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The Thing Blu-ray Review

From the slow-burning tension of Halloween to the offbeat supernatural action/comedy of Big Trouble in Little China, John Carpenter produced films that masterfully traversed the full range of horror and suspense. His “The Thing” is a prime example of this period, and stands as one of the filmmaker’s crowning achievements. The movie is led by Kurt Russell and is a remake of Howard Hawk’s The Thing From Another World (1951), which itself was based on the time-honored novella, “Who Goes There?” (1938). The premise shared by all three works is that of a group of scientific researchers in a remote, frozen location who encounter a hostile alien entity. Carpenter dropped the political overtones (playing off the paranoia of the Cold War) from the previous adaptation but carried over the isolated setting (moving it from the North to the South Pole where the novella was set) while ramping up the level of tense anticipation.

Playing off the suspense theme of his previous masterpiece Halloween, Carpenter takes the motif a step further in The Thing. Though a revered horror classic, Halloween really does not have that much onscreen action. It works thanks in large part to the nerve-rattling escalation of apprehension that is much more effective than the cheap thrills of modern hack ‘n’ slash flicks. The Thing includes much of this type of buildup but also incorporates the ever-increasing suspicions as to who has been compromised by the alien intruder. As trust breaks down and accusations rise between members of the research outpost, Carpenter creates a taunt psychological effect akin to that of a “who done it” thriller, and references Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None as inspiration.

The director also went back to the originating short story to bring out the focus of “the Thing’s” ability to mimic the form of the organisms it kills, which was absent from Hawk’s adaptation. In doing so, he plays into the aforementioned suspense/paranoia and was able to introduce a potentially disturbing level of gore. A strong stomach is required for many of the scenes when the creature shape shifts (the scene in the dog pen unnerves me to this day) but having minimized or toned down the level of gruesomeness would have weakened the terror value of the film. The unsettling special effects work done by Rob Bottin predates CGI and is hard to imagine being any more effective with computer graphics.

I have watched The Thing at least once a year for the last two decades and saw it six months before viewing for this review. It is a testament to the movie that knowing exactly what would transpire, I still found myself anxious with anticipation and caught myself on a few occasions tightly gripping my chair’s armrest. Though it appears Carpenter may have lost his way in that he has not produced any recent movies of his late ’70’s and ’80’s work’s caliber, what he created in The Thing is a horror classic that still stands as one of the best examples of the genre in its blend of gruesome effects, claustrophobic suspense and nerve-racking terror.

The Thing makes its Blu-ray debut with a VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer that appears to be from the same source used for its HD DVD incarnation. Considering the stellar video on that release, why mess with something that is not broken? If you have only experienced Carpenter’s masterpiece on standard definition DVD, be prepared to be impressed. Though many 1980’s catalog titles have suffered in high definition from less than adequate source materials, The Thing shines in Blu-ray. The main defect of the transfer is minimal dirt on the print and rare grain spikes. However, these are so insignificant compared to the splendor of the overall visuals that they will probably go unnoticed. This is a prime example of how high definition can bring the best out in any movie, whether 26 years or 6 months old, and I cannot imagine The Thing looked any better when playing theatrically.

The numerous standard definition DVD releases did not have much to work with in the bleak arctic backdrop and drab barrack-like living quarters providing less visual dazzle than one might hope for. This high-def presentation corrects that with stunning results. Outdoor daytime scenes provide crisp detail and show a light bluish tint to the snow, and night shots that previously were uninspiring are now bathed in deep blue light. The physical variations of “the Thing” are maximized in all their gory detail with a conglomeration of well-saturated colors combining to make the creature more disgusting than ever. Skin tones, though a bit pale (understandable due to the context of the arctic locale), are very natural looking, and the often-present blood and fire have a deep crimson or golden tint respectively.

Considering a large part of the movie transpires in dark or dimly lit locales, shadow delineation never falters. Contrast is excellent and not just for “a film of its age.” Though not razor sharp, the transfer presents a very natural film-like appearance with an appropriate amount of grain, which as previously mentioned has minor moments where it is heavier than desired. Detail and clarity are excellent throughout, and many scenes provide an impressive amount of depth to the image.

What is pleasantly surprisingly is how well the special effects by Rob Bottin (with supplemental work from legendary FX artist Stan Winston) hold up in HD. Not only have they stood the test of time in feeling congruous with the creepy ambience of the movie, but the improved color, detail and clarity of Blu-ray only make them that much more disturbingly effective. While the infrequent matte shots are a bit more noticeable in high-def, they still work fine. Digital effects purists may find reason to gripe, but I do not think this movie would be improved by spit-shined CGI or the use of blue screen backgrounds. This is a thoroughly superb video presentation.

