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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The thing about The Thing

WARNING: This post contains some Big Time SPOILER ALERTS on the original novella and all three Thing movies (including the NEW THING MOVIE)

The Thing, the third movie in what can now safely be referred to as The Thing franchise opens today. Like the titular shape-shifting creature, the story and basic premise of The Thing has shape shifted and adapted to the themes, issues and even fears of the various times in which films were made.

The latest take on the badass chameleon alien monster has garnered a great deal of skepticism amongst fans.  Reactions have ranged from “No!” to “Why?”.  However, there has consistently been a new movie version of The Thing every thirty years or so since 1951.  The original novella, Who Goes There? by legendary SF writer John W. Campbell Jr. was published in 1938.  The basic premise behind the story of a group of scientific researchers in Antarctica who discover a malevolent alien being buried in the ice goes back even further than that.

If you take into account the underlying archetypal themes of the story, such as shape-shifting, spiritual possession and the evil twin, it’s a tale almost as old as civilization itself.  In literature and folklore, the yarn usually involved such evil or mischievous forces as fairies, demons and ghosts. By the time the more technological and scientifically advanced mid-20th century rolled around, the mythological figures were replaced by the more mysterious and ominously threatening forces of alien beings from other worlds.

Writing under the name Don A. Stuart for the pulp magazine Astounding Stories, Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? first appeared in print in 1938. It’s hard to verify all these years later but more than likely the title was meant to be a reference to the opening line of William Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy Hamlet. The line is spoken in reaction to the first appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s recently murdered father. Timeless themes are already prevalent in the title alone.

Who Goes There? is a well written piece of short fiction that gets a lot of mileage out of a simple premise.  A group of researchers working in a research base in Antarctica known as Big Magnet stumble upon a spaceship in the ice that has been buried there for 20 million years. In a classic ironic bad move typical of these kinds of stories, the crew brings a frozen alien being back to the station. Once the alien thaws, it comes to life. It soon becomes apparent that The Thing (as it it is referred to in the story) can take the form, shape, memories and even personality of any being it kills. It is even possible, the crew soon realizes, that The Thing may be able to do this to more than one being at any given time.

The story quickly becomes a classic cat and mouse game of suspense with the added twist that it’s never really clear who is the cat and who is the mouse. Short story even shorter: all incarnations of The Thing are  finally detected and destroyed by MacReady, the base’s assistant commander. The Thing is stopped just short of building its own atomic-powered anti-gravity device. Its plan was to escape Antarctica and infect the rest of the planet.  

That’s a key part of the premise of the original 1938 story. What is at stake is more than just the survival of the men and the ensuing “who is The Thing in disguise?” paranoia. It’s about protecting the entire world.  If anything, the altruistic motives of the crew in Who Goes There? trump even their own instincts for self preservation. A telling premise for a story that first appeared  on the eve of World War II.

13 years after the first appearance of Who Goes There? in print, a film adaptation of Campbell’s story, The Thing From Another World, was released. Though the film was not really an adaptation. Just about the only elements of Campbell's story that turn up in The Thing From Another World are the remote location, a very cold climate, an alien and a crashed spaceship.

The Antarctic location of the base is replaced by an Arctic location.The research station has become a US Air Force base in Alaska.  In this case, the alien spaceship (or "flying saucer" as it is referred to in the dialogue) has crashed not 20 million years ago but very recently. The Thing itself is a classic Guy-in-a-Suit 50’s sci-fi monster movie alien. The decision to dump the shape shifting angle is interesting, given the Cold War era context of the film. The movie easily could have gone in an Invasion of the Body Snatchers direction. Distrust of everyone and everything for fear of Communist infiltration was an idea heavily promoted in politics and the media in the early 1950’s. 

The Thing From Another World, though, takes a much simpler path. Destroy the evil alien monster at all costs. The greater good of the free world trumps anyone person's own personal safety. The underlying threat of The Thing taking of the world most likely resonated strongly in the era of the Red Scare.

The Thing From Another World opts for an obvious no-frills killer monster plot line. The Thing is some kind of a plant monster that feeds on human blood. And who knows? The monster could be the vanguard of a much larger alien invasion. Protecting the rest of world from the evil creature is paramount. The film’s central conflict is just like the film it was shot on: black and white.

Historical, political and social contexts aside, The Thing From Another World is a very effective thriller. Even by today’s standards there are scenes of great suspense that still hold up.

The movie’s director is credited as Christan Nyby, a long time editor for legendary Hollywood director Howard Hawks (The Big Sleep, Sargent York, Rio Bravo and the Star Wars-inspiring  Air Force). While Hawks is credited as producing the movie, it has been widely reported that most if not all of the film was actually directed by Hawks himself .

Whomever is responsible, the movie was one of the first to use the classic suspense tactic of the sudden scare without any build up of tension.  For instance, there is a scene when the base commander casually opens a door. Suddenly, and without warning, The Thing is right there on the other side, attempting to lurch into the room. The scare is so effective that there is automatic suspense for the rest of the film any time anyone even reaches for a doorknob.

