The Thing (1982), Dir. John Carpenter, 109 mins, VHS/DVD/Blu-ray/4K UHD
Some films get in your blood, which is perhaps a particularly unwise turn of phrase when in reference to John Carpenter’s The Thing. I first saw this horror classic in the late Autumn of 1982; a lad in the art class a year above mine had a Dad who could get hold of pirate videos from a neighbour, and one night several of us from the art class/RPG crowd got together over his house while his folks were out, to watch The Thing. I know, I know, piracy is the great evil, but in my defence, I was a very young-looking sixteen at the time and thus clearly unable to go see it at the cinema due to its ‘X’ certificate- something that had similarly stopped me from seeing Alien three years before in 1979. I can distinctly recall my crushing disappointment in August of 1979 when I read in my local newspaper that Alien had been given the dreaded ‘X’ certificate by the BBFC, instantly realising that I wouldn’t be seeing Ridley Scott’s movie at all – somehow I’d expected I’d be able to go see it, such is the naivete of thirteen-year old geeks still high from Star Wars.
But back to 1982, and the arrival of VHS and Betamax video recorders in homes was changing everything. I wouldn’t be waiting for years to finally see some censored TV version of The Thing, instead here was the Real Deal, the uncensored film the same as everyone had been watching in cinemas. Sitting on the floor near that television set, I remember giggling through some of the more extreme moments, such as when Nauls suffers an heart attack and his chest opens up to bite off Copper’s arms. Even now when I type that out and look at it, is it any wonder, I mean, think about it- a guy has an heart attack and his chest opens up and bites someone’s arms off. My giggling was a nervous (almost hysterical, I suppose) reaction to seeing something I could never have imagined. It was just crazy, the whole film like nothing any of us had ever seen. So there I was, giggling like an idiot. Better than screaming I suppose.
In retrospect, its clear that 1982 was a year of films firsts like that. In The Thing‘s case, the film was so off-the-wall extreme, even the critics were caught off-guard, one famously comparing it to pornography. That grainy VHS copy no doubt lent the film a certain verisimilitude, such as how a pirate copy of Blade Runner I watched the following year added a certain quality to Jordan Cronenweth’s cinematography that no 4K UHD edition could ever match. People these days would be horrified at how bad VHS could often be, the vagaries of tracking dials and rich colours -particularly reds- blooming monstrously. To us back then, it was miraculous, really.
It was a different world back then. There was no internet to spoil things (sic) or hype things (again, sic). You could go into films totally cold, without even a clue who starred in it or what it was like, and back then I wasn’t so versed in how films were made or box-office or anything. We got information from film magazines like Starburst but they too could be as ‘behind the curve’ as we were (and by that time I’d stopped buying that mag every month). At any rate, I had no idea that The Thing had been critically savaged or that it had flopped spectacularly, even though it had come out months before in America. On that cold night, it was one of the greatest films I had ever seen- John Carpenter would likely not at all approve of a pirate VHS copy of his film doing the rounds, but I think he might have had a blast watching our reactions to his film. We ‘got’ it in ways that the critics hadn’t (they’d catch up eventually).
A few years later, I was at college doing my Degree course, and one winter night I was travelling home on the bus; we’d had some heavy snow and the sodium streetlights were casting the world in a yellow/orange cast not totally unlike the flares that Mac used in The Thing. Back in those distant days, Sony Walkman’s were all the rage- at the time they were considered the cutting-edge of listening on the move. In a few years they would be considered quaintly obsolete compared to nifty little mp3 players, but those audio-cassette players like the Walkman were so cool. I loved mine, I used to put mix-tapes together to listen to on my commutes or walking around town and sometimes in quiet periods at college, I remember having rechargeable AA batteries and plugging them into a charger most every night so I could spend the next day listening to soundtracks, Vangelis or Jean Michel Jarre.
So anyway, that night no doubt influenced by the wintry weather, I had Ennio Morricone’s score music for The Thing playing on my Walkman, the cassette recorded off the vinyl album complete with scratchy hissing and clicking that seemed to just intensify the music’s atmosphere. As I disembarked at the bus stop nearest home, my Walkman was playing the Humanity track, one of the most definitive lonely pieces of forlorn music I’d ever heard. The snow was deep, my feet crunching in it as I crossed the road and tried to discern where exactly the footpath should be. Morricone’s beautiful music was in my ears, and my breath was a steam in the sodium streetlights. I stopped and considered staying there for awhile. Its one of those perfect moments that stay with you forever- you don’t know at the time, when its actually happening, you obviously lack the clarity that you’ll live that moment in your head for years, but I knew it was pretty special. I remember being so tempted to just hang around there listening to that music while the chill air bit at my cheeks and the snow crunched beneath my unsteady feet. But I was hungry and late for tea, so I resumed my trek through the snow to home, not realising I was leaving a tiny little part of me on that street corner for decades: not a time has gone by, whenever listening to that music again and again as I have over the years, that I don’t think back to those few minutes standing in the snow, listening to that music.