31 Days of Hell: The Many Faces of THE THING

Andrew recounts the long and sometimes not so illustrious history of THE THING.

In 1938, John W. Campbell wrote a science fiction novella entitled Who Goes There? for the ongoing periodical Astounding Science Fiction.  It became one of the most influential works of science fiction of all time, spawning multiple film adaptations as well as providing the framework for similarly themed science fiction thrillers.  Set in Antarctica in what feels like a permanent winter, a group of scientists studying in the region happen upon an alien spacecraft buried deep within the ice after crashing on the Earth’s surface millions of years ago.  

Efforts to unthaw the ship prove futile, but the crew discovers the ship’s extraterrestrial pilot frozen nearby.  The frozen remains are excavated and returned to the scientific base for further investigation.  Little does the crew know the remains are still alive and has a unique defense mechanism: it can transform its outward appearance to a perfect replica of any living creature it comes into contact with.  Soon the scientists are locked in mortal combat as the creature slays and becomes the crew one member at a time as the survivors try to both extinguish the alien life form as well as prevent it from reaching populated areas.  A classic in the pantheon of science fiction horror, this tale of paranoia, outbreak and alien terror served as the benchmark for some of the most brilliant and terrifying science fiction horror films of all time. 

Let us take a look at the checkered past, present and future of this timeless tale of terror.

The Thing from Another World (1951 – directed by Christian Nyby)

The first of what would form three distinct but intrinsically linked cinematic adaptations of John W. Cambpell’s seminal novella, The Thing from Another World is widely considered one of the great science fiction films of the 1950s.  One of the earliest and most legendary cinematic examples of the stowaway alien story threatening the survival of all mankind, The Thing from Another World loosely adapts the original story for practical reasons.   Unsurprisingly due to technical limitations of the period, the least faithful rendering of Campbell’s original story loses the all-male dynamic by giving the hero a romantic love interest.  Also gone is the shape shifting creature in favor of a standard Boris Karloff inspired manifestation with James Arness hulking about the arctic set pieces.  Despite these unfortunate alterations, many classic tropes of science fiction are established here, such as the use of the Theremin in the soundtrack, a metallic silver flying saucer, plant pods which would echo Little Shop of Horrors and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the stereotypical mad scientist with an affinity for the creature, and that classic warning about watching the skies for more flying saucers.  Although Howard Hawks’ production is somewhat more user friendly than Campbell’s source material, it does retain a fair amount of iconic moments from the original story.  Notably, the block of ice containing the creature excavated resembles something akin to an arctic coffin.  

"Hey guys. This Hoth planet
isn't so bad after all."
Although the creature is ostensibly a costumed man, director Christian Nyby (or Hawks, depending on whose version you read in the history books) uses innovative lighting techniques to obscure the thing’s features so you’re not entirely sure what it looks like.  The film’s most striking image involves the team of scientists at the crash site forming a perfect circle, photographed in wide angle to give a sense of vastness to the imprint left by the crash.  This particular image would find itself reused again and again, notably in films like Jurassic Park and the 1998 American remake of Godzilla.  Equally striking is the opening title sequence, with letters forming the film’s title slowly burning through the background, both ominous and foreboding.  

Ahead of its time, The Thing from Another World came out against such formidable science fiction thrillers as The Day the Earth Stood Still and When Worlds Collide.  It wasn’t an immediate hit with critics, who were evenly split on the film’s validity due to the grand deviations from the source material.  Eventually, however, The Thing from Another World found itself inducted by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as well as receiving top honors from the American Film Institute.  Little did moviegoers and critics know that years later, an independent filmmaker with newfound success over his 1978 film Halloween would envision a new take on the classic story that forever changed the face of the monster movie and then some.   
The Thing (1982 – directed by John Carpenter)

What would become the second adaptation of John W. Campbell’s novella also proved ultimately to be the closest to Campbell’s original story.  Going back to its all-male roots, John Carpenter’s The Thing follows a group of scientists whose home base is attacked by a Norwegian helicopter pilot in pursuit of an Alaskan husky.  After subduing the pilot and passengers, the scientists elect to investigate the Norwegian base for answers.  What they find is a derelict camp in ruin with many dead bodies scattered about.  It doesn’t take long before they stumble upon the frozen, inhuman, indescribable creature responsible for the wreckage.  Besides paying homage to The Thing from Another World with its burning title sequence, frozen saucer buried in the ice, the ice coffin housing the creature and that famous shot of the burning humanoid leaping breaking through a wall into the cold for survival, what’s particularly striking about John Carpenter’s adaptation is the decision to film Campbell’s alien manifestation as written.  That’s right, visual effects technology of 1982 would attempt to create the shapeless, morphing organism with elaborate makeup, prosthetics and motor controlled animatronics and puppeteer work to breathe life into the creature.  Unlike the guy-in-the-suit monster in the 1951 film, Carpenter’s Thing is seen in numerous stages, with various protruding, arms, legs, and tentacles from species ranging from animal, human and inhuman.  You could look directly at The Thing in broad daylight and still not be able to describe to someone else what it looks like.  It’s a bit like a Chinese box, with a completely different shape inside itself and so on.  

