The Thing – movie (1982)The Thing – From Another World – movie (1951)
Who Goes There? – novella (1938)
The thing about the latest The Thing movie (yeah, I did that on purpose) is that the vast majority of those reviewing the film gave great credit to John Carpenter’s “original” seemingly unaware that Carpenter based his film on a 1938 novella by John Campbell, Jr. While there was a movie made in 1951 called The Thing From Another World, and based on Campbell’s story, it was not as true to the tale as those later versions.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. Of the three films, I actually prefer the 1951 version in all its black and white glory. It was a fine little film that was one of the first of the science fiction monster films (sure there were those in the 1930s and 40s, but those were more horror than science fiction, for those who are aware of such distinctions). Here, in an artic outpost, a group of scientists discover a flying saucer not long after it crashed. They call the Air Force and from that point, we have the scientists clashing with the Air Force officers who want to do what is best for the military but not necessarily science. And, of course is the monster, described as an intellectual carrot and played by James “Gunsmoke” Arness. That probably had more to do with his size than anything else.
The movie didn’t have much in the way of special effects but had some great dialogue. At one point, as they prepare to face the creature, one of the soldiers said, “I just had a thought. What if it can read minds?” To which his companion replies, “It’s going to be real mad when it gets to me.”
So, they’re facing a humanoid creature with a vegetable base that grows its off spring in a plot of dirt irrigated with blood. In the end they are able to destroy the creature. The world is safe, but in something that is more fiction than fact, the reporter with them is allowed to tell the whole tale and warns, “Watch the sky.”
As I say, this is a neat little movie filled with wit, humor, charm and fast-paced action. To enjoy it fully you have to pay attention or you’ll miss some of the subtlety, and certainly some of the classic lines.
Given all that, and its acknowledgement of the source material, meaning Campbell’s story, it doesn’t follow the text very closely. For a movie that is more faithful to that original source, you have to look at John Carpenter’s 1982 film (which reveals its title in the same way that the 1951 version did… the words, The Thing, burning through the background to reveal themselves.) Some of the tension of Campbell’s story is translated to the screen. The men, and this film has an all-male cast, quickly learn that all are not who they seem to be because of the alien’s ability to shape shift, or more accurately, absorb the cells of the humans, turning them into some kind of monster in the way that a virus will attack an organism. Since these new, transformed people are perfect mimics, real humans can’t tell the real humans from the duplicates created by the alien, or rather, the alien cells.
For that matter, the dogs can’t tell the dog thing from the real dogs. But it is during the attempt by the thing to change from a dog to a human that the men discover their danger. And the audience discovers the quality of the special effects.
They are fantastic. They are also sickening (if you happen to see the full film rather than one trimmed for television, and you saw this back in 1982 rather than today). Unlike the old days when the transformation of werewolves, vampires and demons was done with dissolves, special lighting and abundant make-up, in this version the thing bursts out of the dog shape, the flesh bodily peeling back. Later, in a somewhat “light-hearted” moment there is an autopsy complete with blood drenched insides, a human thing’s chest caving in to cut off the doctor’s hands, and so on and so on, until the whole point of the film is lost in the blood. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you need to, or that we care to watch it…
But all that almost masks the subtle points in the film which is that the danger to all of us comes from inside us. There is some very nice character development, and as I say, the story does follow Campbell’s original more closely than the earlier version.
Now, nearly thirty years later comes the “prequel”. This movie opens at the Norwegian Antarctic outpost, where the 1982 movie begins. Let me explain… In the 1982 version, a dog, being chased by a Norwegian helicopter enters the American camp. The helicopter crashes, killing the occupants, and then the Americans fly over to the Norwegian camp to find out what had happened. There they find the burned out camp and the bodies of more of the Norwegians, not to mention the bizarre charred remains that have human elements, but also something else.
In this new version, we are invited into the camp before it caught fire and the people killed themselves. We see them finding the alien craft and estimating that it had crashed some 100,000 years earlier, which, I suppose was based on information derived from the ice and snow in which it was found.
Unfortunately, the Norwegians are incapable of exploiting this find themselves, and they apparently can find no one in Norway who is able to either. Instead they must hire an American babe anthropologist so that we don’t have to put up with a bunch of foreigners who have made the greatest find in a thousand years. There really is no reason to bring her into the investigation, other than to provide xenophobia American audiences with someone who is American.
Of course those Norwegians aren’t quite as sharp as she is, so she must tell them what is happening and deducing a way of identifying the alien “people” from the real people. In Carpenter’s movie they devised a creepy but tension filled blood test. Here they deduce that the thing can’t replicate nonorganic material so they check the fillings in people’s teeth. Overlooking the fact that in Carpenter’s version, this nonorganic problem didn’t seem to exist, what would happen if you found someone with perfect teeth with nary a filling anywhere? You’d think he or she was a thing, but in reality (if I can use that term in this movie context) that person would be human.
In Carpenter’s movie, it seems that all those in the Norwegian outpost are killed or chase the dog thing in a helicopter, but in this prequel, a couple of them seem to survive. They’re going to drive over to the Russian outpost some fifty miles away, which, of course, would suggest the American compound is farther. But then the heroine realizes that the guy she’s with doesn’t have on his earring and when she mentions it, he touches the wrong ear. She toasts him with a military style flamethrower, though no one seems to wonder why a Norwegian scientific outpost would have a flamethrower with an endless supply of the jellied gasoline to make it work… but never mind.
The problem is that the dog thing takes off running and the Norwegians take off in a helicopter chasing it, tying it very nicely to the beginning of Carpenter’s film. I wondered if the dog could really run more than fifty miles… even an alien dog might tire. I wondered if a single rifle bullet (if the guy could hit the dog thing) would bring it down and didn’t they really have to burn it to be sure?
So, at the end of the movie, we’re now at the beginning of Carpenter’s movie and gone full circle, or rather looped back on ourselves. Frankly, of the three, I prefer the 1951 version which didn’t rely so much on gross special effects and substituted witty dialogue and intelligent characters for the overwhelming special effects. But, when you get right down to it, the written story was much more horrifying because it relied on your mind to frighten you and not pictures developed by someone else. As is often the case, the original source material is the best of all the examples… just try reading the story late at night, alone, with the wind howling outside.