CINE-WEEN 2020: Who Goes There? The Changing Faces of THE THING

It’s one of the most perfect set-ups in all of horror: an isolated team of scientists in a frozen wasteland discover a crashed alien ship in the ice, along with a frozen alien pilot. They bring the creature back to base where it promptly thaws and begins wreaking havoc on the foolish humans who dared disturb its nap.

This was the basic premise of John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?” which has been filmed three times (not counting all the times the premise has been “borrowed” for unofficial versions): by Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks as The Thing From Another World in 1951, by John Carpenter as John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982, and by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. as The Thing in 2011 (which is technically a prequel to Carpenter’s film but hews so closely to the original’s narrative that it may as well be just another adaptation).

Three versions, each about thirty years apart. The Thing isn’t the only sci-fi/horror story to receive generational incarnations. You could point to Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a similar story with similar concerns that also gets an official new version every couple decades along with countless rip-offs and homages in between.

But whereas every version of Body Snatchers takes the barebones idea of Finney’s story and then spins a wildly new tale couched inextricably into whatever -ism has everybody hot and bothered that decade, the various versions of “Who Goes There?” all follow the same playbook. The frigid, isolated setting is as vital to the story as any of its actual characters or events, though even those are largely adhered to from film-to-film.

Yet even as all three films exist within the same framework, the films each end up having wildly different approaches to the material that speak not only to the technological advances and sociological changes that occurred in the decades between, but to the way that different filmmakers can spin entirely unique takes on the same material, the way that different musicians can look at the same notes on a piece of paper and end up with entirely different songs.

One thing that all three versions of The Thing maintain is that our protagonists are never the people who unleashed the Thing. Our heroes are instead always outsiders who are brought into the situation or have the situation brought to them and then have to deal with the consequences. In The Thing From Another World, it’s a group of soldiers who arrive at the Arctic base after the local scientists are already deep into the UFO hunt, and are then forced to take charge when the eggheads bring the vegetable-like monstrosity out of the cold. In Carpenter’s The Thing, it’s the American Antarctic base being invaded by the creature after it was unearthed and awoken by a different base, this one populated by Norwegian scientists. Even in the 2011 prequel, set at that Norwegian base, our point-of-view character is not the Norwegians but Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as an American scientist brought in to help process the new discovery, who is then forced to take charge of the situation when the thing starts Thing-ing out and none of the Norwegians prove up to the task of handling the mess that they have let loose.

If each of the films begins with this same basic template, they use it to wildly different purposes and effect. In Carpenter’s film, it contributes to the overall nihilistic tone and outlook of the film. Our protagonists head out to the Norwegian camp and are baffled by the burned ruins, mutilated corpses, evidence of violence and mania, and monstrous remains, with only a couple doomed survivors left to spread the extraterrestrial evil like a virus. By the end of the film, the American camp is a burnt ruin populated by mutilated corpses, evidence of violence and mania, and monstrous remains, with only a couple doomed survivors left to spread the extraterrestrial evil like a virus. That nihilism stands in direct contrast to the moralism so usually prevalent in horror stories: the protagonists aren’t being made to suffer to compensate for some past sin returned ten-fold; they are utterly blameless in the situation, undeserving of any sort of repercussion. The true horror of The Thing, as in Carpenter’s Halloween, is that being blameless will not save you if the uncaring universe decides to squash you like a bug.

But in the Nyby/Hawks production, the status of our protagonists as outsiders to the situation they must now resolve is in keeping with the “us vs. them” jingoistic streak that gives The Thing From Another World its thematic juice. Produced in the wake of the atomic bomb activating a new, existentially terrifying age of gods and monsters, TTFAW plays directly into the audience’s known distrust of scientists. Those no-good Poindexters just HAD to go and split the atom and now look at the fucking mess it’s got us. The true antagonist of TTFAW isn’t the hulking space vegetable with Dracula’s taste for blood and Wolverine’s capacity for regenerating lost limbs (which I guess Dracula can do too), but the mad-eyed scientists who not only thawed the alien out but who then keep interfering with the army’s attempts to contain and/or kill the monster because they, the scientists, are just so darn fixated on learning as much as they can from this “superior” being.

