Kurt Russell - R.J. MacReady
Wilford Brimley - Dr. Blair
Keith David - Childs
Donald Moffat - Garry
Richard Dysart - Dr. Copper
Richard Musur - Clark
David Clennon - Palmer
Charles Hallahan - Vance Norris
Joel Polis - Fuchs
T.K. Carter - Nauls
Genre - Science Fiction/Horror/Aliens/Remake
Running Time - 109 Minutes
In Part 1 of this month's Original vs. Remake post, I reviewed the 1951 sci-fi Howard Hawks produced/"directed" film, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. It's a film that still holds up quite well after 60 years, being truly influential in how other science fiction and horror films would be made later on. Like I mentioned in that post, Ridley Scott was greatly influenced by THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, creating an influential and classic sci-fi/horror film of his own in 1979 called ALIEN. As we know, ALIEN would become a huge franchise that would eventually merge with the PREDATOR franchise for their VS. films. But another high-profile horror director was also influenced by this film. His name is John Carpenter.
John Carpenter, now considered the "Master of Suspense" by his peers, is a huge fan of Howard Hawks, inspired by his films enough to become a filmmaker himself back in the mid-1970s. In fact, Howard Hawks' classic western, RIO BRAVO, was the main template for Carpenter's vision for his 1976 film, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Carpenter is also a huge fan of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. In the slasher classic, 1978's HALLOWEEN, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD was the film that Tommy Doyle and Lindsay Wallace watched on "The Night He Came Home". With later works such as 1980's THE FOG and 1981's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK increasing his profile, it was obvious that Carpenter was building up to something huge. What he built up to is what many consider Carpenter's masterpiece work in cinema - his version of THE THING.
Unlike Hawks however, Carpenter took the source material, John W. Campbell's short story, "Who Goes There?", and interpreted it much more closely than Hawks ever did. With the help of a bigger budget and greater knowledge in Special Effects [here done by the great Rob Bottin], Carpenter was able to take the story and give it the interpretation that was lacking in the original. Because of this, THE THING plays out more of a different adaptation of this short story rather than a literal remake of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. In fact, many fans believe that Carpenter made THE THING sort of a psuedo-sequel to its 1951 predecessor, using reenacted clips from the original film to build a new story based on the original's events. Whether the case for THE THING's "remake status", there's no debate about Carpenter's version: it's a must-see film for any science fiction and horror fan that's the epitome of how a truly perfect remake is accomplished.
In a tundra in Antarctica, a Siberian Husky is being chased by two Norwegian scientists, who try to shoot the dog from the air. Unfortunately, the duo is unable to kill the dog when members of a nearby American remote research facility kill the Norwegians, seeing them as a threat. Pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) fly in a helicopter towards the Norwegian camp for some answers, only to find that the camp is empty. The two investigate, finding evidence that these Norwegians found something frozen in the ice - something not entirely human.
As the Americans ponder whether the evidence of an alien life form is true, there is hell going on inside the dog pens where this Husky was put in. Apparently, the Husky wasn't a dog at all, but an alien that's able to absorb other living beings in order to replicate them convincingly. With the knowledge, paranoia sets in with the group - all convinced that one or more may be one of those Things in disguise.
The issue becomes more grave when Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) figures out that the reason The Thing is on Earth is to take over the world by infecting and absorbing everyone on the planet. With the frozen weather cutting off communication to the outside world and the level of distrust growing among the Americans, is the hope of stopping this Thing slim to none?
THE THING, in my opinion, is the greatest horror "remake" ever filmed. It does exactly what any remake should do: tell a similar story from a different angle, fix the flaws that hindered the original to create a more effective watch, and create a new experience for a modern generation while keeping enough of the source material to bring in fans of the original film. THE THING is bigger, stronger, and more memorable than THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD could ever be, which shows the strength of the source material, the technology of the time compared to the original, and its director John Carpenter.
THE THING, while considered a classic piece of horror/sci-fi cinema today, was a pretty huge bomb when it was released in June of 1982. This was not a reflection of the film itself, obviously, but of the timing and marketing of the film's release. In 1982, telling a story about deadly alien force wasn't something the mainstream audience was willing to present themselves with - especially since two weeks prior to THE THING's release, Steven Spielberg's classic, E.T., gave audiences a family friendly tale of a loveable alien who was a victim of ignorance and opportunity. When presented with either a bleak, psychological story about an alien outbreak or a family film with an alien who has a catchphrase and loves Reese Pieces [not to mention a young Drew Barrymore raising the cute factor], the audience was obviously going to go with the more upbeat E.T. The box office failure really hurt John Carpenter's career in terms of budget [this film cost $13.7 million to make], as studios weren't confident in allowing Carpenter to create his vision with a lot of money they felt would not gain a profit. In fact, STARMAN and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA [two films with sizeable budgets after THE THING's release] also bombed box office wise, even though both have gained a huge cult following due to home video and cable. I think if THE THING had been released earlier in the year or much later, like in October, the film would have done a lot better financial wise. It also would have raised Carpenter's status for studio heads.
