The Thing (theatrical release vs network television broadcast cut) (John Carpenter, 1982)
A crew of American researchers in a remote camp in Antarctica find themselves under attack by a deadly extraterrestrial life form (or disease, or parasite or something) released from a thousands of years deep freeze under the ice by some doomed Norwegian researchers, that they discover can absorb and consume each of them, one by one, assuming each identity as it goes. The crew realizes it has no choice but to kill it before it can finish them all off… and then move on to potentially consuming the entire world.
With my three 20-something nephews rolling through town for the weekend, my daughter and I agreed that, with that impressively large opening scene of the helicopter chasing the dog through those white mountain-y landscapes of its Antarctica setting (okay, it’s actually Alaska, but who’s to know?), shot in the director’s preferred epic cinemascope shooting format, the moody score (it’s credited to Ennio Morricone, but some of those simple drones overlaid by hypnotic beats sound an awful lot like a Carpenter score… hhmmm…. verrrrryyyy interesting…) and the way-ahead-of-their-time, mind-bending-even-for-today grue-strewn and fantasmagorically inspired flesh-melding special effects, there was no better film with which to impress them with their uncle’s projector set-up than John Carpenter’s (arguably, but not my much or many) true masterpiece, The Thing.
I mean, let’s be clear, Carpenter’s created a bunch of great, iconic films (and a recurring Shape named Michael Myers) that will live in the halls of horror history forever… but it’s the seriousness of his approach with The Thing that stands it apart from the rest of the considerable best of his output. I don’t mean it’s not above wallowing in the delicious frisson and gore of the genre – it does, gleefully! – but it’s in the perfectly placed fades to black, and the lingering on the thoughtful faces, and the confidence and intelligence to know when to leave words unspoken and hanging in the air, that reveals a maturity in storytelling that Carpenter had never surpassed before, and doubtfully ever will again (certainly not after the many years of dreck we’ve witnessed him churning out with depressingly little interest or regard in the last twenty years or so).
Something that stands out each time I go back is just how impressively directed the film is. Trying to provide interesting and vibrant orchestrations of the up to a dozen crew members at a time around the various small rooms, while carefully making sure to allow for the individual personality that each actor brings to his character (one nice actor-ly touch I’d never noticed before, but did this time thanks to the crisp blu ray transfer, is that Richard Dysart’s Doc Copper is wearing a nose ring!) could hurl any filmmaker into a life-threatening anxiety attack to the point of running off into the cold night in sheer terror. But Carpenter’s touch with the physical movement, as it is with the narrative flow, is practically flawless.
When the film came out and, as it was being mercilessly (and entirely undeservedly) shredded apart by foolish mainstream critics, I distinctly remember Roger Ebert on his “At the Movies” review show complaining to his co-hort Gene Siskel that you couldn’t tell the various characters apart. Well… I don’t know what movie he was watching, but the casting in this film is just about perfect, with each actor bringing just the right color to his character; never going too broad to seem unreal, yet not too complex either, which would unnecessarily emotionally muck things up against the other actors. The casting is so right, in fact, it’s hard to imagine there wasn’t a bit of happy accident mixed in with intelligent choices (and gotta mention that main dog who brings the initial death to the camp… it is simply astounding, delivering such a sense of stillness and control you can almost hear it thinking at times… ).
There’s an early moment in the film that really speaks to the, I dare say, unusual deeper resonance that the director reaches for with the film, in which initial camp manager Garry (played by long-time brilliant character actor Donald Moffett, whose character quickly gets supplanted in the leadership role by Carpenter’s preferred modern day anti-authoritarian cowboy hero Kurt Russell) is forced to shoot a crazed Norwegian pilot who has shown up at the camp desperately trying to kill the aforementioned dog and anyone who gets in the way. Carpenter spends just an extra beat with Garry, showing us the terrible reality that Garry experiences having just killed someone. He quickly recovers, but just that quick focus on that emotional moment, as subtle as it is, provides added weight to the experience of the film.
It’s a monster movie generically called The Thing, as if the creature is a single entity, and yet, ironically, there is really no single ‘monster’ in the film (as many times as I’ve seen it – and it’s been a lot — I’ve never really been quite sure how this creature, or creatures, or series of destructive cells, operates… or what it actually is… or if it even has a central intelligence? I mean, why does Blair at the end suddenly turn into, assuming it’s even him, this tentacle lathered all-tooth face creature with dogs growing out of him? And why does Norris do this slow transformation, when it seems like everyone else gets transformed real fast? And why do the post-taken over humans keep leaving their tattered clothes around?)
It’s not a killer car, or a boogeyman, or a vampire, or goth star from Mars, as in other Carpenter films, bur rather a nebulous, shifting threat; an existential one. With its ability to take over its unwilling hosts and rip them to shreds and twist them into all sorts of untenable shapes, it represents a state of abjection. In this way, the ‘Thing’ is a creation more akin to the perverse heady musings of David Cronenberg than it is related to the grounded, lesser intellectual pleasures of Carpenter. It’s a representation of the anxieties of our body rebelling against us with disease and aging… with no presence of a human soul speaking to the existence of angels to take comfort in; there’s only (rending, transmogrifying) flesh.
