Twice-Told Tales #1: The Thing (2/3)

Dog-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. This is Part 2 in a three-part post on John Carpenter's The Thing. (Part 1) (Part 3)

“I don’t know what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.”

In his blog about the making of The Thing, television producer Stuart Cohen states that he’d discussed Who Goes There? with Carpenter as far back as 1970, when they were classmates at USC. Cohen persuaded Universal to buy the story’s rights later in the decade. The project stalled until Alien hit big in 1979. By that point, Carpenter had scored his own smash with Halloween, and so Universal was willing to hire him. Carpenter didn’t want to write the script, however, and turned to Bill Lancaster, an unlikely choice considering that Lancaster’s only credits were The Bad News Bears and The Bad News Bears Go to Japan.

Carpenter and Lancaster’s film pivots away from Hawks and toward Campbell. The setting shifts back down to Antarctica. The research station’s twelve-man crew are civilian scientists, mechanics, helicopter pilots, most of whom at least bear the names of Campbell’s characters. The Thing itself is once again an amorphous shape-shifter eager to assimilate the humans and dogs of Outpost #31.

The Thing largely sticks to Campbell’s plot with two notable exceptions: the setup and the ending. Carpenter’s crew don’t discover the Thing’s downed ship via magnetic disturbance; instead, the Thing comes to them in the form of an Alaskan sled dog. The film opens with a pair of Norwegians chasing the dog by helicopter, trying to shoot it. The dog and its pursuers arrive at the American station. Thanks to ineptitude, the language barrier, and overall misunderstanding, one Norwegian blows himself up with a grenade, and Garry, the American leader, guns down the other. The Americans adopt the dog.

Helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell, at his surly best) and doctor Copper fly to the Norwegian camp, which has been destroyed. They find frozen corpses and the burned remains of what appears to be a two-headed human. One may question their decision to bring those remains back to their station, but it ultimately doesn’t matter; the Thing is already there anyway, stalking about in cuddly canine form.

Soon that dog splits apart into a ghastly tentacled organism, and The Thing delivers its first special-effects set piece. It’s probably not possible to talk about this movie without talking about the effects, which so upset viewers in 1982. Canby was a voice of dissent in calling the effects “phony looking”; the consensus was that the effects were powerful and state-of-the-art but also disgusting, bloody, and excessive.

For some of us who saw The Thing in the early ’80s, the effects meant something more. They were slimy and gross, yes, but that wasn’t a problem. This was a monster movie, for God’s sake; the monster wasn’t supposed to be pretty. What mattered was that we’d never seen a monster quite like this before. Here was a creature in continual transformation, sprouting arms, legs, tentacles. It hissed, roared, moaned, and ejaculated weird fluids. It warped, twisted, and contorted from one somewhat-recognizable animal form to the next. By the time an infected character’s head detached from his body, grew spider legs and scuttled across the floor, it was clear that The Thing had forever changed the monster-movie game.

No longer could filmmakers get away with hiding their creatures in the shadows only to offer a glimpse at the climax. Filmmakers had relied on that formula for decades, vainly trying to disguise that their monsters were limp puppets or guys in rubber suits. Even the big-budget Jaws and Alien hid their monsters to protect their monsters. The Thing was bold enough to shatter that model. It knew its monster was the stuff of Lovecraftian nightmares, and it was happy to let it fill the screen and wallop the audience every so often. If anything, it succeeded a little too well in the wallop department.

Carpenter hired 22-year-old makeup artist Rob Bottin to lead the creature-effects crew. Bottin had collaborated with Carpenter on The Fog (1980) and further made his name on The Howling (1981). His team included illustrators Mike Ploog and Mentor Huebner and makeup artist Stan Winston, who would later go on a phenomenal run of his own. In fact, as The Thing’s production progressed, Bottin’s crew grew to include more than forty people, and the creature effects budget doubled. Bottin worked on the film for more than a year, pushing himself to exhaustion. He ended up checking into a hospital to recover.

Three decades later, Team Bottin’s maniacal, go-for-broke set pieces continue to impress. Once you’ve seen them, you’re not likely to forget them. Until Terminator 2 came along in 1991, The Thing was the final word in creature-transformation effects; it’s still the apex of practical creature-transformation effects, seeing as how T-2 blended practical with digital to usher in the CGI revolution. If The Thing’s effects no longer shock like they once did, they remain a triumph of craft and imagination.

Man Is the Warmest Place to Hide

In restoring Campbell’s creature, Carpenter and Lancaster also restored the central idea of Campbell’s story, summarized by the line, “Is that man next to me an inhuman monster?

It turns out that the writer of The Bad News Bears was an inspired pick to adapt such a story. Like the Bears, The Thing’s crew are ragtag misfits banding together to form an unlikely team. Lancaster efficiently sketches each character here as he did there, and the excellent ensemble cast gives each man a distinct personality. We feel like we know these guys, and we may even like some of them. Their cynical banter sounds natural, the way twelve guys would really talk to each other if they had to share cramped quarters in Antarctica for the long haul. That any one (or more) of them may be a monster provides enough tension for any film. We dread the men turning on each other, or erupting like that poor dog, but we know it’s coming. As spectacular as the effects may be, it’s the Who’s Who? and Who’s Next? suspense that truly drives this movie.

Paranoia consumes the men as they realize how easily the Thing can spread from one organism to another. Clark the dog handler draws scrutiny for obvious reasons. The biologist Blair destroys the station’s radio and vehicles. Blair may be crazed, or he may be the only character who understands the stakes, acting logically to quarantine the Thing. The others decide to conduct a blood serum test but find that someone (or some Thing) is one step ahead. The locker containing the blood supply has been opened, the supply drained; only Copper and Garry had access to the blood. Even our hero MacReady falls under suspicion, as he should in a movie that traffics in tenuous identities.

Intentionally or not, The Thing opens up a host of philosophical questions more often addressed in science fiction than horror – If the Thing can perfectly replicate a human, what does it mean to be human? Should human rights apply to replicated humans? If the Thing takes over the planet with replicated humans, would the planet really be any worse off than it is now? – and it wisely leaves them unanswered, trusting us to handle some ambiguity.

That trust extends to the ending, the other notable deviation from Who Goes There? In both the novella and the 1951 film, the men succeed in killing the creature. In Carpenter’s film, we’re not so sure. MacReady and the mechanic Childs survive the explosive destruction of the station. Both men still appear to be human, but we just don’t know. Nor do we know if they’ll be rescued. The 1951 film ended with the journalist warning the world to “keep watching the skies.” The 1982 version ends with an implicit warning to keep watching that guy sitting across from you even as you both freeze to death. It may be a bleak ending, but it’s also perfect for such a cold, hard, uncompromising film.

(Part 1) (Part 3)

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