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The Thing At 35: Lasting impressions of the ultimate in alien terror

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Jun 25, 2017

Every time I write about John Carpenter's masterpiece of modern sci-fi horror, The Thing, I feel the need to pop on an R.J. MacReady "Campaign Hat" and play a game of computer chess while drinking Scotch. The Thing celebrates its 35th birthday this Sunday, rolling out in theaters alongside Blade Runner in the wake of Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and terrorizing audiences with its stylish concoction of old-school frights and modern practical effects.

No movie in recent times has steadily gained as much respect and admiration as what I believe to be Carpenter's finest film (sorry, Halloween) and one of the director's personal favorites. Chronicling the wicked wintry events at U.S. Outpost 31 in Antarctica, it's a perfect synthesis of tone, a sharp screenplay, killer effects by a young Rob Bottin, an amazing cast with affecting performances, and an absorbing musical score by the incomparable Ennio Morricone.

Released on June 25, 1982, it was written by Bill Lancaster and adapted from one of the greatest sci-fi novellas of all time, "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell. Actually a much more faithful version of the story than the 1951 Howard Hawks-produced, Christian Nyby-directed version, it showcased some jaw-dropping creature transformation sequences and was shot by cinematographer Dean Cundey (Halloween, Jurassic Park) in breathtaking 70mm with booming 6-track stereophonic sound.

I was an Iron Maiden-loving, headbanging teen punk when I first absorbed the film at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, and I still own the souvenir theater button of Drew Struzan's spectacular movie poster handed out by management.

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We already took you on a nostalgic trip back to the doomed outpost last week with our special effects tribute and interviews with cast and crew; now here are my impressions of the movie after dozens of rapt viewings.

A sparkling new 2K Blu-ray Special Edition was just released for you to become more intimately acquainted with the dread-filled gem, but here are five reasons why I believe The Thing endures.

The opening title sequence of the alien saucer banking into Earth's atmosphere 100,000 years ago is only a momentary introduction before the iconic titles flare across the screen. but it makes a dramatic impact on our senses. It's a sliver of advanced technology (built by model maker Susan Turner) diving toward our Big Blue Marble for 11 seconds, quite beautiful in its circular simplicity, wobbling out of control with 144 emergency lights strobing.

The interstellar ride is perhaps one of the most unsung spaceships in sci-fi history, made even more exceptional due to the brevity of the flight. This short glimpse we're offered is more than a tantalizing tidbit of the geeky goodness to come. The elegant transportation device delivers the extraterrestrial visitor onto the barren icefields of the Seventh Continent where it crashes, its pilot escaping in a true form we're never made aware of, as Blair's stolen notebook concludes it "could have imitated a million life-forms on a million planets."

The Norwegians discovered it first and blew it up with thermite charges (dummies!), so the only other shot we're given of the spaceship is after MacReady and company stand atop its alien alloy, revealing the severe damage it sustained in the intentional explosion and a wide-open main hatch. Somebody or something built that beautiful hunk of alien machinery, and I wanna know where and who!!

Oh, and you can by a sweet 1/350-scale model kit of the UFO HERE.

The agonizing wail of the Bennings monster before it's soaked in kerosene, with hands transformed into hideous red crustacean-like claws. Tossing its head back in a mournful manner, the Bennings beast accepts its fate as it kneels in supplication while MacReady and crew light flares to make a flickering perimeter around the mutating creature. The flammable liquid ignites and it's engulfed in a roaring inferno; the monster wriggles and howls in unholy protest as the fires illuminate the surrounding ice pack. A shocking moment that leaves viewers gulping down some sub-zero air.

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Wilford Brimley's grandfatherly pitchman for Quaker Oats is not the actor's best role, it's Blair! After the cranky biologist goes berserk following a computer simulation showing the entire world population will be infected within 27,000 hours if the intruder organism accesses civilization, he's banished to the tool shed and locked inside.

MacReady, Garry and Nauls go back to test his blood and find him missing from the small confines of the elevated steel hut. A tunnel has been gouged into the ice below the shed, where they discover this awesome little one-man (or one-creature) saucer under construction, cleverly pieced together from salvaged parts from the helicopter, snow tractor and parts scattered around the compound. He's obviously no longer the gruff old Blair! How it was going to launch from inside an ice cavern I don't know, but I sure dig that tiny UFO.

Also love MacReady's deadpan delivery of his line when he first sees the miniature DIY craft, declaring that it "Looks like Blair's been busy down here all by himself."

I can't say enough about the legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone's haunting, unsettling score! Until recently, when companies have remastered it on premium vinyl, it was extremely hard to find on CD in its original 1982 release version and usually only available as an import. I had to pay a steep $46 from Music Millennium in Portland a few years ago, but it was well worth it.

Each stirring track perfectly captures the tense claustrophobia of the base, the extreme frigid conditions at the bottom of the Earth, and the film's disturbing encounters with the savage shape-shifting alien. Morricone, a veteran of Hollywood films, created the magnificent music for the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, The Mission, The Untouchables and Days of Heaven. Much of the orchestral music Morricone wrote for Carpenter never made it into the movie and was only found on a previously out-of-print soundtrack. When Quentin Tarantino finished filming The Hateful Eight in 2015 he needed a score in less than a month.

Unable to complete an entire soundtrack in such little time, Morricone offered up his unused music written originally for The Thing, along with 25 minutes of new music, which technically allowed for it to be nominated and win an Academy Award in 2016. Carpenter only used a fraction of the tracks in the film, most memorably the thumping electronic title theme. The melodies are still strident, with a hint of minimalist menace that sinks deep into your marrow. Pick up the score if you get a chance and give it a spin!!

The hot needle scene is a fan favorite and for very good reason. It sets up an intense sequence where blood samples are taken of each of the base's paranoid team. The petri dishes of blood are then tested with a copper wire heated with the nozzle of a flamethrower. One by one they're tested to see if their blood is contaminated, with Garry remaining on the couch tied up after his blood proves to be clean. His intensifying request to be released is hilarious and is a perfect release from the harrowing situation. This always got the biggest laugh in the theaters, and actor Donald Moffat nails the moment.

What are some of your favorite scenes from this John Carpenter classic?

Oh, and we also spoke with Keith David, Larry J. Franco and Dean Cundey about The Thing. Like, quite a bit. Watch below.