That being said, while E.T. is a great film in its own right, THE THING is really the more compelling and cerebral of the two films. The film has so many things going for it, including the fantastic screenplay written by Bill Lancaster [son of actor Burt Lancaster]. Like I mentioned, Carpenter's version of THE THING is more faithful to the John W. Campbell story. With the help of a good-sized budget, Carpenter and Lancaster were able to really capture the essence of the story that the Howard Hawks production was unable to due to the times. Unlike The Thing in the 1951 film, this version of the alien is more like the one in "Who Goes There?", as well as being a major focus of the film that turns the narrative on its head and creates dramas for the characters as well. In a lot of ways, Carpenter intended to do the opposite of what his mentor did in the original. Hawks used the alien as a way to bring the protagonists together, giving them dimension by having them try to deduce how to stop the alien and his pods from spreading outside their base. Carpenter decided to use the alien as a way to separate the protagonists, getting into their heads. Fear and paranoia motivates these characters rather than trying to figure out how this alien can be destroyed.
And that's why I believe THE THING is a better film than the original. It plays on the emotions of the characters more realistically than the original did. Having a life form being easily able to absorb your cell structure and make another version of you is a frightening thought. The idea of twins and seeing one's reflection of themselves has always been a common motif in literature and cinema. It makes us question ourselves about our appearance and about the ways we conduct ourselves. It also makes us lose a sense of individuality when someone else looks like us. What if this other "me" does things better than I can? Where does that leave me? That sort of conflict comes across as very interesting and scary when the right people are expressing it.
The Thing is a visual form of the fear these men have to deal with. They're isolated at the coldest region on the planet. There's no women around to please their sexual urges. Even though they work together, they already feel rifts of their crumbling relationship with one another due to cabin fever, wondering why this person is in charge and why aren't they doing anything to make their escape from this place quicker. They constantly sit around, getting drunk just to pass the time. There's no question as to why this alien would make things worse for them. The fact that they don't understand where it's come from and why it's there with them just adds another layer of conflict for our characters, which is something that's shared with the original film [the fear of the unknown]. But the act of watching this alien transform into a dog they've been caring for, or one of their trusted colleagues, just takes things to a whole 'nother level. This generates the layer of distrust, causing this group to separate rather than unite against the alien. Are these people who they say they are? How can they figure out who's real and who's an alien? Can any of them survive this invasion? How will they survive when they can't communicate with the outside world and escape their bunker? This creates questions not only for the characters in the film, but for the audience as well. It creates tension and suspense on a human level rather than it being expected and forced. That's why THE THING still resonates strongly today - while most of us will never be in this situation, watching it and putting ourselves in the shoes of these scared characters will make us paranoid about those around us. While the alien is the villain of the film, the real monster of THE THING is the human mind. If friends can't trust each other, who can they trust?
THE THING does get a lot of flack for not being a strong film for character development. And it's true - the characters in the film aren't as developed as the ones in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD or other films similar to it. We really don't know the backstories to any of these people and/or how far their friendship with each other goes. While that does hurt a lot of films, it actually helps give THE THING its strength. It's a good thing we don't know their backgrounds because it really doesn't matter all that much for the narrative to succeed and move ahead. This film isn't about past experiences and how it effects the characters' futures. This film is about the moment - about the now. This alien doesn't share history with any of these characters. We accept the fact that these characters work with each other and must have some level of respect being cooped up in the middle of nowhere. We know enough about each character to understand what their role is in this story and how each person relates to the other, making their struggle to trust each other while trying to stop this alien threat from spreading effective enough to keep us interested in the end result. The fact that The Thing can make these characters so afraid of each other so quickly shows how close these men really are to each other - which is not very much to begin with apparently.
It's been said that John W. Campbell was inspired by his mom and her twin sister, who disliked John because he couldn't tell the two part. The Thing represents the fear of not knowing who someone you're supposedly close to really is. Ironically, The Thing can be a representation of a female presence that's threatening to destroy these men by making them turn on each other. These men, while obviously having their own agendas, were easy to get along with before the alien [who can reproduce and create offspring] invades their space, causing nothing but conflict for the men. It's almost as if The Thing is sexual in nature. It has the ability to take one's DNA and create something that not only looks like you, but is a part of you in a way. The whole blood test deal, where if you add heat to a person's blood to see if the chemicals react [if they do, you're an alien], feels like a test for HIV. None of the men want to do it, afraid of what it will reveal about them. There's no level of trust. Everyone wants control because they're afraid of losing their sense of self. THE THING works on so many levels, both beneath and above the surface.
