Three Thing(s): 1951 – 2011
|The Thing From Another World (1951)
|Charles Lederer – Based on the short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr.
|Margaret Sheridan, Kenneth Tobey, Robert Cornthwaite, Douglas Spencer and James Arness
“No pleasure. No pain. No emotion. No heart. Our superior in every way” – Dr. Carrington
|The Thing (2011)
|Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
|Eric Heisserer - Based on the short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr.
|Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen, Eric Christian Olsen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Paul Braunstein, Trond Espen Seim, Kristofer Hivju and Jørgen Langhelle
“You know how I knew you were human?” – Kate
|John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)
|Bill Lancaster - Based on the short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr.
|Kurt Russell, A. Wilford Brimley, Donald Moffat, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Keith David, David Clennon, T.K. Carter, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Joel Polis and Thomas Waites
“Everybody watch whoever you’re with. Real close!” – MacReady
For the longest time while I was growing up “John Carpenter’s The Thing” was the scariest thing I’d ever seen. Even watching it on grainy VHS the ground breaking practical effects and suspenseful set-pieces, the extremely effective moody atmosphere and isolated icy setting made a massive impression. For many the film is on the short list of the top horror movies of all time. Several years later I got to the original that was the inspiration for Carpenter’s classic. Although I found it much less effective I did think that it had some merit and I kept revisiting it. And later still there came the prequel to John Carpenter’s classic which didn’t receive much critical praise but I’ve found it to be a worthy companion. For the past few years this trilogy has been viewed at least once a year in three successive evenings (in this order; ’51 – 2011 – ’82) and they form a splendid whole.
The Thing From Another World
An American scientific expedition set up in the North Pole discovers a UFO crashed in the icecap. Close by the object are the frozen remains of an extra-terrestrial visitor. The scientists, along with army officials and a reporter, bring back the frozen block of ice to their station. Once there the ice accidentally melts and the alien is loose within the compound.
Most American sci-fi films in the 50’s had a tendency to be overly patriotic and highlight a foreign visitor threatening the American way of life, liberty and freedom and “The Thing From Another World” is no exception to the rule. Clean cut army officers are manly to the hilt, the only dame may be morally upstanding and capable but she knows her place in the big scheme of things and scientists are, at best, a reckless bunch for wanting to further investigate the unknown. There’s little room for subtle hidden depths as the visitor constitutes a great threat that must be demolished and thanks to the primitive state of movie effects they were usually represented by actors in costumes or some machinery that often looked quite fake. However; many of these movies have aged quite well as they are representative of the time they were made and serve as cultural and historical artifacts, they induce a severe case of nostalgia as they often frightened the crap out of adolescents who hadn’t been exposed to anything remotely disturbing up to that point in time and, finally, they are quite often the quintessential embodiment of pure entertainment as a good vs. evil battle and good always wins.
“The Thing From Another World” is unusually effective, though, in terms of tension and atmosphere. There’s a grand sense of pacing here as not a second is wasted on meaningless dialogue and overlong exposure; it’s quite simply a very tight and effective thrill ride. I will freely acknowledge that I am no expert on filmmaker Howard Hawks (“His Girl Friday” – 1940, “The Big Sleep” – 1946, “Red River” – 1948, “Rio Bravo” – 1959) but heavy rumours have persisted that he was in fact the mastermind behind “The Thing From Another World” but he didn’t want directorial credit as the genre was mostly considered B-movie material. So he’s only credited as a producer. Whoever was mostly behind the camera did a fantastic job with the material as the overlapping dialogue and snappy pacing of scenes create a pleasant disorienting vibe that ups the tension factor as the circumstances take a deadly serious turn.
Visually the film comes out a winner as well. Although imposing actor Arness, as the Thing, is just a man in a costume he does look awfully menacing as his appearances are very limited, covered in shadows and always preceded by a wonderfully suspenseful set up. There are a few scenes here that are very effective for their time and one can easily imagine how impressionable youths were terrified.
The cast is likable and capable without being remotely remarkable. Tobey is sturdy and stiff in the hero role, Sheridan very pleasurable as the dame on the base, Spencer tries a bit too hard for laughs as the reporter on site but Cornthwaite makes the biggest impression as the scientist who welcomes the visitor.
“The Thing From Another World” had a lasting impression on many future filmmakers and it’s easy to see why.
Paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Winstead) joins a Norwegian scientific team in Antarctica that has discovered an extraterrestrial ship buried in the ice. They also find an alien organism that has been frozen nearby. They bring the block of ice carrying the organism and soon it thaws and the creature escapes. Although the team think they have quelled the treat they discover that the organism can turn itself into an exact replica of any living being. It’s a race for survival as Kate tries to find who’s possibly the thing and who she can trust as the visitor’s intention is to ensure it’s own survival.
“The Thing” is rather special as it almost functions as a re-make of sorts but can still claim it’s own identity as a prequel. When I first saw the film I was struck with how the build-up is pretty much the same, the sequence of events unfold in nearly identical fashion and the ending as well. Having, by that time, seen Carpenter’s version well over twenty times I found this “Thing” to be severely lacking and bereft of fresh ideas. But I persisted and gave it a second, a third, then fourth glance and I’ve really come to appreciate the love letter that the film is and how it impeccably sets up Carpenter’s film.
