Recently I watched all three film versions of the classic science fiction novella, Who Goes There by John Campbell. The original is a classic study in paranoia: a group of scientists in Antarctica begin to turn on one another after unwittingly releasing a malevolent shape-shifting alien from a buried space ship.
John Campbell is best known as the science fiction editor who brought in the ‘Golden Age of Science Fiction’, by publishing the first works of writers such as Isaac Asimov, Rober A. Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon. But as Campbell grew older his erratic behaviour, endorsement of pseudoscience and his racist attitudes towards slavery alienated many, with English writer, Michael Moorcock saying Campbell’s work and editorship reflected his right-wing politics and red menace paranoia.
It’s interesting to note that Campbell grew up with a loving mother who had a cold and impersonal identical twin who often rejected his affections. It was said he was unable to tell the two apart and it’s not a great leap to suggest such a childhood could have influenced the themes present in Who Goes There. A novella that was originally published under the pseudonym, Don A Stuart: more shape shifting.
The Thing From Another World
I have soft spot for this film. When it’s a dark, stormy night this is my comfort food. I often watch it over Christmas. Usually a bottle of red, a good salad and a tray of homemade mac and cheese are involved. There’s something reassuring about the set design; even the cockpit of C-47 with the crew huddled together as they fly out to find the ‘mysterious comet’ looks an inviting and safe place. Characters are forever walking into to rooms to warm themselves over open fires. Of course, this sort of thing is exactly the reason they get into trouble. But Howard Hawks’ film drops the paranoia to go for a straight creature feature. If there’s any underlying theme, it’s the mistrust of science, a common feeling after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The scientists are not heroes; they’re cockamamie eggheads at the bottom of the world, blind to the results of their actions. They want to understand the alien, try and reason with it. It’s all down to big, square-jawed Captain Hendry to get ‘em in line before he goes ring-a-ding-ding with the ‘intelligent carrot’. It’s simplistic stuff and the pace is extremely brisk: everyone talks as if they’re trying to fit 120 minutes of material into 87. But there’s some cracking propaganda dialogue:
Ned ‘Scotty’ Scott: ‘You really think that spaceship could have melted all that ice?’
Scientist: ‘Of course. Why, one of our own navy jets could heat a fifty storey office building.’
Just look at the list of character names Nikki Nicholson, Crew Chief Bob, Ken ‘Mac’ MacPhearson: so much alliteration in such a small group? Isn’t this statistically impossible? Ah, but is it not also impossible that such an alien could wander the cosmos before setting down on our blue jewel? What must it think? What are its thoughts? You get the point, and it would be easy to just watch and mock were it not for the fact that The Thing From Another World is a really good movie. Nikki Nicholson may look like she’s smuggling a couple of Cornettos under her sweater, but she’s a strong character. The Thing itself remains unseen seen until the end, which is fair enough as it’s basically a big man in a suit. It really is worth a watch and could possibly be the first time; ‘keep watching the skies’ ever graced our screens.
John Carpenter’s The Thing
Not at all comforting, just an outright scare. There are still moments in this film where I will ‘accidently’ dislodge my glasses. The Thing is one of my favourite John Carpenter’s films. In it, he puts back the characters, paranoia and unsettling themes present in the original story.
It came out at a time when horror seemed to be preoccupied with the body: Alien, Cronenberg’s early work and The Fly, the remake of the Blob. It seemed that aliens may come from outer space, but it was our inner space they were really interested in. Yuck.
The Thing starts in a curious way. It’s not the main protagonists who find the creature it’s the Norwegians. We start the film with a Norwegian helicopter chasing a pack dog over the frozen Antarctic ice. This is quite a clever device by the screenwriter Bill Lancaster because when McCready and co. visit the Norwegian base later on, what they find really dials up the tension.
The helicopter chase ends at Outpost 31, an American research station. After the Norwegians accidently blow themselves up, the bemused American crew decides to take in the dog and then it all goes wrong. First thing, if there’s a doggy Oscar scheme, the pack dog should have won one. Second, the effects are truly stomach turning: there are tentacles, gapping mouths where mouths shouldn’t be, spewing liquids and scuttling heads. It’s not a popcorn film.
