The Thing Rises on DVD

Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard A. Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat. Directed by John Carpenter. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (letterbox). Dolby Digital 5.1. 109 minutes. 1982. Universal Home Video 20329. Rated R. $34.98.

John Carpenter is America's most maligned and underappreciated filmmaker. Although critics have savaged almost every one of his films, none has endured the drubbing that The Thing received on its theatrical release. The film certainly contains disturbing images, but the overwhelmingly negative critical reaction to this nightmarish flick was even more gruesome. Nonetheless, Carpenter sustains a level of horror here that few have been able to achieve. I doubt the critics were prepared to enter the darkest realms of science fiction and terror, but that's where The Thing took them.

The Thing is generally considered to be a remake of the 1951 science-fiction classic, The Thing from Another World, but Carpenter's film is actually closer in structure to John W. Campbell, Jr.'s Who Goes There?, the story on which both films are based. Set at an American outpost in Antarctica, it's the tale of a shape-shifting alien retrieved from the ice after being frozen for 100,000 years. The alien's life cycle is based on ingesting other lifeforms, then mimicking them. The outpost quickly descends into chaos as the humans try to stay alive while battling an enemy that could be anybody. Every member of the cast delivers a solid performance, lending credibility to every horrifying twist and turn in Bill Lancaster's screenplay.

Kurt Russell receives star billing for the role of MacReady, the burnt-out chopper pilot forced to take charge when things spin out of control. Most of the rest of the cast are character actors; Wilford Brimley delivers a great little performance as far removed from an oatmeal commercial as one is likely to get.

Carpenter's direction is sharp and precise. He uses the claustrophobic sets to maximize the film's prevailing sense of paranoia and downright horror. Rob Bottin's special effects have become legendary for their shocking impact; many remain unequaled to this day.

Like every Carpenter film, The Thing would be utterly worthless if offered in anything but its original aspect ratio. Universal's Collector's Edition DVD thankfully omits a pan&scan version, instead using dual-layer technology to offer a letterboxed presentation. The worst thing I can say about the transfer is that it doesn't include anamorphic enhancement for widescreen televisions.

Cinematographer Dean Cundey did an amazing job of lighting and photographing the film, and the transfer reproduces his work flawlessly. A number of sequences use stark winter whites to backlight dark interiors, creating phenomenal contrast that the DVD renders effortlessly. Image sharpness and detail are excellent, as are the surprisingly well-saturated colors. Strong reds and blues emerge during the climactic sequence without a hint of noise or distortion. Digital compression artifacts were seldom even noticeable on this DVD.

Universal has upgraded the soundtrack to a 5.1-channel Dolby Digital mix. It's not as zippy as a newly mixed Dolby Digital film, but the track is a lot cleaner and more well-defined than matrixed Dolby Surround. The DD soundtrack doesn't offer the earth-shattering low bass one might hope for, but it does highlight Ennio Morricone's terrific score.

This Collector's Edition offers a treasure trove of supplemental features. Every fan will enjoy the newly produced 80-minute documentary, The Thing: Terror Takes Shape, for its interviews with cast and crew members. A running audio commentary featuring John Carpenter and Kurt Russell is a blast and a half. Other supplements include an isolated score, a theatrical trailer, outtakes, a deleted special-effects sequence, photographs, conceptual art, storyboards, and production notes.