Man is the warmest place to hide…
During August 1938 and writing under the pen name of Don A. Stuart, American science fiction author John W. Campbell, Jr. released his novella Who Goes There? Involving a group of scientific researchers in Antarctica who discover an alien spaceship buried in the ice, they recover the alien being to study it. Upon discovering that the thawing process has actually revived the alien, they find themselves in mortal danger as they soon learn that their discovery can assume the shape, memories, and personality of any living thing it devours. The novella was voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1973 as one of the finest novellas ever written.
Skip forward a couple of decades to 1951 and Howard Hawk loosely adapts the novella (but changing the shape-shifting alien into a giant walking carrot — I kid you not) for the big screen for RKO Pictures and unleashes THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD on to the movie-going public. Over the years, Howard Hawk’s version has been considered one of the greatest science fiction films of the 1950s and is still cherished by fans of vintage sci-fi movies (even today, it still delivers thrills and chills). The original novella was then adapted again in 1971, even more loosely, into the Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing movie HORROR EXPRESS which took the snowy setting and similar creature origins, but setting up the terror on a transatlantic train instead.
Fast forward to Los Angeles during the summer of 1981. A record-breaking heatwave is melting the city. Across six artificially frozen sound stages, Director John Carpenter (a devoted fan of the original as evident in HALLOWEEN) is in the middle of filming the remake of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD from a screenplay that is much in line with the original novella and is now simply titled THE THING…
The film opens to mixed reviews, surprisingly enough, during the summer of 1982. Some critics found it disappointing in terms of plot and characterizations and found Rob Bottin’s FX work too excessive and gory. It was compared to be a complete opposite to E.T. THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL. Even John Carpenter stated that the failing of THE THING hit him really hard, to the point where the director of the original film was criticizing him. Over the years, though, the film grew a cult status and is widely considered now to be one of the best horror films ever made with a lot of its merits being what it was originally criticised for.
John Carpenter’s THE THING has managed to keep going throughout the years as well. In 1991, Dark Horse Comics released a series of comic books The Thing from Another World which continued the events from John Carpenter’s film and found Macready and Childs trying to eradicate The Thing. There was even a comic titled The Northman Nightmare (released to promote the 2011 film) which shifted the era to the Viking ages and found a group of Norsemen battling The Thing in a tiny Greenland village.
In 2002, Computer Artworks developed and released THE THING which was a third-person survival horror video game and served as another sequel to John Carpenter’s film. It found a team of Americans arriving at Outpost 31 sometime later to investigate what happened. The game’s fear / trust system was inspired by the film’s paranoid atmosphere and works very well within the game. A sequel (simply called THE THING 2) was regrettably cancelled after Computer Artworks entered receivership in 2003. The story behind THE THING 2 remains unknown, but it would have been set on an oil rig and an aircraft carrier. There are some pretty good concept designs scattered around the internet if you know where to look.
Around the same time (2002-2004), The Sci-fi Channel had started work on a mini-series which would have been the official sequel to the 1982 film. Under the supervision of John Carpenter himself and produced by Frank Darabont (THE WALKING DEAD, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE MIST), the series would have again showed a different set of events (two totally different sets depending on which screenplay they would of used) that would follow the original 1982 film. For some unknown reason, the project was closed down and all reference to it was removed from the website despite receiving positive reviews from the screenplays.
In 2009, Strike Entertainment (the team behind the rather excellent DAWN OF THE DEAD remake) announced its plans to produce a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 film called THE THING (really original with the title, aren’t they?!). Screenwriter Eric Heisserer was tasked with reverse engineering the story so that it would blend in seamlessly with the original film while Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr. was directing the action behind the camera, paying very close attention to every little detail of the film so that it would match the look and feel of the 1982 original. Opening to average-to-less satisfying reviews, THE THING managed to get fans in cinemas, but never really hit it out the park. For this writer, I quite enjoyed it and think it’s a nice companion piece to John Carpenter’s original, making a great double feature. But upon reading some of the behind-the-scene stories which indicated studio interferences during the post-production, it’s pretty evident that a better film is locked away somewhere as glimpses of alternate footage can be found online as well as very detailed videos from Amalgamated Dynamics that feature all of the original practical creature effects that were shot in-camera before they replaced them with CGI. Director Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr. also went to Facebook and gave fans lots of behind-the-scenes detail of the alternate cut that he originally put together and explained the very different ending that was shot.
So that’s pretty much what’s happened since the original novella came out in 1938. Nearly 77 years later and we’re still talking about it, but the true gem in this vast timeline is still John Carpenter’s 1982 version. Why is it so popular even today?
My first encounter with THE THING was on VHS when I was young. It was always a film that I could never finish as I couldn’t get past the Kennel-Thing scene as it totally freaked me out and made me feel sick because of its excessive gore. It took me a very long time to gather the courage to make it past that scene and when I finally did, it was so rewarding that I purchased a copy of the VHS for myself. And then over the years came three laserdisc editions (UK and US laserdiscs and finally the signature edition), both original and remastered DVDs, and finally, the HD-DVD / Blu-ray editions. The recently released Mondo x SteelBook release was, again, another reason to buy it and add it to my collection. I’ve even been lucky to see an original 35mm print at a local independent cinema.
For the film itself, its unsettling and apocalyptic atmosphere grabs you from the opening frames (with assistance of Ennio Morricone’s doom-laden soundtrack, no doubt) and never lets go until the final credit has rolled off the screen. It’s an intense, scary and shocking film that is highly rewatchable thanks to some excellent performances from the Outpost 31 team. Kurt Russell’s hard-nosed MacReady is one of his finest films roles along with Jack Burton and Snake Plisskin (all Carpenter films as well). Keith David’s arrogant portrayal of Childs who is constanly up against Macready, Donald Moffat as poor Gary who tries his best at leading and doesn’t want to spend the rest of winter “tied to the fucking couch”, amongst others. John Carpenter’s brilliantly executed direction keeps the pulse racing throughout and Rob Bottin’s incredible visual effects will have you turning away in disgust and diving behind the sofa. It’s a film that I’ve seen so many times, but still keep finding new little items of detail in the background (especially with the gruesome SFX!). There is also a hidden level of detail within the film that was uncovered by a super fan of the film who managed to break down the entire film. It was revealed that Universal had changed the release date of the film which gave John Carpenter additional time in the edit room to lock down the final edit. This additional time was used to fine tune the film and add in some ‘clues’ to who was infected or not. So again, more reasons to watch the film! The film is also the first part of his ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’ which also includes PRINCE OF DARKNESS and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, all which have nihilistic themes.
For myself and pretty much any other fan of the film, John Carpenter’s THE THING is his greatest work and, much like his other celebrated classics like HALLOWEEN and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, will stand the test of time for many more years to come. Remember to keep watching the skies…