Rewatching John Carpenter's 1982 'The Thing': When special effects don't hold up
Like a lot of movie nuts, I love to watch movies more than once. It’s an experience that generally enhances the pleasure of what you saw the first time. But not always. One of the fascinating things about rewatching a movie that you haven’t seen for years is that the film in question may now look totally different — even though not a single frame of it has actually changed. What’s changed is you: your rhythm, your eye and your ear, your experience and sophistication. And, as much as that, the culture around you has changed, and that culture is part of your cell structure. It influences how you take things in. Which means that a movie, merely by standing still, really can change.
When the frozen-arctic shape-shifting horror thriller The Thing was released this past weekend, I thought it would be fun to go back and rewatch a movie I haven’t seen since it came out: John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing (the new version is officially billed as a prequel). It’s a movie that a lot of horror buffs love; at the time, I thought of it as close to an instant classic. I was never a big Carpenter fan (those three-note musical scores! those two-note characters!), but to me he staged The Thing with leaping tension and skill. The result was a finely carved B-movie pedestal for some visionary special effects. In the nearly 30 years since Carpenter’s The Thing was first released, I’ve never forgotten the amazing effect of those effects: the bodies and faces (of humans and dogs) splitting wide open, like overcooked tomatoes that had finally burst, sprouting tentacles that whipped around like angry spaghetti or shooting out spider legs that carried body parts along with a kind of kinky speed, plus disembodied heads looming up out of those carcasses — as I recalled, it was like Alien gone Little Shop of Horrors, with a touch of EC Comics that’s-so-sick-it’s-funny grossout madness.
At the time, I was so wild about the effects in The Thing that I did a feature for the Boston Phoenix about the bad-boy artist who created them: Rob Bottin, then just 23 years old, a protégé of Hollywood effects legend Rick Baker — and, when I interviewed him, a kind of doofy-naughty hippie kid, as hairy as one of the werewolves he’d created the year before for The Howling (his first hit). I still remember a story Bottin told me about how, not being very good at sports, he’d fantasize that someone would throw a softball at him…and that his head would open up and eat the softball. Now that’s some kind of monster.
I was all set to sit down and write a horror-nostalgia post about how much I loved Carpenter’s The Thing. But last week, I watched it again, and I discovered, to my movie-critic horror, that the film was no longer working for me. It’s not that it suddenly seemed badly made — though I do have to say, the premise made less sense than I remembered. The Thing, an alien life form, mimics and replicates the human body structure, like the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It stays cleverly hidden. But then those bodies burst open like bloody carnations with jaws. Why? No reason given. The bodies burst open because the movie has to put on a bloody good show.
That said, the real problem I had watching The Thing a second time is that the special effects, much as I’d originally found them awesome, now looked fake. (Sorry, fellow fans, but that’s the only word that seems apt.) The thing is: Why? As a critic, I’ve routinely decried the overuse of CGI, the too-smooth quasi-unreality of digital effects. I have always stood up for the powers of analog. Yet had my eye, in the ensuing years, grown accustomed, or even unconsciously addicted, to the too-easy virtuosity of CGI? Bottin’s baroque nightmare ultra-contraptions, beginning with a Siberian Husky whose face splits open, now looked transparently like the cleverly rigged machines they were. I could still appreciate what a prodigious imagination he had, but no matter how hard I tried to sit back and enjoy the grotesque ride, I could see the artifice. Everything looked wet — too wet. At the time, this was a novelty, a way of lending an organic ickiness to the kind of body-part horror that used to be done with overly pristine rubbery synthetics. But the novelty hadn’t aged well; everything was so moist it looked freshly painted. And don’t get me started on the goo! This was another innovation of the era, dating back to Alien, with its milky translucent gunk dripping out of sexualized membranes. But in The Thing, everything was slathered in goo. I practically expected to look to the side and see a big vat of it marked with something like “Acme Internal Organ Spunk.” It was, quite simply, too much of a good gross thing.
Okay, so technology marches forward, and special effects frequently don’t age well. This is hardly news. (It’s the basic story of watching old horror and sci-fi movies on TV.) But as I sat back on my couch, reeling in disappointment that The Thing no longer cast the spell that I had remembered, I started to wonder: Why did the effects in certain movies hold up? The obvious counterexample, in this case, is Alien. It was made in 1979, three years before The Thing, and far more than the stodgy (to me) 1951 version of The Thing, it was the real inspiration for the Carpenter remake. I’ve seen Alien a dozen times, and the effects, at least when that gnashing alien fetus pops out of John Hurt’s stomach, have never lost their power to shock and unsettle. Maybe it’s a matter of the director. Ridley Scott knew how to film the alien in subliminal flash cuts — whereas Carpenter, a prosaic low-style minimalist, showcased Bottin’s effects like old-fashioned production numbers, with nary a cut. Or maybe Bottin had almost too audacious a vision to execute with techniques derived from the Rick Baker inflatable-bladder school.
I’m tempted to simply say: One movie (Alien) makes you literally believe your eyes, and the other (The Thing) doesn’t. Then again, the extraordinary mystery of special effects — that is, which ones really stand the test of time, and which ones don’t — is even more complicated than that. Because we’ve all seen old movies in which the effects, in any rational-technological sense, look extremely dated, yet they still cast their original poetic spell. I’m thinking of the lap-dissolve man-to-werewolf transformations in The Wolfman, or the cheesy-cool beastly apocalyptic grandeur of Godzilla (a man in a rubber suit!), or even the now-slightly-archaic-looking lightsaber duels in Star Wars; George Lucas keeps trying to improve the effects in his space epic, yet the more he “improves” them, the more removed from their original magic those movies become.
And then, of course, there’s the granddaddy of Hollywood special-effects fantasies: the original King Kong, made in 1933. Nearly eighty years later, it is, of course, easy to see the seams — the herky-jerkyness — of its scale models animated through stop-motion imagery. Yet no movie has ever surpassed its primeval fairy-tale majesty. When you watch King Kong, you know that you’re watching special effects, yet the timeless enchantment of the movie is this: It doesn’t just get you to believe that a towering gorilla can move. Kong does more than move — he lives. Maybe that’s the real secret of the special effects that prove eternal: They find the soul of the machine.
So I have just one question: Has anyone had an experience similar to mine with The Thing, only with a different movie? Name a film whose special effects you originally loved — but when you went back to watch it again years later, the effects didn’t hold up.
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman