The Thing from Another World (1951)
written by Charles Lederer, Howard Hawks, and Ben Hecht
based on the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr.
directed by Christian Nyby
The Thing (1982)
written by Bill Lancaster
based on the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr.
directed by John Carpenter
By now remakes are a tried-and-true convention of sci-fi/horror cinema. From the truly great (1986’s The Fly) to the plain ludicrous (2001’s version of Planet of the Apes), the effort to reproduce or improve upon the original is, more often than not, less than satisfying. In the worst cases, it seems utterly unnecessary – it’s difficult to see films such as 1998’s Psycho and not wonder what the fuck anyone was thinking.
However, there are exceptions that can be intelligent, compelling, and thought-provoking, among them John Carpenter’s masterful remake of The Thing from Another World, made some thirty years later as simply The Thing. But first I want to talk a little about the story that inspired both adaptations, John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? (written under the pen name Don A. Stuart).
Campbell’s short horror/sci-fi tale deals with a contrasting group of scientists and researchers working on magnetic phenomena in Antarctica. Upon returning from an expedition, they tell of their mind-boggling findings: A spaceship buried in the ice for centuries and a possible specimen from the same vessel frozen nearby. The alien lifeform (or “thing” as it eventually comes to be known) is brought back (bad choice) and soon chaos ensues. Campbell orchestrates the shock value in masterful strokes, building momentum by describing the monster embedded in the ice with a flourish that’s chillingly realistic and terrifying:
The room stiffened abruptly. It was face-up there on the plain, greasy planks of the table. Three mad, hate-filled eyes blazed up with a living fire, bright as fresh-spilled blood, from a face ringed with a writhing, loathsome nest of worms, blue, mobile worms that crawled where hair should grow.
The scientists are obviously scared by the presence of the alien, yet they’re also aware that nothing like it has been known to man before. Eventually, it’s decided they’ll thaw it out (second bad choice) for further research. As the ice melts, Campbell introduces a concept that would later be widely used in other science fiction literature and cinema: The being has the ability to assimilate into the bodies of other living things, mimicking perfectly all the characteristics that define them. The head scientist, Blair, explains:
Blair lifted a fraction of the tarpaulin. A torn dog’s leg, with stiff gray fur protruded. “That, for instance, isn’t dog at all; it’s imitation… In time, not even a microscope would have shown the difference.”
What gives Who Goes There? its scary flow is the fact that any of the thirty or so crew members may be one of the monster’s incarnations, with no way for the others to know who is real and who is a “copy.” This scenario serves as a gripping – if short – study on paranoia: Is the person next to you the same one you knew yesterday? As the scientists become more and more distrustful of each other, they decide to dispose of the monster with blowtorches and fire. In the end all is well, and the hideous menace from another world is defeated.
Who Goes There? reads amazingly well. Many observations have been made about American sci-fi works dating from the 1930s to the 1960s in their capturing, either consciously or unconsciously, the threat other countries posed to the United States (i.e. the alien fiends). While Campbell’s novella was published just as WWII was about to break out, the story is still intriguing in its own right, a veritable funhouse of suspense.
The Thing From Another World was the first film adaptation of the novella in 1951. It takes the basic premise of Campbell’s story but goes off in its own unique direction. Perhaps more interested in the concept of the alien itself rather than in more complex ideas of identity and deception, producer Howard Hawks and director Christian Nyby opt to portray the monster as a physical antagonist rather than having the protagonists be the actual menace. It works well, and the film benefits from the technique of not showing the monster too much (always a good device to build anticipation, as seen in later films such as 1975’s Jaws and 1979’s Alien.)
In The Thing From Another World, the setting is changed from Antarctica to Alaska. We are introduced to a United States Air Force crew stationed near Anchorage who is sent to the North Pole to aid a group of scientists that have come across what seems like a plane or meteor crash. The military men and research team reach the site and discover the spaceship and specimen frozen in the ice (in one of the film’s best scenes, the group disperses around the outer rim of the flying saucer so as to calculate its width, only to find that it is immense). The frozen casket is brought back to camp and the alien (James Arness) escapes from its confinement. But the main difference from the original plot is that the being does not imitate others: It actually is plant-like, a vegetable that needs human blood to reproduce. In thus departing from Campbell’s original concept of a creature that becomes other people, Nyby leaves us with just a plain old monster intent on killing the team one by one. It’s fun and suspenseful – you won’t soon forget the sight of “the thing” as it storms into a room and is set on fire – yet for those familiar with the novella, it may seem like a bit of a copout.
Carpenter’s The Thing is keenly aware of its predecessor, yet at the same time probes into Campbell’s story deeper. Of particular interest to film enthusiasts is the fact that Carpenter has often cited Hawks as one of his major influences, to the extent that he remade Rio Bravo (1956) as Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976. He has also consistently included Hawksian references in other films, such as having The Thing from Another World play on TV in a scene from 1978’s Halloween. So you could say remaking the 1951 movie was right up his alley.
The Thing opens with a shot of a spaceship careening towards Earth before the movie’s title appears on screen (the graphic is exactly the same as in the original, words ripping through the screen in incandescent fury). Carpenter keeps true to the Antarctica angle from Campbell’s story, but adds a rather intriguing prelude: A helicopter piloted by two Norwegians chases a Siberian Husky as it runs across the snow. The men are trying to kill the canine… but why? As the dog finds solace in the American research facility, the eventual surprise that the dog is in fact one of the incarnations of the monster is both shocking and unexpected.
All the characters are introduced immediately, many of whom share the same names as in Campbell’s text. Both Campbell and Nyby had the number of people at more than thirty, whereas Carpenter cuts it down to fifteen or so, effectively tightening the suspense. The problem with a huge group of characters is not as evident in Who Goes There? because Campbell had the artistic license to concentrate on a few at a time while the others lurked in the background, but in The Thing From Another World part of the scope is lost since we can’t identify with, or get to know, the whole team. However, Carpenter rectifies this with the awareness that Who Goes There? had a lot to do with not knowing who the fuck to trust. By having fewer members in the team, Carpenter focuses more on the relationships and eventual paranoia between the men: Cut off from civilization, bored, edgy, and battling bad weather, what they least expect is to face a shape-shifting alien that can look like anyone. It’s a nightmare scenario of monumental proportions.
Of particular importance is the fact that, as in the novella, all the characters in The Thing are men. Whereas in Nyby’s version Margaret Sheridan played Dr. Nicholson, the sole female member of the research team, both Campbell and Carpenter opt for a fully male-centric scenario – a perfect canvas for sexual tension that may actually be contributing to the team going nuts way before the appearance of “the thing.” I also like that Carpenter goes full blast with the assimilation angle, never letting us see the monster’s original form. Its gruesome manifestations, amazingly rendered by Rob Bottin and Stan Winston, only hint at what may be the invader’s true shape. And that’s some scary shit.
To me, The Thing‘s most visceral and frightening scene comes straight out of Campbell as well: In order to find out who is imitation or not, helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) ties up the team members and gets a blood sample from each. He then proceeds to burn the samples with a hot copper wire – if the blood is a “duplicate,” its cells will react somehow. After a couple of failed attempts, one of the samples jumps into the air, desperately fleeing the burning wire. Having been found out, the monster emerges grotesquely from the host, while the other men frantically scream as they try to get away from all the blood and guts – it’s a Grand Guignol moment that has stayed with me forever, similar to the exploding head in David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981). Then, after the monster is momentarily disposed of, one of the survivors utters what may well be the best line of the whole movie: “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but if you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of the winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!” Well said indeed.
The Thing from Another World is considered today one of the most loved sci-fi/horror movies from the ’50s, yet The Thing is seldom accounted for in the evolution of the same type of genre. But just one look at Carpenter’s film is enough to make it a highlight of not only his career but pretty much of monster movies in general. I can’t think of a more depressing ending as the one depicted here, with two men staring at each other in the Antarctic cold, too tired to do anything about the fact that one of them – perhaps even both – may be the creature now. The screen cuts to black. Credits start. Go change your pants.
The Thing from Another World (1951) – Rating: ***½
The Thing (1982) – Rating: ****
Carlos I. Cuevas