It’s true that it doesn’t present anything new of value to this universe except fill in the blanks as to how the creature was discovered and left the Norwegian site in the state that McReady and Doc found it in. In the end that’s a solid thing though as the film basically serves as an extension to Carpenter’s and director Heijningen Jr. is no slouch at keeping the proceedings both atmospheric and hectic as the film reaches it’s predictable (obviously) conclusion. The advancement in digital effects in 29 years is enormous and technically this “Thing” looks even better in some ways but a lot of the creature effects were done old style and the effort really pays off with a number of knockout visuals and design. The eerie scene in Carpenter’s version where the site is discovered left a lot of grisly blanks that could be filled in and it’s marvelously accomplished here. The two-headed creature is accounted for, the bloody axe in the door and the apparent suicide of a team member are explained away (though the suicide scene is only fully realised in a deleted scene on the disc) and it’s done in a very exhaustive and well researched manner. It’s not only the fans that know Carpenter’s film by heart but these filmmakers too and it shows.
It’s only in the end that it falters somewhat with a very underwhelming conclusion set mainly inside the spaceship. A late subplot (or a surprise reveal) by writer Heisserer was deleted on film by some visual gimmickry that doesn’t make any sense and precludes any element of surprise and just offers an extended chase scene inside the ship that fails to add anything to the film. However it does close off with an end credits scene that perfectly sets up Carpenter’s film.
Overall the mood in “The Thing” is a bit lighter than in Carpenter’s version and the simple fact that the main character is female lightens up the proceedings a bit as opposed to the all male cast in the other one. There’s one other female character but it’s mostly males here and the Norwegian bunch is pretty lively to start with before the shit hits the fan. The whole cast performs well; Winstead is very solid in the lead and Thomsen is very good as the scientist who regards the organism as the greatest find ever and who must be preserved. His character is a nice reference to Dr. Carrigan from “The Thing From Another World” and some of his dialogue is very similar.
While not quite on par with “John Carpenter’s The Thing”; “The Thing” nevertheless impresses in many ways and it’s a good companion piece and set-up for what is arguably one of the greatest ever horror films.
John Carpenter’s The Thing
A 12 men research team finds itself menaced by a terrifying shape-shifting alien in Antarctica. With the creature loose in their base and able to assimilate any organism it chooses, the tension within the team reaches breaking point. Helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady (Russell) gradually takes command of the situation and tries to figure out just who is the Thing.
As of February 15th 2021 there are 356 critic reviews and 1.167 user reviews accessible through IMDB alone for “John Carpenter’s The Thing”. There’s so much been written on the film and the vast majority is very positive. I will just jump on the bandwagon and say that “John Carpenter’s The Thing” is one of my all time favourites. In fact Mr. Carpenter is my favourite director and I don’t quite know why it’s taken me this long to write about one of his films on my blog.
This film is the closest thing I can think of as a perfect horror film. The mood is so oppressing, the icy locations couldn’t be more claustrophobic and atmospheric and the narrative never loses a bit of it’s tension. Add to the mix a truly miraculous crew of technicians who can realize a creature that’s the embodiment of everything that’s scary and it can even disguise itself perfectly and seem non-threatening…until it gets you alone and strikes. The film is so intelligently set-up and gradually ups the tension and scare-factor and proves to be utterly unpredictable in just who’s human and who’s the Thing. There’s nothing I can think of that would improve the film and the ambiguous ending makes sure the audience is left with heavy thoughts. Minor spoiler coming – On that note there’s a certain revelation in the 2011 prequel that does clear up one major question in the finale here. Most viewers will undoubtedly spot this – End of spoiler
There’s so much been written about the ground-breaking effects work by Rob Bottin (“The Howling” – 1981) and co. and sure enough I will mention as well that it’s quite astonishing that this film is nearly 40 years old when you look at what’s up on the screen. The effects just heighten the suspense and prevent audiences from momentarily escaping the illusion and undoubtedly the quality of the special effects played a big part in the movie’s enduring legacy.
The cast is one of a kind as well. An all male ensamble of brooding individuals with no clean cut hero and very fallible characters was something out-of-the-norm in the early 80’s – especially in a big budget studio film. MacReady eventually takes on the “hero” part but out of necessity and he sure as hell makes some blunders along the way. It’s hard to pick out one performer over the other as they all contribute heavily but I’ve always leaned mostly towards Russell, David and Brimley as the standouts.
As an interesting side-note there’s always some fun to be had in discussing the social climate surrounding the ’51 version and then later the ’82 version. At the height of cold-war paranoia and patriotic propaganda it made sense that the extra-terrestrial threat manifested itself in the form if an outside enemy of flesh and blood that could be defeated with human resilience and unity. The sombre and nihilistic ’82 take on the same source material presents the enemy as hiding from within and being able to disguise itself and seem normal and non-threatening. Coming from a director who cut his teeth in the political paranoia 70’s the external threat makes a logical sidestep in presentation and is all the more frightening…and somehow more realistic.