The Thing, in the end, is ultimately destroyed, by the the actions of the brave and resourceful US servicemen, another powerful theme of post WWII early Cold War Era (one that, quite understandably, has resurfaced in a post-911 world).  Even the media is heroic in the end (not really something that has stayed with us into a post-911 world). The reporter embedded on the Air Force base to cover the crashed flying saucer story, gets on the radio at the end of the film and broadcasts to everyone back home in America that the threat from another world was defeated this time but there may be many more invading Things to come. He utters the now classic line that has come to define much of 1950’s Hollywood Sci-Fi, “Keep Watching The Skies!”.

The Thing From Another World did well at the box office in 1951. It saw many subsequent re-releases and TV airings in the years to come. One of the fans the movie picked up along the way was a young kid on whom the 1951 Thing made a lasting impression. That young man’s name was John Carpenter. Carpenter would, of course, grow up to be one of Hollywood’s most successful horror directors.  He made his mark in the late 70’s with one of the early progenitors of what is now a staple of the horror sub-genre, the slasher film. The film was Halloween and it also happened to slash box office records (pun intended).

In 1982, Carpenter got his chance to remake one of his favourite movies.  Despite his affection for The Thing From Another World, he kept very little of the original film in the remake. Instead, Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster returned to Campbell’s original novella. The plot is very close to the plot of the ‘82 Thing. Even the character names are mostly the same. About the only thing Carpenter retained from the ‘51 version was a similar font in the onscreen title sequence.  John Carpenter’s The Thing is a very different  beast than The Thing From Another World.

The setting is back once again in an Antarctic research station. The malevolent alien retains many of the shape shifting assimilation characteristics of the The Thing of Campbell’s story. Even McReady’s (yep, that character is back too) unique blood test for detecting alien duplicates is almost virtually the same.

Kurt Russell (who, by 1982, had finally successfully ditched the typecasting curse of all those 70’s live action Disney comedies like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and The Strongest Man in the World) plays the character of MacReady. The names are the same but the novella and movie characters are not exactly identical. For one thing, McReady and the other characters are pretty much only concerned with their own survival and self-preservation. Not only is protecting the rest of the world from The Thing a secondary consideration but so is protecting the other members of the research crew.  With a creature so deadly and so evasive, it becomes every man for himself pretty quickly. Literally every man. Oddly, the 50’s version of The Thing has female characters but the 80’s (true to the 1930’s story) does not.

And it is this aspect of the characters that makes Carpenter’s vision of The Thing so dark.  People easily become selfish and unlikeable under such a threat. Is the conflict with the monster or with each other or even with civilization itself?

The other darkness and far more visual elements of The Thing are the effects. Using a combination of animatronics, stop motion animation, make-up and plain old fashioned puppetry techniques, Carpenter and his effects crew created some incredibly creepy and wonderfully cinematic appearances for the eponymous monster. Each time we see The Thing either being detected and/or getting caught in the act of assimilating another victim, the visual effects take center stage. However, there's more to these scenes than just their functioning (as many critics back in the day loved to point out) as a showcase for impressive effects work.

People and animals are distorted, their faces or other body parts are twisted often screaming mutilations of nature that have become appendages to the creature. The Thing itself is filled with pulsing veins, spurting blood and unknown organs. Tentacles, claws, crab-like legs writhe about as the creature assimilates living beings and lashes out for more victims. The Thing expands to great heights or great lengths or both. The creature of The Thing is disturbing, compelling and frightening at the same time. Yet the appearances of the creature are also tinged with an undertone of pathos. In the end, The Thing is a dangerous beast, to be sure, but its actions are also portrayed as those  of a cornered animal, deeply aggressive in its fear.

The Thing is kind of an exaggerated version of its enemies. It is fighting for its own survival and self-preservation just like its human counterparts. Overall, the portrayal injects a grim yet compelling vision of the human condition in what could otherwise be mere horror movie escapism.

In 1982, the Cold War had heated up once again in the early days of the Reagan era. Gone were the dominant anti-war, anti-establishment ideologies of the 60’s and 70’s. The world was swinging back to conservatism. In its historical context, Carpenter’s nuanced portrayal of a creature just as distorted and frightened as its human enemies reads almost as a last gasp of liberalism in an increasingly reactionary era.

That portrayal may explain why the film bombed in its initial theatrical release. Ultimately, on an almost subconscious level, The Thing is scary, suspenseful and grotesque but most importantly, it is bleak and nihilistic. It’s a message and a motif that can be a bit of a turn-off on a first viewing. It all holds up much more strongly over multiple viewings. That was no doubt why The Thing only attained its classic cult status after its initial home video release.

The Thing had such a long and distinguished track record as cult classic that rumours of remake or a sequel have been lingering for years. After 30 years, the rumours were wrong. 

No remake. No sequel. But there is a prequel.

The newly released film version of The Thing depicts events that immediately precede the events of the classic ‘82 version. Narrative-wise, that’ s a prequel. However, the movie has the exact same title as the 1982 version. Ostensibly that makes it a remake. Or maybe a premake? A requel? Whatever the case, it’s a clever way of hitting the core audience of fans of the classic ‘82 version while also attracting a new generation of movie-goes who are unfamiliar with the classic and are just looking for some new SF Horror thrills.

