Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Thing (1951, 1982, 2011)

For the first time in CrazyFilmGuy blog history and in honor of Halloween, it's time to visit one horror film that has been made three times in the last 60 years. THE THING has all the elements that the CrazyFilmGuy loves.  It's a horror/science fiction film.  It's set in Antarctica, a remote harsh location. It even has an Agatha Christie whodunit quality to it as any of the scientists, doctors, or pilots could be the Thing.

The original film called THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) was produced by director Howard Hawks (THE BIG SLEEP and RED RIVER) and directed by his longtime editor Christian Nyby (TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT). It's based on the short story by John W. Campbell, Jr called Who Goes There? and was adapted to the screen by Charles Lederer (HIS GIRL FRIDAY). Many people think Howard Hawks actually directed the film but I think because it's a B movie with B actors and actresses, Nyby directed it with some input from Hawks. If John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart had been in it, Hawks probably would have directed it.

But THE THING has a Hawks flavor to it like ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939). Instead of a group of mail delivery pilots in South America, it's a group of Air Force pilots and scientists and botanists at the North Pole. The dialogue is fast and snappy, there's a smart, no-nonsense woman among the group who can drink and smoke just like the men, and Nyby/Hawks work in plenty of aerial footage of the Air Force plane landing and taking off in the snow.  But THE THING also has a great sense of mystery and suspense once the pilots and scientists discover and bring back the Thing to their research station.

 THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD opens in an Anchorage, Alaska Air Force lounge as Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) plays cards with crew members Lt. Eddie Dykes (James Young) and Crew Chief Bob (Dewey Martin). Scotty (Douglas Spencer), a reporter walks into the lounge looking for a story. His wish is soon answered when Hendry and his men are sent up to the North Pole to investigate a report of a plane crash near U.S. Polar Expedition #6.

Hendry and team are greeted at the Research Station by a team of scientists and botanists including Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), Dr. Stern (Eduard Franz), and Carrington's assistant Nikki (Margaret Sheridan), who happens to have had a brief relationship with Hendry on a previous visit. The group flies out the next day to find the crash site.  They discover a large circular object buried under the ice. Hendry and his men try to blow up the ice to reach what they suspect is a flying saucer but the ship explodes ruining any chance of studying it.  But they do find nearby the passenger of the space ship, frozen in a block of ice. They bring back the frozen visitor to the Research Station to study it.  Scotty the reporter wants to file a news story on the discovery but Hendry blocks his request for the time being.

The Thing (GUNSMOKE'S James Arness) thaws out of its frozen bed, attacking the sled dogs as it flees.  A dog rips off one of the Thing's arms. Carrington and his fellow scientists study it and discover the Thing has vegetable like qualities.  It can regenerate a missing limb and it drops seeds from its prickly hands, seeds that can reproduce into more Things.  Carrington wants to communicate and protect it but Hendry realizes if the Thing makes it to a populated area, it could take over the world.

Hendry puts Carrington under house arrest after Carrington is caught feeding stored blood to the Thing's seeds. Using a geiger counter, Hendry and his crew track the Thing.  But the Thing is smart and cuts the electricity to the research station. Hendry and crew lures the alien back and this time they electrify the Thing. Scotty the reporter finally gets to call in his story, warning everyone to "Watch the Skies"(which Steven Spielberg would borrow as a temporary title for 1977's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND).

Nyby's THE THING is one of the first horror/Science Fiction films to touch upon the Cold War early in the film when General Fogarty (David McMahon) and Hendry discuss the downed aircraft and whether it's American or Russian. It will turn out to be neither.  The conflict between the military (Hendry, Dykes, Barnes) versus the scientists (Carrington, Stern, Chapman) as to what to do with the Thing is another nice subtext to the film. Carrington believes it will unlock the mysteries of space but after the Thing kills a couple of scientists, the rest of the science group comes over to the military side.

What's missing from THE THING is the special effects technology to show how adaptable the Thing can be. This film was made in 1951 after all. The Thing is just a big actor (James Arness) in make-up and although Nyby shoot him mostly in darkly lit scenes and keeps the camera off him for the most part, the film eventually has to show the Thing for longer periods during the finale. The Thing's power to reproduce is mostly described  in screenwriter Lederer's dialogue. But Nyby builds good suspense with sound effects and the use of the Geiger counter to register when the Thing is near (Ridley Scott's 1979 ALIEN would use the same simple technique). The Thing's first surprise appearance is when Hendry opens a door and the Thing lunges at him from the other side.  For the rest of the film, someone opening a door keeps the audience nervously wondering what's on the other side.

Kenneth Tobey as Lt. Hendry is solid as the lead. He's the leader but he's also one of the guys. He's not perfect and even makes a big mistake when he accidentally blows up the spaceship. Tobey would play similar heroes in other horror/science fiction in the 50's including THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955). Robert Cornthwaite as Dr. Carrington also stands out.  Although he's not evil, Carrington's obsession with preserving the Thing regardless of its terrifying abilities blinds his common sense and endangers his fellow scientists. The TV show LOST IN SPACE'S (1965-68) character Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris) may owe both his look and personality to THE THING'S Dr. Carrington.