TTFAW isn’t as completely anti-science as many of its contemporaries in Nuclear Age sci-fi/horror, as the climax sees humanity triumph thanks to the collaboration between the US Army’s stoic leadership and scientific know-how (with assists from the can-do citizens) finding a way to fry the freak. But that’s in keeping with a film designed around emphasizing human interaction and community.

What’s most striking about The Thing From Another World in relation to the countless movies it has inspired, including the Carpenter remake, is how crowded its frame is. Hawks and/or Nyby (it remains a controversy to this day who was the “true” director) almost completely eschew close-ups (a Hawks trademark), preferring unbroken wide shots in which as many as a dozen different members of the ensemble stand in close proximity to one another and discuss the various facets of the crises they face, with dialogue often overlapping.

On the one hand, this serves to give the film a theatrical bent, a feeling enhanced by the way almost all horrific events and visuals are kept off-screen. Characters will peek through doors and describe the maimed corpses that the camera will never, ever reveal. Other times, injured parties will flop into frame and deliver monologues describing the terrible thing that just happened that, again, you will never see. In this way TTFAW recalls the classic Universal monster films, which also took a “have the characters point off-screen and describe a supernatural thing rather than actually show it” approach, especially Tod Browning’s Dracula, which owed less to Bram Stoker’s novel than it did to the popular stage production from which it was adapted.

But the visual language also serves to enhance the theme of humanity coming together to expel an outside threat. By keeping the ensemble together at almost all times, the outpost becomes a community in microcosm and their eventual triumph over the Russian (excuse me, alien) threat is emblematic of the ways in which Americans imagined that the different facets of society would come together to throw off any threats that the future might bring.

John Carpenter had a…let’s say different idea of how people would response to fear and uncertainty.

Carpenter, an acolyte of Hawks even before he started officially remaking the man’s movies (or unofficially, in the case of Assault on Precinct 13), also loves a nice wide master shot with a large ensemble kept in frame with multiple planes of action within the same image.

But while TTFAW used its lengthy master shots to demonstrate people working together and coming to common understandings in their fight against evil, Carpenter favors the master for scenes in which his doomed ensemble aim flamethrowers and pistols at one another, or edge nervously away from one another because there is no telling who is human and who no longer is.

Carpenter uses his wide, wide frame to emphasize isolation and loneliness, surrounding his cast with negative space that doesn’t necessarily need a hostile alien on hand to make a man feel entirely insignificant. And while Hawks/Nyby pointedly avoid ever using a close-up, Carpenter will not only punch in tight to study an expression of horror and/or mania but use the close-up for an entire scene.

The Thing’s most iconic scene is the blood test at the end of Act Two, when Kurt Russell’s MacReady develops a method that will allow them to sort out who is still human and who has been assimilated into the alien threat. Virtually the entire sequence plays out in close-ups with only occasional medium shots to establish spatial relationships between the different characters in the room. But more often than not Carpenter cuts rhythmically from one face to the next, moving with a musical pacing that your eyes and mind subconsciously adjust to just in time for Carpenter to then explode the rhythm when the Thing bursts out, earning the film perhaps its biggest scare.

With his re-purposing of TTFAW’s cinematic language, you see Carpenter appropriating the style of the previous film and then deploying it to an entirely different end. That’s par for the course for a pair of films that are telling the same story but to two drastically different ends.

See, The Thing From Another World is horror that seeks to comfort. Its monster is a grotesque, inhuman freak so divorced from our capacity for empathy that it is never even seen clearly. Not only is the thing a bloodthirsty alien, it’s a fucking vegetable. As depicted, this thing is the ultimate Other, and while the threat it poses is a grave one (this version of the Thing hangs its victims upside down and bleeds them out, Predator-style), the need to repulse its repulsive being from our planet causes all the different factions of humanity to set aside their differences and use their best abilities in concert together to expel the freak and make the world safe for the breeding pair to get down to business. TTFAW is, ultimately, about the ways in which fear brings people together.

