Tuesday 16 Sep 2014

John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing': ‘Alien’ on Ice

Someone's head needs a dimmer switch.

The Thing, a remake/prequel of the 1982 film of the same name, comes out this weekend. Reviews have been mixed, with many critics pointing out that the lazy naming of the new version speaks volumes about the overall film. Basically, this 2011 version is the same damn movie. I went back and saw John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece and if the new movie is just an imitation, well, that wouldn’t be a bad thing at all. It would even be fitting.The 1982 The Thing is actually a remake of the 1951 sci-fi chiller The Thing From Another World (directed by Howard Hawks, although he goes uncredited). All versions of the movie take place at a research outpost on Antarctica, where scientists discover an alien that wreaks havoc. The original, 1951 version has the hallmarks of a cheesy 50’s B-movie. A lumbering monster, hardboiled dialogue, stiff military men and a damsel in distress. And strong doses of Cold War paranoia. Always the Cold War paranoia. But the movie, from what I remember of it (I saw it as a tyke many years ago), was pretty good and effective. The stark and claustrophobic setting enhance and update the haunted house story. The great use of light and shadow, shot in glorious black and white (as was the style of the time) made the monster lurking in the darkness that much more creepier. The final confrontation with the alien was downright terrifying. Okay, maybe now it might not be so scary, but as a youngster I was freaked.

What’s brilliant about John Carpenter’s The Thing is that it takes the same premise and strips it to its bare, half-dog, half-alien bones. The Thing is a sci-fi horror movie and nothing much else. And it doesn’t have to be. It’s got chills, suspense, paranoia, and gore. Plenty of gore.

The film opens with a Norwegian scientist trying to shoot a husky running across the icy plains. Why is this guy so intent on gunning down a poor, helpless dog? We don’t know right away, since the Norwegian get shot after he nearly kills an American scientist at their base. We quickly learn that the Norwegian base is in shambles, the other scientists dead, burned and mutilated. How did this happen? (Apparently, we get the full details in the new prequel.)

We also learn that the Norwegians found a spaceship buried under the ice for hundreds of thousands of years, and some…thing got out and was thawed by the Norwegians. This thing can take the form of whatever it comes in contact with, including dogs. After a gross-out scene where the alien-dog tries to morph with American dogs at the base, the Americans discover the thing and shoot it to smithereens. We’re only about thirty minutes in. Movie over, right? Wrong. That dog was around the humans long enough that anyone could be infected. Anyone could be the thing. Now the fun begins.

It's getting hot in here.

The rest of the movie follows the characters fighting each other and the monster, and the tension builds and builds. The script is smart and keeps ratcheting up the stakes for the characters, causing more and more problems until the climactic finale. Every action is consistent and actually makes sense, unlike so many other horror movies where you just want to yell “don’t go in there!” The acting, from Kurt Russell, Donald Moffat, Keith David, and Wilford Brimley (He’s infected! Or is he? Or is it just the die-ah-bee-tus?), and the rest of the cast are top notch. The music, by maestro Ennio Morricone, pulsates with dread and gets the heart pumping.

John Carpenter solidifies his status as one of the premiere directors of horror. This is his favorite of his films, and it’s not hard to see why. The director of Halloween knows how to scare audiences with tension. He uses great camera shots (deep focus! Steadicam!) to control the pace. A lot of the drama centers around the suspicion and distrust between the men, and the tense standoffs are balanced out with eerie silence. Then the scenes of straight-out gore punctuate the movie and are made more effective because they happen so unexpectedly.

It’s not a stretch to imagine some Hollywood exec saw Alien in 1979 and decided “We gotta do this!” The Thing isn’t an Alien knockoff, but the movie does owe Ridley Scott’s horror classic an ice-continent-sized amount of debt. Alien, like Jaws before it, is the classic story of man versus relentless monster that will eat you and tear you to shreds. Alien, unlike Jaws, confines the action and introduces the requisite doomed crew. You have the nerdy scientist, the hardlined military man, the quiet guy about to crack, the hothead, and the black cook. The Thing has all of the same elements as Alien: similar characters, similar creature design, remote location, no escape, unseen menace, gross-out horror, and yes, an alien (duh). And let’s not forget the flamethrowers. But The Thing isn’t just Alien on Earth. It adds the element of paranoia. By making the alien in The Thing a shapeshifter, the humans become the monsters as well.

Carpenter may not focus too heavily on the paranoia. There’s too much to happen to make that element the foundation of the movie. There’s an alien, and we want to see people get killed by said alien. And boy howdy, do they ever get killed. The special effects are notable not only for their technical wizardry, but because there’s no CGI at all. Everything is real. Where Alien relied more on the unseen, The Thing embraces the gore. There’s a lot more graphic violence in this movie, and some of it may make you chuckle. But there’s no question it’s effective. That Hollywood exec must have realized we don’t see much of the alien in Alien, and he wanted to up the game.

I mentioned before that The Thing is a remake. But instead of being a remake of the 50’s movie, it acts more of a remake of Alien. But the filmmakers, being the clever people they are, modify the formula just enough. There’s a scene in The Thing–maybe the most famous and memorable scene of the movie–that winks to the famous stomach bursting scene in Alien. Not to give too much away, but the scene involves one character giving CPR to another character. Audiences must have seen the guy’s bare chest and were expecting something to jump through the guy’s sternum. Instead, we get something else, and something very unexpected. It’s the inverse of Alien, and to me it sums up the movie.

The influence of Alien on The Thing seems obvious, and I like to think The Thing went and influenced the Alien franchise. Alien Vs. Predator was also set in Antarctica, with a big underground alien ship. And I like to think it inspired Aliens, the Alien sequel from 1986, to be more Gung-ho about upping the aliens and action.

The new remake may be a disappointment. They almost always are. But we always have originals to fall back on. Don’t let John Carpenter’s The Thing get trapped under the ice and rent it today.

And speaking of prequels, we can always look forward to Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s pseudo-prequel to Alien, due out next year.

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