Director John Carpenter is a huge fan of Howard Hawks the filmmaker and of the original film. His remake even copies the original's title sequence. But Carpenter's THE THING (1982) is almost the opposite of the original THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Instead of the Hawksian band of brothers or in this case band of Air Force men who all get along and would do anything for each other, this group of scientists seem to be isolated and loners. They don't get along. Carpenter's film stays closer to the original short story by Campbell as the space creature can transform and mimic any living creature it comes in contact with instead of the one Thing (James Arness) who was a mixture of  Frankenstein and a space carrot in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD.

Written by Bill Lancaster (son of actor Burt Lancaster), Carpenter's THE THING opens in space with an alien spacecraft spinning out of control and crash landing on earth 100,000 years ago. Cut to Winter, 1982 at the U.S. National Science Station #4 in Antarctica.  A Siberian Husky, chased by a Norwegian helicopter, dashes into the U.S. station. The Norwegians are trying to kill the dog. The Americans fire back, killing the Norwegian.  Why were they after the dog? Helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) fly over to the Norwegian camp to learn more and discover the station burning. Every one's either dead or missing. They discover a disfigured dead body, videotapes, and a giant block of ice that once held something.

Back at the U.S. station, the videotapes reveal the Norwegians had discovered a large object in the ice. As Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) studies the disfigured body, the Thing finally reveals itself in the dog's body and emerges, looking for it's next host body. The rest of the men in the station begin to become paranoid toward one another as no one is sure who may be the alien organism. MacReady goes out again and finds the frozen spaceship. Blair runs simulations on what would happen if the Thing made it to civilization. The results are not promising. Blair sabotages the helicopter and radio room so no one can leave.

Blair locks himself up in his laboratory but MacReady and the others break down the door and tie Blair up, isolating him from the rest of the men. Paranoia runs rampant as Dr. Copper creates a blood serum test to discover which remaining men may be infected. As a storm approaches, the blood test works, revealing the Thing. All hell breaks loose as MacReady, Garry (Donald Moffatt), and Childs (Keith David) try to figure out who they can trust and how can they keep the Thing from reaching civilization.

Carpenter's THE THING is very bleak and dark.  From the very first synthesizers beat from composer Ennio Morricone (Sergio Leone's favorite composer), it's evident that MacReady and the rest of the men are in for some trouble.  On a small scale, just a U.S. science base in Antarctica, these men are facing Armageddon and possibly, the end of the world if they can't keep the Thing from reaching a larger population. Although it came out three years after ALIEN, THE THING and ALIEN have a lot of similarities. Both involve small groups of people in an isolated location who face an unstoppable creature that could wipe out earth if it ever reaches a mass populace. The haunted house has been replaced by the space ship and arctic research station.

Director Carpenter cleverly casts  a bunch of familiar, non-threatening character actors like Wilford Brimley, Richard Masur (as the dog handler), Donald Moffat, and Richard Dysart who seem so benign and friendly that the audience would never believe they could become the Thing. Kurt Russell as MacReady does a variation of his Snake Plissken character from Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) as the lone wolf helicopter pilot who quickly begins to figure out what they're up against.  Toward the end of the film, MacReady begins to resemble Jesus Christ with his long hair and beard, ready to die to save the world from the sins of the scientists who dug up the Thing.

What really distinguishes Carpenter's THING from the original are special make-up effects wizard Rob Bottin's phantasmagorical Thing creatures. Bottin's imagination runs wild as the Thing moves from dog to human to human, able to mimic each host body until revealed. Bottin's creations are haunting and each transformation is unique.  CGI was just starting to come into greater use but this THING barely uses any until the very end of the film.  This would be John Carpenter's bad alien film. He would follow-up a few years later with a good alien film with STARMAN (1984) starring Jeff Bridges.

I was surprised when I saw that THE THING (2011) was being remade again.  But then, I shouldn't have been. Recent reboots of MY BLOODY VALENTINE, FRIDAY THE 13TH, and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET had all popped up recently. Carpenter's THING was so delicious and suspenseful and perfect in my mind what was the point of remaking it again. But as I watched this THING version, it turns out Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr and writer Eric Heisserer made a clever choice. This THING is a prequel, set at the Norwegian Camp in Antarctica, 1982, where the Norwegians and other international staff first discovered the Thing before it moved on to the U.S. Research Station to face off against Kurt Russell and group.