The HD DVD only provided a lossy English Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that has been upgraded to a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track for Blu-ray. In a quick comparison between the two, the lossless track shows better fidelity and deeper response on the high and low ends. However, the difference while noticeable is not so stunning as to make owners of the HD DVD need to immediately run out and upgrade. Also included is a French DTS 5.1 track and subtitles in English SDH, Spanish and French.

Upon its original release, the Thing had a 6-track audio mix done in conjunction with 70mm prints available in limited distribution while the majority of theaters showed a 35mm print with Dolby stereo sound. I do not know which of these sources was used for this DTS-HD mix, but the results are very effective for a film over 25 years old. While it does not sport audio as dynamic as that of many modern blockbusters, a good range of sound and decent separation between channels is provided.

Dialogue is anchored in the center channel with minimal duplication for support in the front and rears. The soundtrack is very effective detailing gunshots/explosions, the panning effect across the surround setup following the helicopter in the opening scenes and the disturbing noises emanating from the creature. To compliment the action, renowned Italian composer Ennio Morricone’s (Serge Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, The Untouchables) tense score is given here in a resounding reproduction. The synthesizer-driven opening theme (very similar to many of Carpenter’s self penned scores) sets the mood for the film with deep, ominous bass-driven chords. All in all, this is a very good audio track to support the distinctive visuals and tone of the movie.

Previous home video incarnations had several extras that are not ported over to this Blu-ray release. We do get the excellent audio commentary and a flawed variation of the superb documentary (more on that in a bit) but dropped are the theatrical trailer, outtakes, storyboards/conceptual art and behind the scenes photos. While the outstanding visuals and audio are enough to make this an easy purchase, it is not acceptable that “next-gen” releases sport fewer and not more extras than their standard definition predecessors.

The Audio Commentary from John Carpenter and Kurt Russell was recorded for the 1998 DVD and is a prime example of how to balance the extremes of what this type of feature can entail. Many commentaries are deeply informative but at the expense of being accessible to casual fans and possibly so dry to deter even hardcore enthusiasts. Others are more fun and enjoyable but provide little or no background detail, and exist to allow fans to watch while listening to the participants joke and talk over the movie. Here these two longtime friends spend a good bit of time joking and reminiscing but in the process provide interesting details behind their involvement in the production of the movie. This is one of the better commentaries available that I am always happy to revisit and spend as much time laughing as learning.

Previous DVD and the HD DVD release contained an 80-minute documentary entitled “John Carpenter’s The Thing: Terror Takes Shape.” This is an extraordinarily detailed behind the scenes look at the movie that covers most anything you’d want to know about it. It contains interviews with the director, cast and crew and touches upon inspiration for the story, shooting locales, special effects, conceptual drawings and many anecdotes from the production of the film.

Universal, in what may be becoming a trend based on other recent catalog titles, has segmented the documentary into a U-Control feature (profile 1.1 player required). While this Picture-in-Picture “commentary” has worked well where it was created for the particular movie, in this case it suffers. It appears a good bit of the original documentary was included but is so randomly placed throughout the movie that you lose any benefit of context. Some of the segments have little or no relation to what is transpiring in the movie and make it pointless to have to watch the chopped up scenes in a small window. To make it worse, while the special features menu will show you which scenes have this functionality, there is no way to tell what each segment contains so you’re forced to arbitrarily make your way through the choices if you’re not willing to watch the whole movie with the U-Control functionality enabled.

John Carpenter’s The Thing is a true horror classic that has stood the test of time in storytelling, atmosphere and special effects. It has never looked or sounded better than in this Blu-ray release from Universal. While the commentary from Carpenter/Russell is as enjoyable as ever, the studio’s use of the previously included documentary as a U-Control feature was a bad decision that appears to capitalize on the Blu-ray technology at the expense of the content. Fans of the movie only owning the standard definition DVD will welcome this into their high-def collection for the upgraded sound and video, but will want to keep their DVD for the documentary in its original form and other omitted extras. Those who own the HD DVD will be hard pressed to find a reason to upgrade unless they just have to have the lossless audio.

Buy The Thing on Blu-ray

Score: 8.7
This true horror classic has withstood the test of time from an A/V perspective, but the omission of some key bonus material is a head-scratcher.

— Robert Searle

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