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We have an inherently creepy story ("Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell), a gritty and believable intro to the polar station, and really, really great acting. Add effects that scared the poo clean out of me, and it's an awesome movie.
I like a lot of his work, starting with Dark Star, but for sheer art, power and "punch," I can't see anything beating The Thing.
I really love Carpenter, but he also makes me mad.
Dark Star is an excellent example. It’s both good, and deeply flawed.
Came to the realization The Thing is the only movie of his I’ve seen where I don’t have some sort of beef. I have a beef with Alien, so The Thing wins there, too. Alien was a lot more ambitious though.
Keeping in mind that Dark Star was a student film and made on a budget of approximately $1.25 in 1970 dollars. Actually it had a $1,000 budget for the 45 minute student version, but the extras they added to pad it out to be long enough to release theatrically sort of drained the punch of the shorter film. There's a great Wiki article on the film, by the way.
I agree that Alien is flawed, but more so in a horror film way than a science fiction way. It's generally considered to be in the same universe as Dark Star, which Dan O'Bannon co-wrote, and there's nothing to contradict this. The horror flaws are basic horror flaws: the creature's biology violates just about every law of physics for the sake of making it scarier and more invulnerable (much like Michael Myers being un-killable). But the SF framework the horror story plays out in stays consistent and stable, which helps keep the horror flaws in the background.
The Thing, on the other hand, essentially postulates that the creature can alter its biological structure at will. That's still in the same category as Michael being un-killable, but this feature isn't as big a problem as say the xenomorph's biology (and what the hell is a "molecular acid" that they use for blood, anyway?). After that, the setting - and the baggage of being in that setting for as long as the characters have been - lets the story run.
Who Goes There was published in 1938 and only just began to touch on the xenophobia that became the core of the 1951 version of The Thing (and pretty much all 1950s SF films). It can be looked at as a cautionary tale: "don't mess with things you don't really understand." The 1951 film, with the Cold War well in place, focused the xenophobia to the point that it was all the film was really about.
In contrast, Invasion of the Body Snatchers focused on how "others" could alter and destroy a community (or "the American way of life"). Body Snatchers (1956) was far better done than most; more subtle, creepier, and genuinely scary. The 1978 version had a different angle: conformity rather than alienness. But it too was well done.
The thing that has stayed with me about Carpenter's The Thing is that the story stops but doesn't end. We never know if Childs is really Childs, though we are pretty sure MacReady is really himself. Or is he?
As I like to put it, the ending of The Thing is either everybody dies, or everybody dies.
My big beef with Alien is the arc of the movie. Its best features are the world building and the cast. The longer the movie goes, the less you get of each.
The Thing didn’t have to solve this dilemma. It gives you its best features, mind-screws and Kurt Russell, from start to finish.
I know it seems like I’m giving Dark Star a hard time, but it has a lot of the same problems as his movies which aren’t resource limited. The pacing and tone are all over the place. The Thing doesn’t have these problems, but They Live sure does.
Prince of Darkness is the one that really sticks in my craw. The bad parts are so bad, and they’re sitting in what could have been one of the best movies of all time.