On that level, The Thing 2011 (seriously, how is Universal Pictures ever gonna keep their catalog straight?) certainly delivers, but it really doesn’t end there.

The now classic themes of The Thing are all present: terror, paranoia, violence and plenty of visually elaborate effects. The story focuses on the Norwegian outpost referred to in the opening of The Thing 1982.

While director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. displays reverence for Carpenter’s The Thing, the film differs from the ‘82 version in many significant ways. Gone, for instance, is any sense of pathos for the alien creature. The creature is violent, aggressive and horrifying. Like the in the ‘51 version, The Thing is evil. Kill it now. Period.

The Thing 2011 displays a sense of terror that reaches audacious extremities. van Heijningen lingers on the creature at just about any point in the story when it becomes a mass of unnaturally pale twisted human body parts. We see The Thing as made up human appendages along with blood drenched veins, slimy tentacles, hairy insect legs and crustacean claws. And that’s just for starters.  

The Thing also contains such intense psycho-sexual imagery as a thick-veined alien phallus-shaped form of what was once a human arm that forcibly inserts itself directly into its victim’s screaming mouth. Or, in another the sequence, a six legged, half assimilated naked form of a man  crawls over top of another screaming male victim. It then slowly lowers its grotesque semi-human naked form down onto the man and forcibly melds with his flesh. Glimpses of The Thing’s oral orifices consistently appear as some variation of a vaginally shaped mouth lined with tiny sharp castrating fangs.

Geez, Freudian much, guys?

In spite of (or perhaps because of) such imagery, The Thing 2011 is able to build suspense with the best of them. van Heijningen knows how to direct his actors, shoot his shots and edit his scenes to create tension that is often palatable. The paranoiac undertones of the story are probably the strongest feature of The Thing 2011.

The current Thing is unmistakably a product of a post-911 world. We live in a time when most of the western world still remains on edge about potential terrorist attacks. Those plotting such attacks, we are told, are potentially living in our midst. The re-currant “trust no one” theme of The Thing plays particularly chillingly in 2011.

Despite the fact that The Thing is a pure force of evil, the humans are not necessarily a pure force for good. Their actions in their quest for survival against a deceptive and powerful enemy are often morally compromised.

In the 2011 Thing, the character of Dr. Kate Lloyd (another solid performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World fame) plays more or less the same role in the story that the MacReady character played in the original novella and the ’82 film. The young American female scientist seems to intuitively understand the potential threat of the creature almost from square one. Unfortunately, her “more mature” male old world colleagues do not share that intuition. In that sense, Lloyd’s character is closer to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character in the Alien franchise than she is to Russell’s (or even Campbell’s) MacReady.

The Thing 2011 is often intentionally ambiguous both in terms of its narrative and its morality. Dr. Lloyd makes some extreme decisions, working on what appears to be (to the viewer at least) somewhat questionable evidence. Her choices make for some of the most emotionally charged moments in the film.
Is Lloyd a hero? Or an anti-hero? Did she do what was necessary to survive? Or did she irrevocably cross morally unacceptable boundaries?
What was that about a post-911 world again?

At the current rate of prequels and remakes, we are due for another version of The Thing in roughly 2041. What changes to our world with the next 30 years see? More importantly, how will those changes impact the story and underlying themes of the next Thing movie?

We will just have to wait and, in MacReady’s final words of the ’82 Thing, “...see what happens.”


  1. One theme from the 1951 version that I think ties it more closely to Cold War flicks like Them! is the idea that science must come under the control of masculine, government, military control. Dr. Carrington is an unrealistic, impractical scientist whose science-for-science's-sake ideas lead almost to the destruction of all. He, and science generally, must be dominated by Capt. Hendry, and American state power generally. See Keith Booker's Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism.

  2. I will check it out. High brow analysis of pop culture; I live for that shit, man. Seriously.
    And, yeah, the control of science (or the intelligentsia in general really) is all over those 50's SF movies. I don't think it's until like Fantastic Voyage in '66 before you start seeing any kind of distrust of the military industrial complex.
    There may be a whole other blog there.
    It's an angle I dropped for length reasons.
    Even in the new Thing, there is clearly an anti-scientist agenda. Well, of the older scientific establishment anyway. It's the older European male scientist that is truly responsible for unleashing The Thing, for similar reasons to Dr.Carrington's in the '51 version. However, the hero of the new film is a young female American scientist who consistently displays a stronger intuitive intelligence than any of her older male old world counterparts. An interesting shift in ideologies.

  3. Checked out the book on Amazon. It's going for $106. That must be one majorly seminal piece of work...

  4. I'll bring my copy when I come u0p to Montreal. You can photocopy it... ;)

  5. Thanks for that very informative, concise piece of writing on one of my favourite films. Incidentally, the book has been reprinted and is for sale here in the UK, on 1/12/2011 for approximately £5, $8 USD? Many Thanks.

  6. Thanks for your comment and kind words, and most especially thanks for your lead on the book.