Extra, Extra: THE THING

You need to take the day off work to watch everything on this new Blu-ray.

Much like people believing the world was flat, or being so scared by an image of a moving train that they dove out of its way, it's hard to believe there was a time where the general consensus on John Carpenter's The Thing was that it sucked. Much like many Carpenter films, it didn't do too well at the box office*, but the reviews and even audiences were pretty anti-Thing too - Vincent Canby's review for The New York Times was particularly harsh, referring to it as "the quintessential moron movie of the 80's" - in a year that had already produced Porky's. It wasn't until video that the film started getting reappraised, and within twenty years it was rightfully considered among his best films, if not THE best overall (that slot still belongs to Halloween in my house, but Thing is a damn close 2nd), prompting a "franchise" of sorts - a video game, a prequel, comic books, toys, etc. 

It also got one of the definitive DVD releases back in its day, as one of Universal's oh-so-then-cool "gold band" special edition releases that jam-packed the film with all of the bonus features from its laserdisc, which used to take up two giant double-sided discs and now fit on a single (also double sided) compact one, looking better to boot and allowing you to watch the film without flipping anything over. Deleted scenes, outtakes, production info, and a 83 minute retrospective documentary called Terror Takes Shape made it a must-own disc for horror fans, and set the standard for how Carpenter's films should be presented on the new format. The transfer was not anamorphic, but this was a time when such a thing didn't affect the majority (all?) of the disc buyers, and by the time it became a bigger issue in the mid-'00s, we already had a new version anyway. A later HD-DVD version also retained all of these bonus features, but when it came to Blu-ray (a format Universal did not back at first, so it came along much later than the HD-DVD) the majority of them were dropped; it had only the commentary, and Terror Takes Shape was broken up and used as picture in picture "U-Control" footage. The transfer was also less than perfect, and folks have demanded Universal right their wrongs ever since.

Naturally, Scream Factory did it instead. The label has been pro-Carpenter literally from the start (his name appeared on three of their first five releases), and they know they have to bring their A-game whenever they acquire on his titles, be it a classic like Escape From New York, or ... another film, like Village of the Damned. But The Thing is almost on another level, as it's not only top-tier Carpenter but also one that had been given problematic releases in the past - there has really been no definitive release of it so far, as each one improved on one thing but took a step back in the others. Given Scream's history of preserving existing supplements while creating their own, it should be no surprise that this release is stuffed to the gills, and if you wish to take in all of the video extras plus all three commentaries, it would take you somewhere around 13-14 hours to go through the whole, er, thing. And there's literally no need to talk about the film itself at this point (to sum up: it's great, and you already know that because you've seen it), let's dive into the bonuses and explain in detail why you need to toss your other copies and pick this one up, where it will remain the definitive version presumably until the end of time. Or a new format is invented.

Most of the traditional bonus features are on the 2nd disc, itself a rarity for Scream Factory as they can usually fit everything on one. But what's funny is that even if you lose the 2nd disc (or you're a thief who only got the first one), you still have yourself a nice special edition. All of the promotional material - trailers, TV spots, radio ads, stills - is on this disc, but the real draw is the three commentaries, two of which are brand new. One is with cinematographer Dean Cundey, moderated by Blumhouse.com's Rob Galluzzo, and while some DP tracks can be a chore this one is pretty engaging; Cundey is obviously one of the heroes of Carpenter's early work and thus has plenty of stories to tell, and one of his observations regarding eye-lighting became a viral bit of news a few weeks back when he seemed to settle the matter of the film's ending once and for all. Then there's another one with co-producer Stuart Cohen, who if I'm not mistaken is the guy behind the great The Original Fan blog, which is loaded with insight and trivia on the film's production. He is someone that was with the production from the very beginning (a film school buddy of Carpenter's who brought him into the production, which was already being planned by Universal independent of Carpenter), and thus has plenty of stories we hadn't heard before and a different perspective on the ones we have. And then there's the Carpenter/Kurt Russell commentary that any fan has probably heard by now, as it's been included on every release going back to the laserdisc. If you haven't listened, it's a lot of fun; we all know how much these guys love each other and their mutual admiration becomes infectious, to the point where you'll laugh at the same private jokes they are even though you have no idea what's actually so funny.