From a character standpoint, Carpenter’s film also makes liberal use of the names of original characters as written.  MacReady (Kurt Russell), Bennings (Peter Maloney), Blair (Wilford Brimley), Clark (Richard Masur), Copper (Richard Dysart), Garry (Donald Moffat) and Norris (Charles Hallahan) all make the transition from page to screen, even retaining characteristics from the source material.  In both the source material and Carpenter’s film, Blair loses it and attempts to murder the crew of survivors in an effort to prevent the thing from infecting all life in the world, and he’s locked in the toolshed away from the others.  While both the 1951 and 1982 films can be considered ensemble pieces, it’s Kurt Russell’s MacReady who systematically and fearlessly engages the creature.   When the characters begin to distrust one another over who is human and who is a thing, Kurt Russell ties everyone up, armed with a flamethrower and goes through one person at a time until he manages to force the thing out of its human disguise.  Carpenter’s adaptation benefits greatly from famed composer Ennio Morricone’s take on Carpenter’s trademark electronic, minimalist score, providing quiet tension that only builds with no relief all the way through the end credits.  

"First I escape from New York.
Then, I gotta kill this damn thing.
Enough is enough already."
Because a film as dark and uncompromising as Carpenter’s science fiction horror film happened to come out the same year as Steven Spielberg’s bright and happy E.T., The Thing was a critical and commercial flop.  Carpenter’s gory and nihilistic tale, while possessing some of the best visual effects money can buy, was not something people wanted in 1982 and it faded into obscurity.  It wasn’t until the advent of home videotape and laserdisc that The Thing would eventually have its way and outsell many blockbusters of the same year by a substantial margin.  In addition to spawning a fanbase, influencing major filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino (who cites The Thing as a direct influence on Reservoir Dogs), comic books and even a short lived theme park, The Thing would pick up where Carpenter’s film left off in the form of a 2002 videogame of the same name, with questionable results.

The Thing (2002 – directed by William Latham)

In 2002, an attempt to appease both survival horror gamers and fans of John Carpenter’s 1982 film arrived in the form of a third person shooter released on the Playstation 2, Xbox, and Windows PC platform.  A direct sequel to the events in Carpenter’s film, The Thing follows Captain Blake of the U.S. Special Forces on a mission to determine what happened to the research team and MacReady.  

Made with Carpenter’s blessing including an unbilled cameo by the maestro himself, The Thing utilizes the standard characteristics of the third person shooter, including but not limited to running while shooting, strafing, crouching, and even offers a first person mode for more realistic gameplay.  Much like Carpenter’s film, the things come in various stages and keeping your teammates from losing their grip is key to your survival.  Your teammates can either get so scared they attack you out of paranoia or their arms and head come off as alien mandibles come out of their sockets and the thing charges to attack you.  

If you’re not careful, your teammates can become infected and gradually turn into a thing themselves.  There are boss fights with the Blair-monster appearing at the end of Carpenter’s film, difficult obstacles where your weapons are taken away from you, and time sensitive obstacles you must overcome to advance further.  While a veritable dose of fan service, unfortunately The Thing isn’t well regarded by gaming aficionados and critics.  Despite initial commercial success, The Thing is essentially a glorified Half-Life, utilizing many of the same textures and creature design for the varied stages of the thing.  While by no means an outright bad game that doesn’t detract from the lore of Carpenter’s film, as a standalone game The Thing is rather underwhelming.  But it was fun to play and presented some unique challenges to gamers.

The Thing (2011 – directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.)

Almost 30 years after the release of John Carpenter’s adaptation of John W. Campbell’s novella arrived this prequel of the same name, providing viewers with an opportunity to see the disaster which transpired on the Norwegian base that opened the 1982 film.  Going back to the characterizations of the 1951 film, The Thing provides viewers with a lone American heroine amidst the Norwegian scientists eager to bring aboard their base a creature that could, and eventually does, wipe out everything alive.  

In the vein of recent Hollywood remakes such as Dawn of the Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and most recently Carrie, The Thing follows in the footsteps of filtering familiar iconography through modern CGI and dependable, if not entirely inspired, cinematic techniques.  Not particularly frightening but an entertaining thrill ride providing the service fans expect, The Thing ultimately suffers from indifference towards half-baked nostalgia.  When our heroine burns one of the things and it perfectly forms the shape Kurt Russell happens upon in the 1982 film, fans will no doubt giggle, point out the homage, and then recede back into mild boredom.  Most aggravating was the decision to show the inside of the still functioning alien spacecraft buried beneath the ice.  Those who recall Rob Bowman’s 1997 X-Files film will immediately recognize the arctic underground spaceship David Duchovny’s Mulder discovers and wonder whether or not the same set pieces and designs were merely repurposed here. 

"I'm attempting to burn this
terrible CGI. Let me know if
it works."
It’s a damn shame that a film so in love with the iconography established by Carpenter had to throw in such a tired, annoying distraction.  Equally disappointing is the modern CGI, which might provide more fluid movement with the creature transformations but ultimately reminds viewers it’s just another computer generated manifestation.  What stood out about the 1982 film was just how far the visual effects technicians were pushing the envelope in spite of the limitations and dangers involved.  For instance, legend has it explosive chemicals were used to give the latex and rubber creatures texture, and the moment Kurt Russell opened fire with his flamethrower, the set exploded.  Luckily no one was seriously hurt, but many eyebrows were singed.  

With the advent of CGI, while that shouldn’t change one’s appreciation for the finished work, it comes off as just too easy here.  If this prequel, while not a total waste, spent more time establishing itself instead of fellating the original to death, it might have stood alone.  As it stands, all The Thing can really do is live in the shadow of its towering, enduring older brother.

-Andrew Kotwicki