What has happened to cinematic paranoia? Back in the 1950s, audiences just couldn't get enough of mad scientists, alien invaders and government experiments run amok -- all potent allegories for the national's Red Scare politics and fears of imminent nuclear destruction. But flash-forward to the early 1980s: with the Cold War about to end and Ronald Reagan in the White House, America just wasn't interested in bug-eyed aliens anymore. Witness the chilly reception afforded to John Carpenter's big-budget remake of Howard Hawk's classic slice of 1950s paranoia, 'The Thing.'
Returning to the original Joseph Campbell short story "Who Goes There?", Carpenter ditched most of what made Hawk's classic fun but ultimately cheesy. Working with screenwriter Bill Lancaster, Carpenter conjured a creature that was a shape-shifter, a phantom from outer space that could look like anyone at any time. Who are your friends? Who can you trust? The film is unremittingly grim and oppressive, and the location chilly. A team of arctic researchers accidentally thaw out an odd-looking spaceship and unknowingly offer refuge to the alien visitor after it assimilates the form of an Alaskan husky. Communication breaks down as the men, led by the take-charge, laconic MacReady (Kurt Russell), are unsure of who is human and who is the Thing, and fall prey to the worst of human instincts. You can't blame a Thing for being without remorse and conscience. But can you blame a human?
'The Thing' was ideal material for Carpenter, a filmmaker of great skill but with little patience for pretension and sentimentality. He revels in the breakdown of idealism and communication. The ending, which some called nihilistic, is cynical and calculated. But 'The Thing' works so effectively because it preys on one of our most basic fears -- our body in revolt against itself. It is also one of the most purely visceral and downright disgusting mainstream horror movies ever made. The awe-inspiring effects Carpenter unleashes -- designed by makeup wunderkind Rob Bottin -- pulsate, ooze and slither, so grotesque and imaginative they achieve a surreal blend of the horrific and beautiful. Not since 'ALIEN' had an otherworldly menace been so breathtaking.
'The Thing' had the unfortunate luck of being released just a week after the arrival of another, far more cuddly alien, 'E.T.', and audiences and critics alike stayed away in droves. Carpenter was vilified for wallowing in graphic violence and failing to find the heart and humanity in his characters. But 'The Thing' has become the prototypical example of a film rescued by home video. (It remains one of Universal's top-selling catalog DVDs.) It is a bona fide cult phenomenon and now stands as one of Carpenter's most highly regarded and respected works. Its pioneering special effects and relentless sense of doom and dread still pack a wallop. Just don't watch it after you eat.
Universal produced a fine 1080p/VC-1 transfer for the 2006 HD DVD release of 'The Thing,' and they don't mess with the formula here. We get that same master once again on Blu-ray, and also again in VC-1, though this time it's been re-encoded and spread across a BD-25 single-layer disc. There are no appreciable differences with the previous HD DVD, and this remains the best presentation of 'The Thing' available on video.
As a long-time fan of 'The Thing' -- one who has owned the film on every format imaginable, including VHS, Laserdisc, DVD -- I could tell right away with the previous HD DVD that the same source minted for the DVD was used again. Right from the first scene, I immediately recognized the position of speckles and blemishes, and sure enough, whipping out my old DVD for a compare the source material appears identical. Regardless, the original master is still in very good shape with only occasional dropouts and a bit of heavy dirt and grain during optical matte shots, but otherwise this is a pretty clean source.
That said, other aspects of the transfer are also well up to snuff. 'The Thing' has always seemed like a somber film full of overcast, wintery exteriors and grim, moody interiors, enlivened only by a few sporadic flashes of color. This Blu-ray will continue to dispel that notion, as the Blu-ray offers an appreciable upgrade in terms of richness and purity of color. Most impressive are the deep blues of the nighttime scenes, and the various putrid greens, yellows and oozy oranges of the Thing. (And don't forget the blood...) Color saturation is significantly improved here over the standard-def DVD, and I simply saw the film in a whole new light. Even better, there's no trade-off -- chroma noise and bleeding are not a problem.
Blacks are also deep throughout, and contrast generally consistent across the entire grayscale. Shadow delineation is above average for an older title, with the film's very dark second half never falling into murkiness or imperceptibility. Lastly, detail and depth are also very good. Perhaps a bit soft by modern standards, 'The Thing' still looks sharp enough. Many scenes in the film boast a sense of three-dimensionality superior to what I've seen before, such as when the crew first travels to the Norwegian compound. The level of depth and increased detail in these sequences was a treat for a longtime fan of the film like me. I remain quite pleased with 'The Thing' on Blu-ray.
The audio on the HD DVD of 'The Thing' was offered in Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround audio. Universal has bumped up the Blu-ray with a DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/16-bit). Aside from being noticeably louder, once the track is level-matched it reveals only a slight -- if welcome -- sonic boost.
The sound design of 'The Thing' still isn't that active. Surround use is typical of a film of its vintage, i.e., practically non-existent. There's the occasional rear effect, such as helicopter fly-overs (my favorite is the well-placed musical stinger when Fuchs is alone in his office late at night, and some thing walks in the shadows behind him), but other than the rare jolt this is a front-heavy mix.
The timbre and tonality of sounds is also dated. ADR'd dialogue is sometimes obvious, and mid-range in particular sounds a bit hollow. The DTS-MA does give a boost to high-end, however, which sounds somewhat brighter and more forceful than before. Low bass also extends slightly lower, particularly on Ennio Morricone's electronic score, which here sounds better than ever. I also struggled less with my volume control, as dialogue is balanced nicely here. 'The Thing's soundtrack still sounds like a product of its era, but this DTS-MA track is certainly the best presentation yet of the film on video.
Here's a weird one. Universal has -- for whatever reason -- dropped most of the extras that graced the DVD and HD DVD versions of 'The Thing' from this Blu-ray. The only supplement that remains untouched is the audio commentary. To be fair, Universal has repurposed the previous releases' main documentary into a Blu-ray-exclusive picture-in-picture track, but there are still a number of cool materials (rare effects footage, a still gallery) that are missing here. Such omissions really are not acceptable on a next-gen title, as fans who have bought 'The Thing' countless times already really deserve a Blu-ray that is all-inclusive. Tsk tsk, Universal.
Despite bombing at the box office, 'The Thing' has become the true definition of a cult classic. Unfortunately, while this Blu-ray delivers fine video and audio, the supplements have been shorn from previous releases. This is far from a set for completists, so those owning the previous DVD and HD DVD versions would do well to hold on to their copies. This Blu-ray is still a good value overall for the money (particularly if you don't care about extras), but it's not all it could have been.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.