Who Goes There?: A Tale of Two Things
MacReady (Kurt Russell) records his thoughts into a tape recorder as life at his research camp has crumbled into terror and paranoia. From the very beginning of John Carpenter’s The Thing there reverberates a sense of doom. It comes somewhat from the simplistic pounding score by Ennio Morricone. It comes as well from how quickly the Norwegian team is dispatched in the opening frames of the film. They are shooting at a husky from a helicopter, something that should seem insane to onlookers — and it does to those in the American research camp — but the audience isn’t given that same way out. Things are not going to end well.
This is not quite so with 1951’s The Thing From Another World. It is from a different time and place, and that should be considered in its analysis, but it is also incredibly sanitized by comparison. Officially directed by Christian Nyby (though Howard Hawks has largely been considered the man pulling the strings), there are too many holes preventing it from being the horror classic many consider it to be.
First, the characters. In Carpenter’s version, every character has a voice and a time to shine on screen. Every single one, even if they are limited to two or three lines. They are all distinct individuals, which is a testament to how great that script by Bill Lancaster is. MacReady may be at the center of it all but Childs (Keith David), Palmer (David Clennon), Blair (Wilford Brimley) and the rest all fully encompass their characters as they descend into madness. In The Thing From Another World, only three really come through as having any depth of character.
Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) is the most interesting. He is part of a North Pole (reversed from the novella by John W. Campbell and the Carpenter film) expedition where a spaceship has been discovered to have crash landed. In the name of science, he believes the information possessed by the creature, and what the human race can learn from it, is infinitely more important than the welfare of the crew. Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) is awfully attached to his life and mortality and would rather not align with the doctor’s view. He assembles the crew, all while occasionally romancing Nikki (Margaret Sheridan), to defeat the Thing. Finally, Scotty (Douglas Spencer) is a fairly one-dimensional newspaper man in pursuit of the story of a lifetime. The rest, including Nikki, are interchangeable. They are bodies to take up space. Bodies that don’t get liberally sacrificed like in contemporary horror. This works against the film because it negates a lot of the potential horror from landing its punches. The stakes are not very high in the end because the threat was never all that effective.
Dr. Blair in the 1982 film is portrayed with a lot more depth than Carrington. Like Carrington, Blair figures out what the visitor represents before anyone else. Instead of overtly trying to protect the alien for science (!) he appears to try and isolate it, preventing it and his colleagues from reaching larger centers of humanity.
The setting’s isolation is felt far more severely in the later movie. The snow, cold, and wind is oppressive in almost every scene. In The Thing from Another World a few characters talk about how cold it is, and we see some breath, but its presence isn’t as heavy or penetrating. Consider the scene where MacReady finds his way back to camp in the dark after being cut loose by Nauls because he’s suspected of being a ‘thing.’ MacReady’s hair is covered in snow and ice and Kurt Russell plays it perfectly, his whole body shaking for the next several scenes as he literally thaws off. Nothing in the first movie comes even close to this.
Next, the actual portrayal of the alien invader is done very differently. The Carpenter movie aligns itself very closely to the 1938 novella Who Goes There? in terms of character and setting as well as how it envisions the creature. The Thing in Carpenter’s film is of no specific form. It becomes what it absorbs. The fear is generated through the unknown. As time moves on and shots have been thrown in shadows, glances, and occasional outbursts of mind-bending gore, it’s apparent that any living being could be the threat. Look to your left, look to your right, any of those people you see you think are your friends could be the Thing.
“I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human.”
The 1951 movie doesn’t go this route. While it is interesting that Hawks and company chose to equate their monster more to a humanoid vegetable, it simply becomes another standard monster movie in execution. There is a giant, unstoppable, bloodthirsty beast trying to break down the doors. Once the climax is reached, very little distinguishes it from any other stalker-ish mosnter of its time.
Special effects could possibly be to blame, or lack thereof. To create a monster where its very form shifts repeatedly would have been a nearly impossible task, at least by comparison. The 1982 Thing benefits from being in a sweet spot between eras of SFX. The 2011 prequel suffers from an overload of special effects that reveals too much of the monster too early. It also didn’t take the time to explore its characters as well as Carpenter did, taking more of a cue from the 1951 film. The practical effects having reached a better height in the early 80s, The Thing has the best balance.
Adaptations should never be beholden to source material. Accuracy in representation is not a guarantee that the story will be any good. Many of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptations differed exponentially from source material and those movies are usually gauged on their own merits. It just happens that in this case, the closer adaptation ended up being a superior exercise in terror.
(As an aside, I encourage you to read Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell if you haven’t.)
There may be sequences in the Hawks production that are memorable (the discovery, the thaw under electric blanket, the firefight) but every aspect of the later version has remained imprinted on my memory since I first saw it and proceeded to watch it a couple of times a year ever since. From the dog-splitting to the defibrillators to the blood test to the undercurrent of paranoia and dread, it is one of the best horror movies (and my personal favorite) of all time. It baffles me that the Hawks production was more generously showered in critical acclaim. The Thing, conversely, has only gained its praise in retrospect having largely been panned upon its release. The lauding of The Thing from Another World seems to me to be more about its place in history than it is about its merits as a film now. Context of its time is important, but I don’t think its sloppy romance subplot should be excused by contemporary audiences just because it was unavoidable at the time.
Hawks was involved in many a classic, and perhaps the latter The Thing would not be quite what it is without the predecessor, but Carpenter and company improved upon it in every way imaginable.
And if you disagree, let me know and “why don’t we just…wait here a while…see what happens?”