For a long time, the 1980’s were considered a cultural nadir. A place where nothing of artistic value was produced. However, as with all things, this has come in a circle and many things have been re-evaluated from that period. One such piece that was hated when it was released was John Carpenter’s The Thing. During the age of the video nasties, and the boundaries of what was acceptable on film being pushed, critics were not at all kind to the movie on its release in 1982. Famed critic Roger Ebert, said “The Thing is basically just a geek show, a gross-out movie in which teenagers can dare one another to watch the screen.” Gary Arnold in the Washington Post, said “John Carpenter's remake of The Thing is a wretched excess.” Vincent Canby in the New York Times, said “The Thing is too phony looking to be disgusting. It qualifies only as instant junk.”
Nowadays the film is, rightly, considered to be a masterpiece. A near-perfect film with some of Hollywood’s biggest talents at the tops of their games (John Carpenter and Kurt Russell both peaked here). The bleak setting, the tension and paranoia, the ambiguous ending, Russell’s beard, all rarely bettered. And the effects are unlike anything that came before or since. The split-headed creature found at the Norwegian camp is haunting, as is the radio operator found there. Charles Hallahan’s head growing legs and crawling off, and Richard Dysart’s arms being bitten off by Hallahan’s chest are now infamous.
To think that these effects were what people didn’t like about the film seems crazy today, but context is important. The blood and gore seen in the film were shocking at the time, especially for a relatively high-budgeted studio film. When a film is full of something shocking like that, it would have taken the focus, meaning that the characters and story take a backseat to the viewer. As time went on, it took more and more to shock cinema-goers, so those revisiting The Thing were able to see past the effects and enjoy the drama in all its glory.
The 1980’s saw some all-time classics being released; The Shining, Blade Runner, The Empire Strikes Back, ET, Aliens, all 3 Indiana Jones films (I refuse to acknowledge the atrocity released in 2008), and the first two Back to the Future films. All of these register in my favourite ever list, but it’s The Thing that I keep going back to. The claustrophobia, the paranoia, the bleak, wintery, stark landscape, it all resonates with me on a primal level. And it contains some of the best dog-acting you’re ever likely to see! To add to that, it finishes with one of the greatest scenes in cinema history, despite everyone trying to put an end to the ambiguity with their theories (Childs must be a thing because you can’t see his breath, or Childs can’t be a thing because he has his earring in, etc).
In fact, it’s become so iconic, that Matthijs van Heijningen’s unnecessary 2011 prequel (also confusingly called The Thing) has done little to taint its status. Quentin Tarantino even cast Kurt Russell again in a snowy landscape with a beard and Ennio Morricone’s music, confirming its iconic status.
The 1980’s may have contained a dearth of culture for some, but for me it contained a cinematic zenith. Will it ever be bettered? Why don't we just wait here for a little while...see what happens?
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