The filmmakers also reintroduce women to the story which the original film had with Margaret Sheridan.  Carpenter's THE THING was void of women but Heijningen's THING has a strong lead in actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, an American paleontologist who quickly recognizes this alien is no ET. This third THING will pay homage to both previous films with scenes and situations. The film opens with a Snow Cat rumbling across the arctic tundra with three Norwegian scientists following a signal. As they reach the signal, the ice caves in and the Snow Cat tumbles down a hole resting on top of what looks like a space ship buried in the ice.

Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) recruits Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth  Windstead), a paleontologist who specializes in fossils found in the ice to join them, recommended by Halvorson's assistant Adam Finch (Eric Christian Olsen). Halvorsen takes the whole team: Norwegians, Americans, and Brits down to the spaceship.  He shows them the survivor of the space crash - a Thing encased in a block of ice. A claw appears to be visible. The block is dug out and brought back to the base. Halvorson wants radio silence until he can learn more about the discovery of the century.

The ice block begins to melt and this Thing springs out of its icy tomb, immediately attacking Lars's (Jorgen Langhelle) dog, injuring others, and killing another scientist Henrik (Jo Adrian Haavind). Kate and the scientists burn the creature and perform an autopsy on the Thing, discovering it was trying to fuse with Henrik.  Further study reveals the Thing's cells can imitate human cells.  American helicopter pilot Sam Carter (Joel  Edgerton) and his co-pilot Derek Jameson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) prepare to fly an injured scientist back to McMurdo U.S. arctic base but the Thing is on board and their chopper crash lands a few miles away.

The remainder of this THING follows Carpenter's film somewhat as the survivors battle the Thing while trying to figure out which one of their comrades might be the creature. Kate comes up with a test that may distinguish who is infected but the Thing sabotages it by starting a fire in the lab. Kate and Sam (who's trekked back to camp with Derek after crash landing) chase the Thing back to its spaceship as it tries to take off. Director Heijningen ends the film with scenes that begin Carpenter's film -- the last husky sled dog escaping the compound, carrying the Thing inside and the last two remaining Norwegians chasing after it via helicopter, trying to kill it. Heijningen even uses the Morricone synthesizer beat. Director Heijningen apparently is a huge fan of Carpenter's version as Carpenter was of the Nyby/Hawks film.

I like that a European director made this THING prequel, giving us a different point of view after two American directors had tackled it.  A good majority of the cast is Scandinavian with American Winstead and Australian Edgerton thrown in to round it out.  Director Heijningen does use elements from both previous films though in this version. Like the Nyby film, he pits the Norwegians against the Americans/English when paranoia sets in similar to the scientists versus the Air Force men in the original.  He brings back female characters to the story like paleontologist Kate Lloyd and another woman Juliette (Kim Bubbs), wife of one of the scientists. And Dr. Halvorson is the reincarnate of Dr. Carrington from the original, more interested in studying the lethal alien creature than the welfare of his fellow scientists.  Halvorson will get his wish in more ways than one to fully understand the Thing.

From Carpenter's film, Heijningen borrows the tense group test scene to find out which members may be the Thing, taking a different angle on it. Once again, a helicopter pilot in Sam Carter is one of the heroes, like MacReady in Carpenter's film, although spunky Kate is the main protagonist.  And Heijningen weaves some of the discoveries that MacReady and Dr. Copper discovered at the Norwegian camp in the 2nd film into the finale of the 3rd film especially the metamorphosis and destruction of the double-faced human/Thing.

Director Heijningen is adroit at throwing red herrings to the audience as to which expedition member is the Thing, keeping the audience on its toes. The CGI and make-up effects for the Thing, although not as incredible as Bottin's, are effective nonetheless.  Actress Winstead is Sigourney Weaver-ish as the level-headed and strong woman amongst all the men and Joel Edgerton (looking a lot like talk show host Conan O'Brien) stands out as the friendly pilot Carter.  If nothing else, this THING like other horror film reboots has introduced the story to another generation of young horror film fans. Ultimately, this THING lacks some thing.  A more recognizable star, some twist on the story. I can't put my finger on it. I still believe Carpenter's THE THING, although not a huge hit when it came out, already told the story very well.

The fact that John  W. Campbell's story Who Goes There? has been made into a film three times is proof that THE THING is an entertaining and suspenseful tale that has been scaring audiences for over sixty years. The ALIEN films owe a great debt to THE THING yet are uniquely different in many aspects except that they warn about an indestructible alien that may visit us in the future.  So heed the reporter Scotty's words from the first film and "Watch the Skies."  And if you like a good scare, watch any version of THE THING on your favorite electronic device.


  1. Hey just stumbled across your blog randomly, and wanted to say great work!

  2. Thanks for reading Dan. I appreciate it. Do you have a favorite Thing movie?

  3. I think they made a naming error with the 2011 version of The Thing. I loved the Carpenter version, one of the truly tense and scary films I have seen, based on a great concept. I had no interest in seeing a remake.

    Now that I know it is not a remake, but a prequel, I am much more interested. I have to wonder how many other fans did not want to see a well remembered film CGI'ed and re-starred into mediocrity.