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

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

The Ultimate In Alien Terror

In pitting the U.S. military against a global threat, The Thing from Another World was very much a film of its time. Carpenter’s film was both behind its time (its worldview more in line with the hardbitten ’70s than the Reagan ’80s) and ahead (audiences and critics would be much kinder to David Cronenberg’s comparably edgy, effects-heavy remake of The Fly four years later). Released in a landscape dominated by remakes, reboots, prequels, and sequels, 2011’s The Thing finds itself in step with the times once again.

It’s both a prequel that depicts what happened at the Norwegian camp and a remake that hits many of the same plot points as the 1982 film. It lacks suspense in the way all prequels lack suspense; we know where it must go and what must happen for it to arrive there. As a remake it fails because its effects aren’t special enough to justify another go-round. Many viewers found the 1982 film’s effects repulsive but still had to concede their novelty. The 2011 Thing offers nothing but CGI like we’ve seen in countless movies over the past twenty-five years and countless more currently playing at your local multiplex. The 1982 version provoked vitriol from critics and queasiness from audiences; in a sign of how jaded we’ve become toward CGI, the new Thing was met with indifference.

It exists not because the filmmakers had a fresh approach to the material but because the 1982 film has become marketably nostalgic. Universal thought it could exploit that nostalgia, which is funny considering how the studio reacted to the 1982 film’s initial reception. When the previews didn’t go well, Universal changed the poster art and tagline in an apparent panic. When the movie flopped, Universal fired Carpenter from the job of directing FirestarterOne must wonder how he felt in 2009, when Universal announced its plans to prequelize/re-remake The Thing without his participation, even though he’d expressed interest in directing a sequel.

At any rate, the 2011 Thing bombed as hard as the 1982 version. Someday the new Thing may enjoy its own reappraisal, but at the risk of sounding like one of the critics quoted above, I doubt it. Feel free to correct me in thirty years.

In the meantime, I can only tell you what I’ve witnessed. Carpenter’s film has pulled off a transformation worthy of its villain, from “instant junk” to beloved classic. By now it’s more popular and influential than the original, regardless of its critics’ hissy fits and conniptions. This shift only signals a change in mainstream taste, however; for some of us, The Thing was always a great film that never deserved the drubbing it received. It was (and still is) a blend of magic and gutsy ambition, the kind of quality horror movie that major studios don’t produce often enough.

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Recommended Reading

Anne Billson’s The Thing (BFI Modern Classics), published in 1997, was an excellent resource long before Thing essays sprang up all over the Internet. Billson also wrote a worthwhile Thing article for The Guardian in 2009.

Stuart Cohen’s blog – http://theoriginalfan.blogspot.co.uk – is essential if you’re interested in the production and release of The Thing.

Outpost #31 is an amazingly dedicated and comprehensive fan site. These guys trekked up to Stewart, British Columbia to visit the movie’s filming locations. I salute them.

The Thing Wiki

A very good post by Joe Valdez for This Distracted Globe.

(Part 1) (Part 2)

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