I always say John Carpenter needs to direct something else, something non-genre. A romantic comedy perhaps or a family drama. I guess it never occurred to me, but with The Thing, Carpenter is directing something else. It’s kind of too bad, his best film is the one–in some ways–least like his others. In The Thing, Carpenter maintains his exquisite (there’s really no other word for it) Panavision composition, but he introduces a couple new elements. First, the suspense angle. It could just be Ennio Morricone’s score, but Carpenter takes a far more Hitchcockian approach to suspense in The Thing than he’s done before or since. I watched the film with my wife, who’d seen some of it, but forgot the dog’s importance, so I watched it with that first time experience in the back of my head (I guess with The Thing, which I’ve only seen six or seven times, it’s still possible). Carpenter doesn’t offer any hints, just makes almost everything suspicious (except Kurt Russell–does that make him Jimmy Stewart?). That suspense goes on for over an hour, even after the story revelations, until the beautiful blood test scene.
The blood test scene is probably the best example of the second element (like the segue?). The quietness. The fade-outs. The Thing‘s script, just due to the limited locations, inevitably reminds of a play, but one with an excellent adaptation. Carpenter’s infrequent (I think there are around six) fade-outs, which sometimes emphasize, sometimes silence, are kind of peculiar for him. He’s not known for his gentleness, but with the exception of the special effects sequences and some (not all) of the arguments, The Thing is an incredible gentle film. In some respects, it’s even passive. This second element is the parts working for the whole–Carpenter’s composition, Dean Cundey’s photography, the script, Todd C. Ramsay’s editing–it all comes together in these parts and makes The Thing something different.
As for the actors, who I haven’t mentioned. The Thing is one of those perfectly cast films where it’s pointless to go through and list all the good actors because they’re all good. They’re all perfect, no one else could do a better job in the film’s roles. For Russell, it’s a solid leading man role, but one of those special leading man roles where he’s leading others. He manages to command attention, even though the character’s rather understated. Other singular performances, Richard Dysart, Keith David, Donald Moffat and Thomas G. Waites. Dysart has a lot of screen time in the beginning and is great for all of it. David’s–I have no idea what his job is in the film–a perfect foil for Russell. Moffat and Waites both have small outstanding moments in their otherwise good performances.
Carpenter’s made a lot of great films and he’s made a few of cinematic importance, but The Thing is the one of the greatest artistic importance. It’s something totally different (and totally ignored–I’ll never forget seeing it as a fourteen-year-old after reading Leonard Maltin’s one-and-a-half star dismissive capsule), not just from what Carpenter tends to make, but from Hollywood films and genre films as well. By not rambling on in exposition until the details make some kind of sense (I just discovered overexplain is not a real word), which is a serious genre pitfall, The Thing is sublime.
Directed by John Carpenter; screenplay by Bill Lancaster, based on novella by John W. Campbell Jr.; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Todd C. Ramsay; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, John J. Lloyd; produced by David Foster and Lawrence Turman; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Kurt Russell (MacReady), Wilford Brimley (Blair), T.K. Carter (Nauls), David Clennon (Palmer), Keith David (Childs), Richard Dysart (Copper), Charles Hallahan (Norris), Peter Maloney (Bennings), Richard Masur (Clark), Donald Moffat (Garry), Joel Polis (Fuchs) and Thomas G. Waites (Windows).