A while back I said I’d review an all-time favorite monster flick if someone shared a favorite of their own. Happily, the film shared was a lock-in for my “All-Time” list. And because I feel like this movie is so horribly underappreciated (though most modern viewers and reviewers are making up for past injustice in strides), and because I want people to see the upcoming prequel with the appropriate amount of respect, I give you my take on:
John Carpenter’s remake of Howard Hughes’ “The Thing from Another World” was far more faithful to the source material than its predecessor, the classic novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. (Available in its entirety here.) However, that didn’t mean that Carpenter was spiteful of the older film; on the contrary, the film was such a favorite that he utilized scenes from it in his landmark 1978 independent film “Halloween.” Of the scenes used, one was the opening title, which, in an act of loving and artistic admiration, Carpenter recreated in his remake.
The Hughes production made use of the story’s location simply to exploit the isolationistic aspect of the story, as well as the singular dangers that unrestrained hubris presents to society. A precursor to the claustrophobic “Alien” (1979), The Thing from Another World helped build a sense of dread through the use of an inescapable environment (in this case, the Antarctic wasteland). The characters had no hope of escape; destroying the monster was literally the only option.
The film, released in 1951, kick-started the silver age of science fiction in cinema (and, by proxy, in B-Roll cinema as well), though it is little more than a “monster on the loose” picture. There is a slightly heavy-handed message about the dangerous frontiers science had recently opened (culturing unknown alien life was used as a parallel to atomic research) and the need for practicality to overrule unrestrained hubris (there’s that damn word again), but it is, at its core a “boogedy-boogedy” kinda flick.
Though a sentimental favorite to sci-fi lovin’ Baby Boomers everywhere, it shared little thematic or storytelling relation to Campbell’s 1938 novella. In “Who Goes There?” Campbell’s extraterrestrial is a shape-changing, amorphous entity who assimilates organic matter as a means of ensuring reproduction. In layman’s terms, in ate you, and used your tissue to make more boogedies.
And it copied you. Since the Thing of Campbell’s books is vulnerable while feeding, it must hide in plain sight by using a trick acquired via its feeding process: replicating the genetic sequencing of its victims. AKA: shapeshifting.
And it doesn’t just look like you, it thinks like you, talks like you, goes on tangents like you. It is you. And the only one who realizes it isn’t you is you, right as it proceeds to devour you…
Campbell was renowned for introducing emotional depth to mainstream science fiction, which save for the works of H.G. Wells, was heretofore a genre more concerned with being science-ish than story-ish. “Who Goes There?” is a landmark example, exploring themes of despair, paranoia, and trust in just over forty pages. Though its short length does cause the story to suffer, it’s still a powerful piece of quickie fiction.
When Carpenter approached his remake of the Hughes’ film, he came to the project with a mindset of creating a more faithful adaptation of the Campbell novella. Set again in Antarctica, the remake greatly reduced the cast of characters, and increased the atmosphere of dread by setting the film before an oncoming winter storm. The men in Carpenter’s film weren’t just isolated; they were completely and totally cut off, and their small numbers drove home how alone they were in their plight.
The film starts right off letting you know something is…off. A helicopter is chasing an innocent-looking sled dog across the snow, its sniper passenger taking potshots at the poor, lonely husky. The dog’s pursuers are relentless, the chopper giving crazed pursuit through snowdrifts and blizzard winds.
The men, Norwegian researchers, scream what sounds like gibberish at the workers in an American camp, before shooting wildly at the dog. Not understanding the Norwegian language, the American men can only use lethal force to neutralize what they see as a very real threat. Little do they know that the real horror has safely infiltrated their midst, in the form of a quiet, adoring dog…
The creature is found out when it is caught attempting to assimilate the facility’s other dogs, but not before it is able to hide amongst the men and assimilate one of their number. And so a paranoid race against time ensues. Trust breaks down, tension turns to rage, and self-preservation leads to isolation and seclusion from others. Any of the men could be the monster in disguise, and none are willing to risk their safety to trust, or aid, their fellow man.
The film explores the depths to which the human capacity for distrust can take us. The men in “The Thing” are not only willing to allow their colleagues to die, they are willing to kill each other for their own survival. Loyalty goes out the window with this running loose:
Carpenter’s usual habit is to exclusively write his own music for his movies, but “The Thing” was an exception, with the film’s score written and performed by Italian film composer Ennio Morricone with Carpenter serving as an uncredited co-writer. The music, low-key and constant, underscores the palpable dread oozing through the film, and gradually builds in intensity as the film nears its climax, unconsciously driving our tensed nerves deeper and deeper into the film’s bleak narrative.
The effects are world-class, but went unappreciated in their day due to an unusually high outbreak of stupidity in critical circles in the 80s. Yeah, they’re goopy, but it’s hard to imagine how a creature that can literally fold its own body like paper can be anything but.
Unfortunately, even today there are some who refuse to look past the shocking special effects (created by technical genius Rob Bottin, with aid from maestro Stan Winston in the infamous Kennel Scene) to see what the film truly is: a study on the nature of paranoia. Suspicion is fine; it’s what keeps people safe and alive. It’s what makes trust so valuable when it is earned. But paranoia is an entirely different bag. Paranoid people turn on friends and loved ones, and value their own pathology more than reason or rationality. Paranoia kills, inside and out, and this is brought to physical embodiment through the titular monster in “The Thing”
Not only does the film explore the nature of distrust, but the monster itself is a powerful metaphor for the monstrous capacity for violence that exists within people. Arguing against this is seemingly futile; it is this capacity for violence that breeds our potential for distrust. And often, when we discover something dark about the nature of those we know, it is usually with horror that we regard this new shade in which we see them.
It is only when there is no hope of survival that the men realize what must be done. This creature cannot escape, no matter what. If it reaches the mainland, all Hell will break loose. It is only when the point of their survival is mooted that the men realize the pointlessness of their destructive paranoia. All that matters is stopping the creature, and only by banding together, and placing their total trust in one another, can the men hope to foil the monster’s machinations.
The effort is dangerous, but vital. Several of the men die pursuing the creature, but the hunt is relentless; they know it has to die.
The iconic final scene brings home the message of the futility of paranoia. Having dynamited the entire camp in an effort to annihilate the creature, only Macready (Kurt Russell) seems to have survived. Temporarily warmed by the fire, Macready waits for the freezing cold with a surviving bottle of whisky. Stumbling towards him comes Childs (Keith David), earlier suspected of having been assimilated by the Thing. Macready and Childs hold one another in the sights of their flame throwers, each convinced of the other’s monstrous conversion. Eventually the two men come to a realization: it doesn’t matter. There is no way of knowing if either are the monster, and even if there was, it would be pointless to destroy each other now. Realizing the futility of their distrust, the two men share a drink while waiting for the encroaching storm of winter.
“The Thing” is a masterpiece. I consistently hold it to be one of the greatest American science fiction films ever made, hitting a home run in every category the genre sets out to explore. And when others stop to think about it, I’ve noticed they’re pretty quick to agree. The acting is engaging but believable, the setting claustrophobic to the level of suffocation, and the pace hold you so tightly you can feel its claws digging into you. It’s a movie that definitely makes you want company when you watch it, even if it does leave you wondering about who exactly you’re seeing it with.
(P.S.: Hit up Netflix and watch this beast! Then go see the remake in October and tell me whether or not to see it…and then sigh when I go see it anyway, no matter what you tell me.)