Move over E.T., extraterrestrials are about to get gruesome. The first reviews for John Carpenter‘s alien invasion horror film are out, and they’re as brutal as the film’s titular alien parasite. The Thing follows a group of men stationed at a remote research facility in Antarctica who encounter a shape-shifting extraterrestrial that can replicate the form of whoever it kills. Sounds great, but Carpenter’s remake of Howard Hawks‘ 1951 film The Thing from Another World has earned scathing reviews from a number of high-profile critics for being a shallow gorefest.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times calls the film “instant junk,” describing it as:
“a foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is fun as neither one thing or the other. Sometimes it looks as if it aspired to be the quintessential moron movie of the 80’s – a virtually storyless feature composed of lots of laboratory-concocted special effects, with the actors used merely as props to be hacked, slashed, disemboweled and decapitated, finally to be eaten and then regurgitated as – guess what? – more laboratory-concocted special effects.”
Roger Ebert, while not quite as harsh, reductively calls The Thing “a gross-out movie”, and agrees that Carpenter should have spent more time on the story:
“it seems clear that Carpenter made his choice early on to concentrate on the special effects and the technology and to allow the story and people to become secondary.”
David Ansen of Newsweek says Carpenter “blows it”:
“There’s a big difference between shock effects and suspense, and in sacrificing everything at the altar of gore, Carpenter sabotages the drama. The Thing is so single-mindedly determined to keep you awake that it almost puts you to sleep.”
If there’s one thing critics agree on, it’s that 22-year old special effects whiz Rob Bottin, who previously designed the knockout werewolf transformation in Joe Dante’s The Howling, delivers scene-stealing, state-of-the-art special effects. So much so that Ansen says, “Even the star, Kurt Russell, has to play second fiddle to the special effects.” So just how intense are Bottin’s creature creations?
From what we’re hearing, they sound absolutely insane. Canby describes:
“It’s entertaining only if one’s needs are met by such sights as those of a head walking around on spiderlike legs; autopsies on dogs and humans in which the innards explode to take on other, not easily identifiable forms; hand severings, immolations, wormlike tentacles that emerge from the mouth of a severed head, or two or more burned bodies fused together to look like spareribs covered with barbecue sauce.”
Richard Schickel of Time Magazine says:
“When it invades a body, a man’s guts may open and snap shut, taking a bystander’s hands off in the process. Or a head may come loose, sprout insect legs and toddle off across the floor.”
In Ebert’s estimation, these wild effects are not enough to save the film:
“There’s no need to see this version unless you are interested in what the Thing might look like while starting from anonymous greasy organs extruding giant crab legs and transmuting itself into a dog. Amazingly, I’ll bet that thousands, if not millions, of moviegoers are interested in seeing just that.”
He’s right. I absolutely am interested in seeing just that. All the things they’re describing as a negative, sound awesome. As is often the case with horror movie reviews, I just can’t help but wonder what kind of movie the critics thought they were in for. Everything we’ve seen from the film, including the trailer and the excellent tagline “Man is the warmest place to hide”, indicates a thrilling, action-packed fright show. Carpenter has proven himself a master of horror – from pacing to photography to soundtrack – his previous efforts Halloween and The Fog hit every mark. His action thrillers Assault on Prescient 13 and Escape From New York have also met critical and box office success. So did Carpenter really drop the ball with The Thing? Only time will tell.