Twice-Told Tales #1: The Thing (1/3)

Split-face Thing

Twice-Told Tales is a feature in which I compare horror remakes to their originals. My goal is to find the remakes that justify themselves beyond the cash-in. Wish me luck. This is Part 1 of a three-part post on John Carpenter's The Thing. (Part 2) (Part 3)

One Thing Leads to Another

Horror remakes are nothing new in Hollywood. We may have been glutted with them over the past decade, but advances in film technology and relaxed censorship standards have always spurred the genre to repeat itself. Universal’s 1931 Dracula and Frankenstein weren’t the first film adaptations of their respective novels; they were talkie remakes of silent movies from the prior decades. The Hammer Frankenstein and Dracula films of the 1950s-70s updated the Universal models with Technicolor blood and sex. Werewolf movies enjoyed an early 80s resurgence when the special effects made it possible to show human-to-wolf transformations in writhing detail. Millennial audiences will reject a prestige Oscar-bait remake like All the King’s Men as outdated, but they’ll still line up to see a CGI King Kong battle the other monsters of Skull Island. Even Van Helsing opened strongly before everyone realized that it sucked.

Nonetheless, a director who dares to remake a horror classic still risks a backlash. John Carpenter learned this the hard way in the summer of 1982, when his remake of 1951’s The Thing from Another World suffered a severe critical beatdown. Here’s just some of the carnage:

“John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ is a foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is neither one thing or the other. Sometimes it looks as if it aspired to be the quintessential moron movie of the 80’s... ‘The Thing’... is too phony looking to be disgusting. It qualifies only as instant junk.” – Vincent Canby, The New York Times (Full review)

“‘The Thing’ is a great barf-bag movie, all right, but is it any good? I found it disappointing, for two reasons: the superficial characterizations and the implausible behavior of the scientists on that icy outpost... Because this material has been done before, and better, especially in the original ‘The Thing’ and in ‘Alien,’ there’s no need to see this version unless you are interested in what the Thing might look like while starting from anonymous greasy organs extruding giant crab legs and transmuting itself into a dog.” – Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times (Full review)

“Astonishingly, Carpenter blows it. There’s a big difference between shock effects and suspense, and in sacrificing everything at the altar of gore, Carpenter sabotages the drama.” – David Ansen, Newsweek

“John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ smells, and smells pretty bad. It has no pace, sloppy continuity, zero humor, bland characters on top of being totally devoid of either warmth or humanity... It’s my contention that John Carpenter was never meant to direct a science-fiction horror movie. Here’s [sic] some things he’d be better suited to direct: traffic accidents, train wrecks and public floggings.” – Alan Spencer, Starlog

The Thing also had the misfortune of opening two weeks after E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a more family-friendly vision of alien encounters that happened to be one of the biggest blockbusters ever. Even if E.T. hadn’t wrecked The Thing’s prospects, the summer of ’82 was already stacked with the likes of Poltergeist, Star Trek II, and Blade Runner. The Thing flopped hard against such competition, and its poor reception nearly derailed Carpenter’s career.

However, public and critical opinion gradually shifted in the film’s favor. It found an audience on home video and cable in the ’80s. The Thing comic book series appeared in the early ’90s. Thing action figures and a video game followed in the ’00s. By 2011, Carpenter’s Thing had even spawned its own unpopular remake-prequel hybrid. Ironically enough, many 2011 critics unfavorably compared the new film to the 1982 version as if the latter had always been revered.

I find this revisionism to be amusing and gratifying, and I’ll briefly discuss why. But first, a few words about the original.

“Keep Watching the Skies!”

In 1938, John W. Campbell published a novella called Who Goes There? under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart. Its plot was straightforward: a group of scientists are stationed in a research outpost in Antarctica; they discover a UFO and its alien occupant buried in the ice several miles from their camp; they transport the frozen creature back to camp, where it thaws; the creature turns out to be a shape-shifter that kills, absorbs, and replicates every human or animal it encounters; the scientists are tasked with a) figuring out who among them has been taken over by the creature, and b) killing the creature, in all its forms, before it reaches the general population.

Legendary director Howard Hawks acquired the film rights and produced the 1951 adaptation, The Thing from Another World. Christian Nyby was the credited director, although questions linger over the extent of Hawks’ involvement. Charles Lederer was the credited screenwriter.

The filmmakers took considerable liberties with the source material. The setting shifts north to the Arctic, and new characters replace the story’s entire cast. The protagonist, Hendry, is an Air Force captain dispatched to the outpost at the request of the lead scientist, Carrington. There are women at the outpost, including Hendry’s love interest. A perpetually wisecracking journalist is also on hand for supposed comic relief.

Most importantly, the filmmakers changed the nature of the monster, which in turn changed the nature of the story. No longer Campbell’s telepathic shape-shifter, the movie Thing has one consistent humanoid form. It subsists on blood but reproduces through seed pods and regenerates its severed limbs like a plant. It never alters its appearance or steals its victims’ identities; it’s content to leave a trail of bloodless corpses in its wake.

This monster gives The Thing from Another World an us-versus-them clarity. The humans are good and over here. The Thing is bad and over there, and you know the Thing when you see it. Carrington provides the only shade of gray, but not much, for the movie characterizes him as an arrogant weasel. He openly admires the Thing’s superiority and cares far more about its Importance to Science than the crew’s safety. In the film’s climax, he sabotages the crew’s plan to kill the Thing and tries to reason with it. The Thing merely shoves him aside, which seems like too small a punishment.

It’s easy to view this film as a Cold War allegory. The heroic U.S. military bravely staves off the alien (communist) invasion, despite the interference of a misguided intellectual (liberal) who fails to see the existential threat the enemy presents. Carrington may also serve as a stand-in for all those unfeeling, inhumane-bastard scientists responsible for Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the nuclear arms race. He even brags about splitting the atom, to which another character snarkily responds, “Yes, and that sure made the world happy, didn’t it?”

All that subtext is there if you want it. You could also argue that the film’s leanings are too obvious to even qualify as subtext. Or that The Thing from Another World is simply an apolitical monster thriller that only wants to scare us. Whatever its intent and merit, this Thing wasn’t concerned with faithfully adapting Campbell’s story. That particular film wouldn’t crash-land in theaters for another thirty-one years.

(Part 2) (Part 3

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