The Thing directed by John Carpenter
It is a debate that my buddy Jack and I have been having for decades now: Which is the better version of The Thing? The original classic from 1951, actually entitled The Thing From Another World and directed by Christian Nyby (and, it is conjectured, Howard Hawks), OR the 1982 remake directed by John Carpenter? People who know me, and of my love for all things pertaining to 1950s sci-fi, as well as my dislike of unnecessary remakes, will perhaps be surprised to learn that I have always been the champion of the latter film. The original, I have long maintained, is a slow-moving, overly talky affair that is only sporadically punctuated by a few bursts of excitement. Its overlapping dialogue, although realistic, is often incomprehensible, and its central monster something of a letdown, as played by James Arness with clawed hands. But perhaps my central attack on the film is the fact that it is hardly in keeping with John W. Campbell’s terrific novella of 1938, “Who Goes There?,” on which it is based.
Campbell’s Thing was a shape-shifter that could assume the identity of any person who it assimilates, and his tale was one of intense paranoia, with none of the men in the Antarctic station near where the Thing had crash-landed sure of any of his fellows’ true identity. The original film threw out that shape-shifter angle and instead turned the Thing into a vegetable humanoid; a “walking carrot,” as one of the characters calls it, which for me has never been nearly as frightening a proposition. My opinion of the ‘51 film, to be fair, was ticked up a notch recently, when I got to see it on the big screen in a brand-new print that both heightened the visuals and made those overlapping sentences easier to follow. And to be honest, that original film still does contain two scenes that are amongst the very best of ‘50s sci-fi: the one in which the scientists form a circle about the perimeter of an alien spaceship buried in the ice, and the closing scene, with one of the characters telling us to “Keep watching the skies.” Still, there is that walking carrot. Anyway, my feeling has long been that Carpenter’s remake, which does indeed present the Thing as a shape-shifter, is both far more intense and closer to Campbell’s vision. I had only seen this remake once before, with my buddy Big Al on a stormy afternoon, at home, back in the late ‘80s, but had never forgotten its power. And a recent rewatch has only confirmed for me which film is the superior shocker.
Carpenter’s film opens with a most memorable sequence, as two men in a Norwegian helicopter pursue a Malamute sled dog across a snowfield in the desolate Antarctic, firing at it with a shotgun all the while. Their pursuit ends in disaster when they finally land at the Americans’ National Science Institute, Station 4, with its 12 male occupants. One of the Norwegians is killed when he attempts to chuck an explosive at the fleeing mutt, while the other is shot down by the station’s commanding officer, Garry (Donald Moffat), in the belief that the Norwegian has gone mad. The poor mutt is taken in by the Americans and placed in a kennel with other dogs…a big mistake, as it turns out. Before long, that mutt is seen to slowly and horribly change, absorbing its fellow canines and morphing into some kind of alien monstrosity. It is quickly flamed out of existence and later autopsied by the group’s biologist, Blair (Wilford Brimley).
The station’s chopper pilot, MacReady (Kurt Russell, who had already appeared in Carpenter’s cult classic Escape From New York and would go on to star in his Big Trouble in Little China and Escape From L.A.), and the station’s doctor, Copper (Richard Dysart), fly to the Norwegian base and find it deserted, except for an incredibly yucky-looking humanoid who looks to have been burnt to a cinder. Before long, and after discovering the remains of a crash-landed spaceship that had been buried for 100,000 years in the ice (yes, a scene that rivals the one in the ’51 film), the truth becomes apparent: What they are dealing with is an alien shape-shifter who can assimilate any of the men on base and replicate them perfectly. Can any of the men trust any of the others now? Who is a genuine human, and who an alien monster? And there are more dire matters to consider, as Blair discovers. If allowed to reach civilization, this Thing, within 27,000 hours, could conceivably take over all life on Earth….
The promotional poster for the remake of The Thing proclaimed it to be “The Ultimate In Alien Terror,” and Carpenter & Co. surely do bust a literal gut here to make the film a horror to behold. The special FX by Rob Bottin (who had worked on Carpenter’s The Fog a few years earlier) are truly remarkable; both disgusting to look at and fascinating to behold. And indeed, this is surely not a film for the squeamish, the viewer being treated to such visuals as an arm being stitched in close-up, a shotgun blast to the face, that horrible-looking corpse at the Norwegian station and the intensely gross autopsy of same, finger slittings, and, most famously, the “chest chomp,” in which Copper’s arms are bitten off by the alien creature as he performs a defibrillation on what he had believed to be a fellow human. Every manifestation of the Thing is both horrible and hypnotic to behold; you will not believe when the creature’s stomach starts to sprout mouths, or when the head of its latest victim sprouts spider legs and begins to crawl away!