John Carpenter’s John Carpenter’s The Thing is about the ways in which fear rips people apart. And not just from the tentacles that are literally, legitimately, ripping people apart. Unlike TTFAW, (but like the novella, which it more closely resembles than the original film) Carpenter’s thing is a shapeshifter which adds a paranoiac element that is even more upsetting than the various alien mutations and flesh-rippings (well…maybe not more upsetting than the stomach-mouth bit; that’ll fuck you up). Doubt and suspicion eat the men’s minds alive, so much so that by the time you get down to the final two survivors at the film’s infamous conclusion, it no longer matters who is who and who is what. They’re both doomed, regardless.

And since doom is on the mind…alright, let’s talk about the prequel/remake thing. Uh, Thing.

The 2011 prequel/remake is frustrating to talk about in this context because, while it clearly is attempting to add new ingredients and notions to the basic format of The Thing, it is too unfocused to ever develop those new ideas fully, and it is too beholden to Carpenter’s film to ever properly establish its own identity as a telling of this story.

It is perhaps most interesting as an attempt to merge the approach of the two previous adaptations, so that the first half of the film feels like The Thing From Another World with a large ensemble inhabiting a cozy space (and once again returning to the archetypes of an arrogant scientist messing with forces he doesn’t understand and a clear-headed outsider trying to talk him out of the dangerous approach and going unheeded until it is too late) and then gradually morphs into something closer to Carpenter’s The Thing in its second half once the ensemble has literally been cut in half.

But Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. fails in several critical places. For one, he never establishes any kind of dynamic among the various characters in the base. When you watch TTFAW or Carpenter’s film, even if you don’t know every single person’s name and official title within the base, you know who’s playing for which team. You can differentiate the scientists from the soldiers in TTFAW, and Carpenter quickly and efficiently spells out who everyone is in relationship to everyone else before he sics a shapeshifting fiend after the whole lot.

The Thing ’11 has none of that, just a jumble of bearded cannon fodder, with the recognizable stars and character actors with more than five lines who you presume (correctly) will be in the line-up that gets closest to the finish line. Most of what it tries to add to the conversation is just stuff lifted from Alien: from the skittering face-hugger-esque Thing running around, to the look and design of the interior of the alien spacecraft, down to Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a Ripley-ian rational thinker whose cool head and rational concerns are tossed aside, leading to a gory downfall.

The Thing ’11 doesn’t evolve or adapt the cinematic language used to tell the story the way that Carpenter did, instead using your standard wide shot/medium shot exchange. The few times when the movie breaks from the typical framing/cutting of a modern thriller are those moments when it is directly imitating specific flourishes from Carpenter’s film, like a revamped version of the iconic testing scene. Some of those recreations/imitations are fun and work well, but others just lay there. But the biggest shame of all is that The Thing ’11 never feels like it has found its own take on this material and the thematic riches to be mined therein. Instead it’s stuck as an echo of a statement that was already made perfectly in the past.

There will be other versions made of “Who Goes There?”/The Thing, probably in the very near future (I think there’s another remake that’s been kicked around recently?). The premise is too elementally perfect, and Carpenter’s film is too iconic to the modern horror landscape, to ever be left alone.

And that’s fine! No, really it is! Some stories survive because they are locked in, fixed objects, perfectly emblematic of the time in which they were created and functioning almost as time machines. Other stories survive because of their elasticity, because they can be expanded and re-framed to suit whatever time period and culture needs to be addressed.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an elastic story, and so is The Thing. America today is a vastly different country from the one it was in 1982, just as John Carpenter’s America was very different from Howard Hawks’. Many of our fears remain unchanged (disease, The Other, irresponsible science, the loss of self), but how our culture addresses and phrases those fears, and the specific faces we apply to them, exists in a perpetual state of shift.

The 2011 Thing wasn’t a failure because they used CGI for the alien stuff instead of practical effects (although the CGI is absolute dogshit). It’s a failure because it just regurgitates Carpenter’s fears being told in Carpenter’s way, rather than taking the bones of the story and finding the way in which that story can better speak to the world of now, to the terrors of today.

But that’s not to say that the next filmmaker to tilt at this material won’t have an exciting new approach, one that is in conversation with Carpenter in the same way that Carpenter was in conversation with Nyby and Hawks. But then again, the next take could be crap as well. There’s no way to know. Good or bad, genius or wretch, we can only ever wait and see for whatever’s going to come next.

As long as there are such uncertainties to contend with, there’ll always be room for another riff on The Thing. After all, you can never really know who goes there.

 

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