Then we move on to disc two, and if you watch everything on it you can qualify as a certified expert on the film. Again, this was not a film that lacked in bonus features in the past, and they're all here - including, at long last, Terror Takes Shape in its entirety, which alone would be enough to satisfy any owner of the previous Blu-ray. Featuring Carpenter, Rob Bottin, screenwriter Bill Lancaster, some other crew, and about half of the cast (including Russell), it's the kind of retrospective you've probably seen a lot of by now, but back in the 90s when it was made was relatively unique. The format hasn't changed much in 20 years - over a feature-length amount of time, as many cast and crew members that could be reached offer standard talking head interviews interspersed with some film clips and behind the scenes footage to illuminate the point of their anecdotes, taking us from the film's inception, through casting and production, all the way to their thoughts on it now. Being that it was a film that was hated upon release, it must have felt pretty good to these folks to be interviewed for a disc celebrating its importance, and even then (1998, I believe) they were proud of how it had been re-evaluated, so they're probably all ecstatic now as its reputation has only continued to improve. 

They've also unearthed several vintage featurettes, including a "Product Reel" that's basically a 20 minute Cliff's Notes version of the movie, albeit one with VO at the top explaining that it's a "refashioning" of the 1951 film and ending with a reminder that the film is in theaters that summer (so it's basically a sizzle reel, but instead of highlights it's literally just a sped up version of the movie, complete with climax). Then there are fluffy promotional ones (one directed by Mick Garris), and if you watch them all back to back you'll see a lot of the same interview clips, including one where Carpenter chalks up the original's direction to Howard Hawks, which is possibly why credited director Christian Nyby took a shot at Carpenter's film upon release (he dismissed it as "a terrific commercial for J&B Scotch"). There's also one that gives a little background for Carpenter by talking about how he made a big splash with Halloween... over shots of Halloween II (doh!), and an interview with him that, if I'm matching my background geography correctly, was shot roughly in the spot at Universal where my office building is now. Keeping with the vintage theme, Scream has also dug up the rarely seen television version of the film, which runs 16 minutes shorter than the theatrical cut - but really more than that was cut because it also adds a gibberish epilogue (voiceover over shots of the dog running around?) and a few scenes that were cut by Carpenter in the first place. It also provides some background info for the characters in the form of the least graceful narration since Blade Runner (ironically released the same day in theaters), some of which is mildly amusing (Windows apparently hates his job) or even kind of sad (poor Palmer planned to open his own business), but will bring you out of the movie every time since it's so clunkily inserted. But I've always been curious about it, so I'm happy I finally got to see it. If you don't want to sit through it, the outtake scenes are available on their own, as has been the case for most of the previous releases.

So we're already drowning in Thing extras that already existed, so the fact that Scream managed to put another couple hours' worth together is miraculous. The biggest draw is naturally a new interview with Carpenter (titled "Requiem for a Shape Shifter"), moderated by Garris and running about a half hour. Apart from a bizarre observation from Garris that the film may have been beaten at the boc office by E.T. but "no one talks about that film now" (even Carpenter seems baffled by the idea), it's a strong look back from the Master, who gets to talk about his newfound career as a rock star along with some typically weary recollections. But while some of his trademark grumpiness is on display, he seems eager to discuss The Thing (unlike say, Halloween), and since his other contributions to the disc are over 20 years old, I'm glad they got him to sit down for a chat. The other highlight is "The Men of Outpost 31", a cast retrospective that runs nearly an hour and is made up of most of the guys who didn't appear in Terror Takes Shape (plus Richard Masur and Joel Polis again, for good measure), offering their perspective on a lot of the same things - the cold location, working with the FX, when their characters became Things, etc. Highlights: Wilford Brimley's cat jumping onto his lap and fighting his same-sized dog, and Keith David echoing his Twitter feed by stressing that he's not a Thing at the end (he is, dammit! Unless neither of them are.)