Speaking of above the surface, the special effects and make up by Rob Bottin [the dog kennel scene was done by SFX master, Stan Winston, to amazing effect as well]. are just fantastic to watch. Sure, the slow motion animation and the effects themselves may look dated, but I prefer these practical effects over CGI any day of the week. First of all, the effects are pretty gross even today, so they are not for the faint of heart. But watching the dogs begin to transform, to the scenes where The Thing itself runs around with a human head of an infected protagonist, and to that classic moment where defibrillator paddles leads to a stomach opening up and biting the hands off one of the characters are still grand spectacles in the genre. I also love the fact that The Thing never looks the same every time we see it, as it constantly morphs into something or someone else with ease. Bottin [and Winston to an effect] help give this monster life and personality that the original film couldn't due to budget limitations. You believe that this alien exists and it's quite frightening to look at. It's one of the best monsters ever created in cinema.
The direction by John Carpenter is brilliant. I know I've said that HALLOWEEN was his best work as a director, but after watching THE THING again, I need to take that back. While I still love HALLOWEEN and it's still my favorite film ever, THE THING is really Carpenter's masterpiece and his peak as a filmmaker. Watching this film, you can tell right away that Carpenter had every frame, every shot, every sequence planned out to perfection. Every inch of the frame reveals something important, which increases the replay value. Carpenter loves using the framing and composition to reveal information to the audience that the characters can't see or understand, creating a high level of dramatic irony that one has to appreciate. The scene where The Thing escapes as the head of one of the characters after MacReady sprays the poor guy with a flamethrower is a great example, leading up to a classic moment where the classic line, "You gotta be fuckin' kidding me" is recited. I also loved the use of recreated footage, like the men forming a circle to reveal a flying saucer from THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. THE THING feels like a follow up to that film, which I kind of like.
The screenplay is strong, but the visuals give it the power to truly create fantastic piece of cinema thanks to Carpenter. Carpenter also uses the setting to great effect. The characters are stuck inside a cold, snowy, dark place where there's no other life but themselves and The Thing itself. The locations are bleak, depressing, and almost sinister in terms of structure. Dean Cundey, Carpenter's favorite cinematographer, does an amazing job giving the Antarctic setting a life of its own. The editing is excellent. The pacing is perfect. The tension [especially during the blood test scene], mood, and atmosphere is off the charts. And the soundtrack by Ennio Morricone is just fitting in every way. THE THING is a visual masterpiece and probably John Carpenter's finest work as a filmmaker.
The acting is fantastic as well, fleshing out these one-dimensional archetypes into believable people. Kurt Russell, who had done films for Carpenter previously such as ELVIS and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, is just perfect as MacReady. He's funny, heroic, and just all around confident in the role. He's an everyday man who just happens to be a bad ass. Plus the beard is just epic in itself. One of my favorite Russell roles.
Keith David, who would later star in Carpenter's THEY LIVE, is great as Childs. He keeps a steely-eyed stare and seems like a man in control of himself and the situation. But through David's performance, we eventually see it's all a facade and the man is really scared about The Thing's presence. It's a truly convincing performance. Wilford Brimley is good as Blair. He does portray the character over the top at times, but if I had to deal with an alien who wants to absorb me to make a clone of myself, I'd probably be dramatic too. He does stand out a bit because the other actors play their roles in a more subtle way, but Brimley is memorable because of it. The other actors are great as well, especially Richard Musur as the creepy dog lover, Clark, and David Clennon as Palmer. Each actor fits their role really well and create characters that feel real within a surrealistic situation.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE LETTING MY DUPLICATE FINISH THIS REVIEW
- MacReady plays Chess on tthe computer, getting beat every time. Well he may lose to Chess, but against a computer, he'll always win at boxing. Cheating bitch...
- The Norwegians were willing to do anything to murder that sled dog. It must have scared "The Living Daylights" out of them if they were that desperate in "Hunting High and Low" for it.
- The Thing, in the guise of a dog, wanted to replicate itself and the other dogs inside the kennel. I wouldn't be surprised if Michael Vick was somehow behind all this.
- The group couldn't find Blair. It's probably because Mrs. Garrett needed Blair after she fallen and couldn't get up. The Facts of Life are pretty hard to swallow.
- One of the replicated heads of The Thing used its tongue to get away from getting burned from the rest of the corpse. Gene Simmons needs a blood test to prove he's not an alien...or that he doesn't have an STD.
THE FINAL HOWL
Even though it was a box office failure back in 1982, 29 years have been very kind to THE THING. It's just an incredible film on every level and a must see for anyone who loves science fiction, horror, or cinema in general. Usually, I would pick a winner between the original and the remake. And as much as I prefer this film over to THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD by a drop, the only true winner of this Original vs. Remake is the audience for having one story adapted in two entirely different ways by two men who know how to make captivating and exciting films. I may be in the minority, but I'm kind of looking forward to the prequel in October. Will it be as good as these two films? I guess we'll find out in a few months. And even if it isn't, at least we still have THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and THE THING to keep us satisfied.