Carpenter’s direction is typically intense; the script by Bill Lancaster (whose only other screen credits are for two of the Bad News Bears movies, of all things!) is taut and no-nonsense; the film’s score by the maestro, Ennio Morricone, is atmospheric and memorable; and the cinematography of the picture by Dean Cundey (who had already worked with Carpenter on both Halloween and The Fog) is just gorgeous to look at. Filmed in part in the Tongass National Forest in Juneau, Alaska and in Stewart, British Columbia, this film really does convince the viewer that he/she is in the frozen Antarctic. The film is what the Campbell novella originally set out: a self-contained crucible of intense paranoia and mistrust. And it is never more intense than in the scene in which the men, to ascertain who is what, submit to a blood test; a scene taken straight out of the Campbell work. In the film, as MacReady takes a heated wire and dips it into each blood sample, the viewer waits in tense expectancy. And when MacReady finally does dip that wire into the alien blood sample, the viewer will most assuredly jump out of his or her seat. It is a supremely well-done scene, followed by an appallingly horrific sequence of events, and this segment of the film alone easily excels any single scene in the original film for intensity and scares. The Thing here is a true monstrosity, hardly a walking vegetable, and whereas the 1951 picture would dish out maybe two scenes in which the men confront their alien menace, the 1982 film gives us many, including a socko and explosive conclusion. Kudos to Kurt Russell here, for his terrific portrayal of the icy MacReady, and to the filmmakers who decided, after much back-and-forth deliberation, to end their film on a note of distrust and uncertainty.
The Thing, after its June 25, 1982 release, proved to be only a fair performer at the box office, pulling in around $20 million after being produced for $15 million, but to be fair, it had a lot of competition in the theaters that summer. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial had been released the month before, and its cute and cuddly alien would help turn it into a box-office megasmash. On June 4th, Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan had been released, to the great delight of all Trekkers everywhere. And on that same June 25th, Ridley Scott’s future cult item Blade Runner was released, as well. Of those four films, The Thing would result in the most critical lambasting, both for being an affront to the original and for its yucky visuals. But the years would be kind to it, and the film today is revered as something of a classic in its own right. And to be quite honest, I quite prefer it as a work of cinematic art over both E.T. and Blade Runner, although hardly as much as Trek 2, which I still love to bits.
This most recent watch of the remake has only confirmed my long-held belief that while the original film does have much to offer, talky and static as it is, Carpenter’s vision is the one that I prefer. It is a film that puts the viewer through the proverbial wringer, and the after effects of watching it will linger for days. Yes, the 1951 picture got there first, and will forever be deemed, justly or not, as a classic (and no, it does not even crack this viewer’s Top 10 Greatest Sci-Fi Films of the 1950s list), but the Carpenter film is the one with the power and the scares. It is one of the very few remakes that I find preferable over the original (another remake favorite of mine is the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon, by the way), and that should tell you something….
Interesting review, still not enough weight given to the fact that the carpenter version had the advantage of much improved availability of special effects of the era.
When discussing memorable scenes from the original movie, two more of my favorite were, when they enter the green house and discover two of their comrades hanging upside down with their throats cut open ( this scene is left out of alot versions). On a lighter side of things(funny), the scene when they open the door and the newspaper reporter (scottie) wanted to get a picture of the creature. They open the door, the creature throws his arms around and let’s out a wild sounding noise, then they slam the door close. Scottie during this whole event, fell backwards and never got the photo. When asked if he wanted them to open the door again. He replied no, while shaking.
I did enjoy the carpenter version, and it was closer to the original story line. Still, my heart always goes back to the original version. One of my top 10 sci-fi movies
See what I mean, folks? My old buddy Jack and I will never agree on this pressing topic! 😁
I enjoyed the Carpenter version. I am very fond of the original. They are two very different movies with very different presentation.
The atmosphere of the 1951 film resonates for me – I am just old enough to remember the Cold War and how it felt. Part of the appeal (and the horror?) is that most of the film seems so ordinary even given its “exotic” locale.
Mind you, the ‘walking carrot’ did jar a little a bit, and now always makes me think of the Arrogant Worms song “Carrot Juice is Murder”. Perhaps the Thing was after revenge?
“Carrot Juice Is Murder”?!?! I love it! Gotta go to YouTube now to check it out! Thanks, Becky!
I’m with you. These two films fill very different spaces in my mental landscape. The ’51 version is a parable for the Cold War and McCarthyism (not unlike INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS), while Carpenter’s version was more straight up horror.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmK0bZl4ILM CARROT JUICE IS MURDER. Thanks, Becky!