Who ever staffed up Outpost 31 should have been fired. There are no cheerful scientists, or lunk-headed soldiers: just a dysfunctional staff headed by a commander who stalks around the base with his six-shooter strapped to his belt. The crew is constantly getting on each other’s nerves, always accusing one another of little irritations. Not surprising that our hero, helicopter pilot McCready likes to keep to himself to drink bourbon while wearing his odd cold weather sombrero.
It’s hard to think of another film that starts with such a superb sense of dread. The Ennio Morricone soundtrack is laced with doom and by about half way through the picture it’s pretty clear there’s not going to be a happy ending, although according to the DVD documentary, Terror Takes Shape, Carpenter did film one that was never used. And it’s for the best, this film works as a vehicle of unrelenting nihilism. Kurt Russell’s McCready really starts to fall apart as he begins to suspect those around him, but you’re never confused by it all: the pace is frantic but the plot remains tight. It’s little vignettes of action, suspicion and horror that mean The Thing rewards repeat viewing: I’m always pleasantly surprised by who turns out to be a snarling ball of tentacles. Well, not pleasantly surprised.
According to Wikipedia, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station screens The Thing in a double bill with The Shining after the last summer flight back to civilization. This is of course splendid.
The Thing (2011)
John Carpenter’s Thing, like Aliens, has spawned comic books, action figures, novelisations and a computer game, so it’s not surprising that another film has been made, this time a prequel focusing on what happened to before Americans discover the Thing.
Made by Dutch filmmaker, Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. from a script by Eric Heisserer, we see the Norwegians discovering the ship. Then we crash cut to palaeontologist, Kate Lloyd being offered the chance to go with Dr Sander Halvorson (who looks a bit like Dr Carrington from the original 1954 film), to Antarctic to look at something amazing.
There are some American pilots in this one, presumably to position the Norwegians as mostly English speaking. The character, Kate is there to challenge Sander who, in another nod to the theme of irresponsible science from the first film, drills into the alien – effectively releasing it from its icy slumber.
In this film is we get to see how all the evidence the Americans stumble across in The Thing came to pass: the burnt alien, the axe in the wall. It’s all there, but it also feels like you’re watching someone explain a magic trick. You’re mentally ticking off every instance, rather than just settling into the film. Try as I might to judge the 2011 film on its own merits, it’s still too indebted to John Carpenter’s version.
There are some nice touches: the 2011 film has a measured pace as opposed to be the usual blizzard of fast cuts we see nowadays. The creature effects are pretty gruesome and the animatronics are fantastic. 2011’s characters are not a motely crew of assholes but sympathetic, believable and they have nice sweaters. It’s pretty horrible when they all start to die. Having characters slip into Norwegian also adds to the tension and the device that Kate uses to uncover the Thing is a novel invention. But eventually it does just become a big chase sequence with the alien becoming increasingly more CG as it transforms to ever more adventurous forms. Surprisingly, I didn’t find this version as gruesome as the 1982 version.
The 2011 film didn’t do too well at the box office, which is a shame because it’s a decent film and you can definitely sense the good intentions of the filmmakers. But perhaps a tale that thrives on its constrained surroundings and small cast was always going to whither when explained. You don’t really want to know why there’s a monster, you just want it to rip someone’s head off.
But the biggest fault is the overall theme of the 2011 Thing. In The Thing From Another World, it’s the mistrust of science. John Carpenter’s The Thing threw out the red menace allegory of the novella to explore how we can doubt our own flesh – his Thing is like cancer. But for the third film only really uses the idea of trust to fill in the blanks left by the second film.
When you think about trust and the 2011 Thing, that’s a real missed opportunity. There’s much to doubt in our world: established institutions are corrupt, the rich are out for themselves and there’s a cynicism whenever any new fresh scandal is uncovered. We are hardly surprised to be let down. It would have been great if some of these themes were brought into the 2011 Thing. After all, just because a film is set in 1982, it doesn’t have to reflect that year.