What has happened to cinematic paranoia? Back in the 1950s, audiences just couldn't et enough of mad scientists, alien invaders and government experiments run amok -- all potent allegories for the national's Red Scare politics and fears of imminent nuclear destruction. But flash-forward to the early 1980s: with the Cold War about to end and Ronald Reagan in the White House, America just wasn't interested in bug-eyed aliens anymore. Witness the chilly reception afforded to John Carpenter's big-budget remake of Howard Hawk's classic slice of 1950s paranoia, 'The Thing.'
Returning to the original Joseph Campbell short story "Who Goes There?", Carpenter ditched most of what made Hawk's classic fun but ultimately cheesy. Working with screenwriter Bill Lancaster, Carpenter conjured a creature that was a shape-shifter, a phantom from outer space that could look like anyone at any time. Who are your friends? Who can you trust? The film is unremittingly grim and oppressive, and the location chilly. A team of arctic researchers accidentally thaw out an odd-looking spaceship and unknowingly offer refuge to the alien visitor after it assimilates the form of an Alaskan husky. Communication breaks down as the men, led by the take-charge, laconic MacReady (Kurt Russell), are unsure of who is human and who is the Thing, and fall prey to the worst of human instincts. You can't blame a Thing for being without remorse and conscience. But can you blame a human?
'The Thing' was ideal material for Carpenter, a filmmaker of great skill but with little patience for pretension and sentimentality. He revels in the breakdown of idealism and communication. The ending, which some called nihilistic, is cynical and calculated. But 'The Thing' works so effectively because it preys on one of our most basic fears -- our body in revolt against itself. It is also one of the most purely visceral and downright disgusting mainstream horror movies ever made. The awe-inspiring effects Carpenter unleashes -- designed by makeup wunderkind Rob Bottin -- pulsate, ooze and slither, so grotesque and imaginative they achieve a surreal blend of the horrific and beautiful. Not since 'ALIEN' had an otherworldly menace been so breathtaking.
'The Thing' had the unfortunate luck of being released just a week after the arrival of another, far more cuddly alien, 'E.T.', and audiences and critics alike stayed away in droves. Carpenter was vilified for wallowing in graphic violence and failing to find the heart and humanity in his characters. But 'The Thing' has become the prototypical example of a film rescued by home video. (It remains one of Universal's top-selling catalog DVDs.) It is a bona fide cult phenomenon and now stands as one of Carpenter's most highly regarded and respected works. Its pioneering special effects and relentless sense of doom and dread still pack a wallop. Just don't watch it after you eat.
Though mislabeled on the back of the HD DVD box as 1.85:1, 'The Thing' is properly presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. This 1080p/VC-1 transfer is really rather terrific, and though utilizing the same master as the years-old DVD release I think it offers enough of an upgrade that fans will be quite please.
A common giveaway that you're watching a high-def upgrade of a previous DVD is that all the dirt and print defects are in the same places. It is sad that I know 'The Thing' so well that right from the first scene, I immediately recognized the position of speckles from years of watching the flick on DVD. (Sure enough, whipping out my old disc to compare, the source material appears identical.) Regardless, the original master is still in very good shape. Sure, there are some blemishes, occasional dropouts and a bit of heavy dirt and grain on some of the optical matte shots, but it's still a solid effort for a film from 1982.
That said, other aspects of the transfer are also well up to snuff. 'The Thing' has always seemed like a somber film full of overcast, wintery exteriors and grim, moody interiors, enlivened only by a few sporadic flashes of color. This HD DVD may dispel that notion, and I'd even venture to say that of all the catalog titles I've seen thus far on the format, 'The Thing' offers the biggest upgrade in terms of richness and purity of color. Most impressive are the deep blues of the nighttime scenes, and the various putrid greens, yellows and oozy oranges of the Thing. (And don't forget the blood.) Color saturation is significantly improved here over the standard-def DVD, and I simply saw the film in a whole new light. Even better, there's no trade-off -- chroma noise and bleeding are not a problem.
