The Weekend Rent: A 'Thing' or Two by John Carpenter

The Weekend Rent: A 'Thing' or Two by John Carpenter

Oct 14, 2011

Critics are conditioned to pan horror films—doing so allows them to think they are on the moral high ground and shows readers that they prefer to cover "important" award-begging films with loftier intentions during Oscar season—so pay no attention to what any of them say about this weekend's outstanding The Thing. Even though it shares the same name with the 1982 film by John Carpenter, this new The Thing is actually a prequel—and reverent homage—to Carpenter's classic that blends seamlessly into the opening sequence of the 1982 movie in which a lone husky is running over a barren Antarctic landscape and being shot at from a helicopter. In the new The Thing, Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as paleontologist Dr. Kate Lloyd who is summoned to a remote Antarctic station to examine a large alien specimen exhumed from the ice by a Norwegian team. To her horror, she soon discovers that this alien is capable of mimicking any organism it comes into contact with, which causes paranoia to escalate within the small base they all are trapped inside.

The 2011 prequel The Thing deals with the same "Thing" as John Carpenter's movie, which is one of the reasons director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. kept similar elements such as the eerie tone, minimalist score and outrageous effects of an amorphous alien. The original movie starring Kurt Russell was also dismissed by critics upon its initial release, but now is considered one of Carpenter's finest films and a genre classic by fickle critics who employ a revisionist approach to movie history when it is convenient. Before you see the prequel, check out the original The Thing on DVD, Blu-ray or via streaming on Netflix.

Van Heijningen Jr. does such an incredible job of mimicking Carpenter's style that it seems like a perfect time to revisit Carpenter's unmistakable oeuvre. It's almost Halloween, and the best cinematic treat for the season has always been Carpenter's 1978 classic Halloween starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance that introduced the world to the unstoppable white-masked killer Michael Myers and tenacious survivor Laurie Strode. The stylish, scary movie spawned countless sequels, cheap imitators and a remake by Rob Zombie. Also remade terribly in 2005 was the chilling 1980 ghost story The Fog, which brought two generations of scream queens together: Jamie Lee Curtis and her mother, Psycho star Janet Leigh. Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 about a group in an abandoned police station under attack by a vicious street gang was also remade in 2005, but this time with better results.

Carpenter was on a roll in the '80s and produced some of his best work during the Reagan era. In Escape from New York, Kurt Russell plays convicted bank robber Snake Plissken who is sent into the prison zone of New York City to rescue the president. Russell reprised the role in 1996's Escape from L.A., a campier but forgivable fun adventure. Also in the '80s was Carpenter's chilling big-screen adaptation of Stephen King's Christine about a killer car, more Russell in Big Trouble in Little China, the supernatural thriller Prince of Darkness about a group's attempt to keep Satan from crossing over into our world and They Live, in which one man wakes up to the realization that the world is controlled by hostile aliens that look just like us. Most of Carpenter's work is R-rated horror, but in 1984's tender sci-fi romance Starman, Jeff Bridges plays an alien who assumes the form of a woman's dead husband so that she will love him and help him get home.

Carpenter slowed down a bit in the '90s but still gave us the twisted In the Mouth of Madness about a Stephen King-like author whose books make readers crazy and the remake of Village of the Damned, which stars a pre-accident Christopher Reeve as a man dealing with a small town of silver-haired alien children. He closed out the decade with the underwhelming Vampires, in which the vampire slayer played by James Woods must keep an ancient Catholic relic that allows the bloodsuckers to walk in daylight away from the vampires.

Aside from two excellent Masters of Horror episodes—Pro-Life and Cigarette Burns, both of which are available on disc—the only other movie Carpenter made in the '00s was the sci-fi horror show Ghosts of Mars, which brought together genre favorites like Natasha Henstridge, Jason Statham, Pam Grier and Joanna Cassidy. The director stayed away from films until The Ward, which recently became available on DVD and Blu-ray. In that psychological thriller, Amber Heard plays an institutionalized young woman in the '60s who is terrorized by a ghost in a hospital where none of the patients are what they seem.

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