The setting is so isolated and claustrophobic that you can’t help but read more into the actors’ performances than what is technically happening on screen. There are stories behind these men’s faces. There are personalities just panting to get out just below the ice-cold surface. The tension level is kept at a fever pitch, even in the film’s opening shots. It is rare, even in this era of horror film, to see a film come along with such consistency of tone and ambiance throughout. There is no escape from the impending doom that awaits all in “The Thing”. The action, pacing, and overall execution of this story is simply top notch all the way across the board. I must also point out the film’s absolutely stellar cinematography. You can sit there not even having seen the film before and just “know” a classic shot when you see one. They happen every few minutes in “The Thing”. But then, what John Carpenter has given here is a movie that is far more than just the sum of its exemplary parts. It’s a reminder that horror films can also be good films, and that a movie with gore can also be one with substance. But perhaps more importantly, it demonstrates how revolutionizing any art form merely breeds eventual, renewed interest in that art form’s initial, purer state. As strong a voice as Nirvana had, they’ll never sing louder or harder than Led Zeppelin. And as good a film as “Scream” was, it can’t hold a candle to John Carpenter’s “The Thing”.
Video: How does it look?
As fans probably already know, the main reason to pick up this new edition of “The Thing” is the newly remastered transfer. Presented at precisely 2.35:1, the new anamorphic print looks terrific. If you can take advantage of 16:9 enhancement and are a fan of the film, this is a no-brainer. When compared to the previous, non-anamorphic release, this edition boasts a much cleaner, crisper presentation throughout. The edge enhancement that plagued the previous edition has been thankfully reduced on this version, letting the visuals really shine through. There are also fewer defects in the print this time around. Colors are more well-balanced than on the old release for a more life-like, natural appearance and accurate skin tones. Colors, while more accurate, may seem a bit subdued compared to the earlier disc. This is because of the main difference in the two versions: the contrast. The old version’s contrast was, in retrospect, to pumped-up to allow for fine detail in some of the more intricate shots. Take, for example, the shot approximately 21 minutes into the film where Kurt Russell’s character is standing next to the melted block of ice. On the previously-released DVD, there was no detail to be seen outside the holes in the wall in the background. Now, however, you can see clearly the ice formations beyond the foreground set. Excellent effort by Universal and a worthwhile reason for an upgrade for us nitpickers out there.
Audio: How does it sound?
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track, while not faring quite as well as the video this time around, does an admirable job considering the source material. There’s nothing wrong with this track, per se, it just won’t knock your socks off. But then, this is a piece more about atmosphere than power, and in that area, the Dolby Digital track delivers admirably. Tension is kept appropriately high for the duration of the film with this track, with effective (if infrequent) use of the surround channels when the action calls for it. Dialogue is crisp and clear and always intelligible. This is a predominantly front-heavy mix as expected, and though I’m more than happy to see this film in 5.1, this could have sounded a little bit better. The scenes toward the end, for example, could (and should) have packed more of a punch than they did. A weak-sounding explosion can really take you out of a moment. But then, I guess we really can’t expect any better from a film that’s been lavished with negativity since its initial release. That Universal thought the film worthy of a 5.1 treatment at all speaks volumes. All in all, even if it isn’t stellar, this is a very good audio track. A French 2.0 track is also available, as are English captions or Spanish and French subtitles.
Supplements: What are the extras?
This disc features the same extras that graced the previous edition of “The Thing”. There’s also nothing new on this edition, save the anamorphic enhancement of the transfer, to warrant an upgrade. For some (including me), that will be enough. For others, it won’t. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the original release’s extras are extremely well-produced and will please even casual fans of the film. Also, nothing from the older release has been omitted this time around (except for a particularly nice insert that accompanied the old version). The main attraction here is the 80-minute “Terror Takes Shape” documentary on the making of the film. This is a phenomenal effort in all respects. Nearly everyone involved with the film goes on record here in this expansive look behind the scenes, from inception to execution. I was especially impressed by the screen time devoted to John Carpenter in this documentary. He is rightfully proud of this film, and his candor is refreshing. This is simply one of the best making-of documentaries out there, well worth the price of this disc on its own. The commentary by Carpenter and Russell is similarly engaging. The first commentary track I ever heard was on the Criterion release of “Halloween” back in the heyday of laserdisc. I am as impressed today as I was then with his wealth of knowledge and background on his own films (many a bland modern-day commentary track would lead one to believe that some directors have little to do with moviemaking). The “Production Background Archive” is a brief segment which outlines the impetus of the story and contains a short section of the shooting script. “Cast Production Photographs” is a rather useless extra which features eleven photographs, a few of which are simply screen captures from the film. Far more extensive and interesting is the “Production Art and Storyboards” section. This extra contains a rather large assortment of concept art for the film. A few are holdovers from the documentary, but all are worth a look. “Location Design” is about as bland as it sounds, amounting to little more than location scout photos consisting of…you guessed it…ice! “Production Archive” is yet another photo gallery, but this time it’s far more interesting. Everything from behind-the-scenes shots during filming to make-up work is covered here. Nice. “The Saucer” is a nice little extra in its own right. Though nothing revelatory, it shows the various effects shots that had to be filmed separately and then recombined to create the movie’s memorable opening shot. “The Blair Monster” details in text and photographs the conceptual designs and execution of the film’s climactic monster incarnation. The “Outtakes” section is actually more of a deleted and extended scene archive. These are decent scenes, to be sure, but they wouldn’t have added anything vital to the finished film. Worth a look for fans, of course. “Post Production” is essentially a photo gallery of the premiere of the film in 1982 (hosted by Elvira!). The original theatrical trailer is also included.