It’s not a surprise that the first sensationalistic images of grue we see aren’t of the audacious Rob Bottin variety that the film is deservedly known for, but instead real ones – squishy organs being removed, with the camera fetishistically studying them like it’s all a good gore gag — by Blair (Wilford Brimley, delivering as good a performance as the rest), pulling them from the seemingly dead ameboid alien form and describing them as ‘what appears to be a normal set of human organs’. They are normal. And that’s the horror. This is surprisingly deep stuff for Carpenter. And it really works.
The ending — with the two surviving alpha males, talking tough and swigging the last bit of whiskey like heroic genre figures, with the darkness and nihilism (and the final reprise of the deliberate beats of the Carpenter – uh, oops, I mean, Morricone, of course — score) encroaching in around them – brings it to a close on a perfect note.
And the movie (and the projector system) was a big hit with the nephews.
One of the extras on the impressively jam-packed Scream Factory blu ray was a VHS quality version of the network television cut of the film so, on the next night (post-nephew visit), in the interest of checking out how the television execs went about dealing with (and snipping away at) the plethora of flesh-churning and body-opening effects work that so defined this film (especially in the far more innocent and highly edited network-television landscape of the 80’s), I decided to do something that I generally never did back in the day, deliberately, on moral grounds – that is, watching a broadcast television edit of a theatrical film. And, of course, the movie loses a lot.
Along with the terribly frustrating (especially having watched it in the correct aspect ratio just the night before) pan-and-scan 1.33 cropping that reduces the impact of so much of Carpenter’s carefully composed shots (as well as the grandiose sense of the proceedings), the usual revising of naughty language also isn’t done with much inspiration; for instance, Childs original line about “voodoo bullshit” becomes the relatively inept “voodoo bullstuff” – not a particularly creative solution, I dare say, for an editing field that while being clearly offensive to the original artist’s work, can still admittedly offer all sorts of entertaining possibilities (just look at the television edit of Brian De Palma’s Scarface, where endlessly foul-mouthed Tony Montana’s “This city is like a woman that hasn’t been in fucked in weeks” becomes “This city is like a chicken that hasn’t been plucked in weeks” for some inspired choices by whoever is in charge of doing these rewrites).
A full 12 minutes are cut from the running time to fit into the two-hour television time slot (knocking the film down to 90 minutes, to go with the commercials) and the impact is fairly drastic. Along with full scenes, heads and tails are cut everywhere, moving the story along faster, but effectively muting the mood drenched atmosphere, and the lingering on the cold solitary environment that are such an important part of the film’s power.
No surprise, there’s a tremendous amount of cutting around much of the centerpiece FX-set pieces… scenes like the original dog exploding outward in the dog kennel and attacking the poor other mutts and, of course, the infamous and incredible chest-with-teeth moment (with the unforgettable head melting off and growing legs and antenna is gone entirely). However, I must admit… even cut down (and cropped) as they are, there’s a frenetic quality that Carpenter captured that, even seeing so much less, these scenes still manage to be effective… they likely just would never have become as iconic if they were originally presented like this (I mean, come on… those incredible effects just have to be seen!).
There’s also seem really off-putting creative decisions that come with the television cut that there is simply no way John Carpenter (or really any creative personnel) had anything to do with; for instance the inclusion of an intermittent, bland-voiced omniscient narrator (introduced, no less, in cinematically verboten fashion – as we see the opening story credit ‘Antarctica, Winter, 1982’, the guy somberly intones the very words, breaking the standard rule that you don’t use voiceover to say exactly what you see on screen). The fact that the narrator goes on to soberly state the name and a completely unnecessary brief history for each of the characters (whenever there’s a convenient close up) makes me wonder if the execs hadn’t taken to heart influential critic Ebert’s (off-base) criticism of getting lost in all the characters. The narrator even provides a final coda, a brief closing warning, straight out of a 1950’s horror film and the time of the hysteria of the red scare, not only comforting us with the existence of God, but warning us to be on the look out for threats, that I guess could have been fun in a nostalgic way, but ends up diluting the quiet perfection of the original’s nihilistic ending.
There are also other cuts that are stranger, making little sense, such as the moment the newly revealed monstrous Palmer, burning up in flames and transforming, bursts out of the shelter and into the snow, where MacReady hurries out and throws a grenade after him, blowing him/it to smithereens… well, the television cut unaccountably gets rid of the Russell character hurling the explosive… so Palmer now just suddenly blows up! It seems a decision based upon pure disrespect for a genre audience (‘ah, they’ll enjoy anything… as long as it blows up!’).
Saying that, even with the cropping, the radical cutting down for time and gore and the strange disrespectful editing choices (and I didn’t even mention the odd occasional random-seeming use of a different shot than the theatrical – for instance, a single two shot during a conversation between two characters rather than back-and-forth over the shoulder shots), the film still kinda works. The inherent power of the performances, the direction, and the fascinating thing creation itself, still manage to push through. Though I don’t suggest watching your favourite movies like this. Ever.