Blacks are also deep throughout, and contrast generally consistent across the entire grayscale. Shadow delineation is above average for an older title, with the film's very dark second half never falling into murkiness or imperceptibility. Lastly, detail and depth are also very good. Perhaps a bit soft by modern standards, 'The Thing' still looks sharp enough. Many scenes in the film boast a sense of three-dimensionality superior to what I've seen before, such as when the crew first travels to the Norwegian compound. The level of depth and increased detail in these sequences was a treat for a longtime fan of the film like me. THough not a revelation, I was still pleased with 'The Thing' on HD DVD.
Now here's the big disappointment of this disc. Though originally billed as having a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, it turns out there is no such track on 'The Thing.' Though of course we still get a perfectly fine Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround mix instead (encoded at a healthy 1.5mbps), it still feels like someone dangling a carrot in front of your face for weeks, only to snatch it away at the last minute.
Anyway, the sound design of 'The Thing' really isn't that active. Surround use is typical of the period, i.e., practically non-existent. There is the occasional rear effect -- my favorite is the well-placed musical stinger when Fuchs is alone in his office late at night, and some thing walks in the shadows behind him -- but other that the rare jolt, this is a front-heavy mix. The timbre and tonality of sounds is also dated. ADR'd dialogue is sometimes obvious, and mid-range in particular sounds a bit hollow. Low bass is also a bit tighter than on the DVD release, but the improvement is not exceptional. I also struggled at times with my volume control, as I had to turn up some of the dialogue scenes during the film's third act to compensate for the booming effects. Such quibbles aside, 'The Thing' sound perfectly fine for a soundtrack of its era.
Though originally announced as being a HD DVD/DVD combo disc, turns out 'The Thing' is really an HD-30 dual-layer disc. No complaints here -- I hate to disc flip, and with a couple of notable exceptions, we get all of the same goodies as the special edition DVD anyway.
My favorite supplement and the real beauty of this collection is the 85-minute "Terror Takes Shape: The Making of 'The Thing,'" which still stands as one of the best documentaries ever produced on a horror film. Featuring recollections from John Carpenter, Rob Bottin, director of photography Dean Cundey, Kurt Russell and most of the major cast, making 'The Thing' was an ordeal not quite as terrifying as the film itself but certainly as demanding. While actual on-set production material is sparse, "Terror Takes Shape" makes the most of its extensive interviews, chronicling the film's lengthy gestation, difficult arctic shoot and eventual box office bust. "Terror Takes Shape" is one of the few full-length DVD docs to benefit from a clear and focused narrative arc. At nearly ninety minutes, it is a commitment, but one that pays off; its story is dramatic, involving and totally compelling.
Carpenter and Russell contribute a wonderfully lively audio commentary; the pair have recorded tracks together for their other collaborations, including 'Escape from New York' and 'Big Trouble in Little China,' and their easy-going style is charming. Jovial, sarcastic and hilarious, the mood here is far removed from the frigid subject matter -- Russell's riffing on all of the blood and guts is worth the price of admission alone.
Rounding out the extras are three rather poor-quality excerpts of unused effects footage ("The Blair Monster," "The Saucer" and "Outtakes"), including a go-motion version of the titular creature (which looks awful), plus a fairly extensive gallery of automated still galleries divided into five sections: "Production Archive" (which is mainly production notes and clearly a leftover from the old laserdisc), "Cast Photographs," "Production Art and Storyboards," "Location Design" and "Post Production." And rare for a Universal release, we get the film's rather worn-looking Theatrical Trailer in 480i 4:3 video.
Now, about what's missing. A cool extra on the previous DVD was the inclusions of cues from the film's famed score by Ennio Morricone, which played over the disc's menu and submenus. Alas, once again, Universal only gives us its cheesy HD DVD menu template, complete with tacky muzak. Now that really is grotesque.
Despite bombing at the box office, 'The Thing' has become the true definition of a cult classic. Fans like me have been waiting for this one to make its HD DVD debut ever since the format launched, and overall I'm pleased with the disc. A solid transfer featuring greatly improved color reproduction coupled with tons of top-notch extras (though nothing new over the standard-def DVD) offer real value for money. Perhaps those already owning 'The Thing' may not need to buy it again, but if you love the film like I do, can you really say no?
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.