Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Making Monsters #28: The Thing

The subject of makeup effects in The Thing is probably enough to fill a book. The 1982 remake of the Christian Nyby film and, especially, the John W. Campbell novella "Who Goes There?" that was the basis for both films was lambasted by critics when it was released and died a quick death at the box office. It was the summer of E.T. and, as John Carpenter has noted more than once, Spielberg's film had an alien that made the world cry, and his was the alien that made people throw up. Three decades later, The Thing is generally regarded as a masterpiece of suspense, one of the best sci-fi movies of all time and a landmark in special makeup effects. Carpenter elected to return to Campbell's concept of the alien as a shape-shifter and encouraged makeup effects artist Rob Bottin to run with it. Bottin, then 22 (boy, do I feel lazy), and his team of artists and technicians used every trick in the book - prosthetics, hydraulics, pneumatics, radio controls, reverse photography and buckets of K-Y Jelly - to bring to life a creature that imitates its prey on a molecular level before killing them and, in each of its incarnations, takes on the grotesquely distorted characteristics of its current host and every previous one. Bottin's creature designs are expressionistic and highly imaginative, with each seemingly topping the previous one, and they're an enormous compliment to the themes of distrust and paranoia that Carpenter carefully weaves through the film.

The showstopping sequence, for me, occurs about halfway through the film, when Norris (Charles Hallahan) collapses of an apparent heart attack and Copper (Richard Dysart) attempts to revive him. As our attention drifts to the action on the other side of the room in one of the film's several excellent moments of misdirection, Copper's hands suddenly burst through Norris' torso, revealing two rows of very big teeth that close in on Copper's hands like a bear trap. All hell breaks loose, culminating in Norris' head stretching off of his body, sprouting spider-like legs and provoking one of the best lines in this or any movie. To sell the effect, a double amputee was cast to stand in for Dysart, and Norris' torso was built to close with enough force that it would sever the prosthetic arms. It's amazing to consider that moment and everything that happens next - the second form of The Thing that explodes from the hole in Norris' body, the transformation of Norris' head - was all accomplished in-camera and sold through the meticulous, detailed work of Bottin and his team, as well as cinematographer Dean Cundey's brilliant cinematography (which shows us everything but the seams of the effect) and the disturbing, otherworldly sound design. While it's true that suggestion is the most powerful tool a horror director has, if you can show everything as effectively as Carpenter did in The Thing, than go for it.

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