The rest of the new things are traditional interview pieces running about 10 minutes or so each; one about the sound/music (no Morricone, dammit), one about the FX work (including the stop motion Blair-monster that was largely cut from the finished film), and another with editor Todd Ramsay, who talks a bit about how the film was cutting together before Carpenter rethought some scenes and changed gears a bit during production. But my favorite is one with Alan Dean Foster, who wrote the film's novelization and talks a lot about the process of doing such things (not specific to this particular film), which I found quite interesting as a well-documented fan of the format. He explains how each job is a little different; sometimes he gets access to production designs and footage, other times he gets only a draft of the script (not even the most recent one in some cases, including The Thing), forcing him to use more of his imagination without actually betraying what the creators designed. Here, he had the film's original ending (where MacReady drives around and destroys the base that way) and a lot of the character info that did not appear in the theatrical cut, making it a must-read for fans and thus an important part of the film's legacy, so I was stoked that Scream opted to give him a showcase here.

For completists or the merely pedantic, it should be noted that the isolated score, which was on the laserdisc and first DVD releases but absent from every release since (including the other DVD that offered the anamorphic transfer), has not been resurrected, so hold on to your Varese Sarabande CD (or old DVD if you still have it). Also, the stop motion footage was previously available on its own, but is only accessible here via the "Behind the Chameleon" featurette, but since it now has the animators' thoughts and some context on why it wasn't used, I can't imagine anyone complaining about that "ommission" - it's there, it's just presented differently and would have been redundant to include the old version. Other than that, I can't find anything that hasn't been included, and considering how much more is offered than any previous release, any complaints would be quite petty. Sure, the score was nice to have, but it's available elsewhere, and it's a movie, not an album.

As for the transfer (a new 2K scan of the inter-positive), it's the best I've seen and could not find any fault with it. When you can count individual hairs in MacReady's beard, you know the image is sharp, and it carries Cundey's approval to boot. Ironically, I can't actually vouch for any of the film's audio tracks, because I didn't actually watch it without the commentaries - I saw it recently (on 35mm) and opted to skip right to the bonus features so I could get this review up (and it's still late anyway). But I did check the sync issue that caused the film's delay, and it was indeed corrected, so there shouldn't be any worries there (and for the record, it was only the 4.1 track that went out of sync, so if you want to stick with mono or 5.1, you won't notice/care anyway). The new art is fine; I know some people bitch and moan about Scream's covers, but A) they always offer the original art on the reverse side of the sleeve and B) I don't shelf my movies facing me - as long as the spine clearly shows the title so I can find it when I want to watch (a process that does not involve staring at the cover), they could have a toddler scribble on construction paper for their covers for all I care.

Long story short, if you're a Thing fan - and at this point, who isn't? - there is almost nothing to be miffed about here. This sets the bar high for both Scream Factory's releases AND for Carpenter's films, most of which have special editions by now (come on, Warner - let Scream have Memoirs of an Invisible Man) but none as extensive as this - it even surpasses Halloween's multiple releases (more or less compiled by the boxed set) in terms of how extensive its extras are, I think. Obviously not every movie can be given such deluxe treatment, but let's be honest - how many movies would even deserve it? Not a lot, but The Thing is one - and after almost 20 years of releases, it finally has a set that matches the quality of the film itself.

*As much as The Thing (1982) is thought of as a dud, it still grossed more than the 2011 premake (it's a prequel, but apes this film so closely - and has the exact same title - that it always feels more like a remake), and that's without even having to factor in inflation, in which case Carpenter's film blows it out of the water, on a much lower budget to boot. I always found that amusing.

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