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“The Thing” prequel isn’t great, but some-“Thing” is better than no-“Thing”

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“The Thing” prequel isn’t great, but some-“Thing” is better than no-“Thing”

Bill Thomas, Assistant News Editor

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Making a prequel to “The Thing,” John Carpenter’s groundbreaking 1982 horror classic, is such a brilliant, solid gold idea, you’d think it would take a complete idiot to screw it up. Thankfully, director Matthijs van Heijningen is no idiot. And, yet, his film is still, somehow, decidedly less than “solid gold.”

As in the original, the titular “Thing” here is a malevolent alien entity that can impersonate any other organism perfectly, right down to the cellular level. When it crashes its spaceship in the Antarctic, it runs afoul of some scientists and disguises itself amongst them to cause a whole lot of mayhem and paranoia, pitting human against human.

The biggest problem with Heijningen’s “The Thing” is how closely it skews toward Carpenter’s original, often coming across as an unimaginative, unnecessary retread. The fact that this prequel confusingly bears the exact same title as the 1982 film does little to help matters, making it feel more like a slavish remake than a true prequel.

Of course, Carpenter’s film was itself a remake of 1951’s “The Thing From Another World,” and the roots of all three films are embedded foremost in the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell. Heijningen’s movie gets bonus points for integrating elements from both of those versions into its largely Carpenter-cribbed narrative, but it’s still soundly trounced in those areas wherein it tries to go toe-to-toe with its 1982 precursor. Particularly noteworthy is how woefully predictable Heijningen’s bait-and-switch tactics are, failing to evoke the same unsettling sense of “trust no one” tension Carpenter’s film excelled at.

While Heinningen’s vision is an unworthy companion piece to Carpenter’s landmark, as an autonomous effort judged solely on its own merits, it does offer up a surprisingly solid cinematic experience.

Heinningen’s direction admirably captures the dangerous, barren beauty of Antarctica, and Marco Beltrami’s score is appropriately atmospheric, making good use of the iconic themes of Ennio Morricone’s score from the 1982 film. Despite some iffy CGI moments, the special effects here are frequently exceptional in their grotesque depictions of the nasty Lovecraftian beastie that plagues our protagonists. Gore-hounds will surely find their appetites for carnage well-sated here, as there’s no shortage of the red stuff in this bloodbath.

More impressive than “The Thing’s” monster is its heroine, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a promising young actress whose filmography encompasses everything from “Sky High” to “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” to “Grindhouse.” With “The Thing,” Winstead is finally given a chance to take center stage and, in doing so, contributes a rich, nuanced performance that communicates equal parts strength and trauma.

In the end, “The Thing” may be far from great, but it’s still one of the better wide-release mainstream horror movies you’re likely to see between now and the end of 2011. In fact, going up against duds like “Dream House” and the latest entry in the over-milked “Paranormal Activity” franchise, this fright flick may be your best bet for the scares ‘n’ splatter you crave during the Halloween season.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

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“The Thing” prequel isn’t great, but some-“Thing” is better than no-“Thing”