Thursday, July 24, 2014

Now I've Seen Every "Thing" Dept.

"Who Goes There?" by Don Stuart (a pseudonym for sci-fi pioneer John W. Campbell) is one of the acknowledged "great" stories in speculative fiction.

Part science-fiction, part horror and part psychological thriller, it tells of an isolated Antarctic research facility that discovers a flying saucer long buried in the ice.  Investigation leads to finding the saucer's sole inhabitant not too far away and taking the
BEM-sicle back to the Ice Station for analysis.

Of course, it escapes and this particular ET has a special talent—it can "pretend" to be anyone it has killed and "absorbed." Hiding in plain sight, the "Thing" starts picking off the scientists one by one, while the humans among them start to worry which of their (dwindling) number could be the wolf in sheep's clothing.

Paranoia strikes deep, but "The Thing" strikes deeper, able to replicate the men down to their blood-cells, which provides them with a nifty test to see who's genuine and who's a "Thing"-a-ma-job—take a blood-sample and dip a hot wire into it, and the alien-cells react and start to metamorphose, while the human hemoglobin merely sizzles.

Eventually, the alien is trapped by the scientists, while it is constructing an anti-grav ship to escape, forcing it outside into the cold, where it is torched by the scientists. Humanity triumphs that the alien has been thwarted from fleeing or spreading itself to another outpost. All's right with the world, especially considering that no other visit has occurred since the first ship crashed twenty million years before. No other invasion is expected anytime soon. The end.

From its origins in the August 1938 issue of "Astounding Stories," the tight, compact story was first adapted for the screen by Charles Lederer (with assists from Ben Hecht) and the film's producer, one of the great directors of American film, who put such a personal stamp on it that, to this day, there is debate about just how much work on it the listed director of record actually did.  And that man's influence has taken over the DNA of his film's clones, so powerful is his influence and legacy.
The researchers take a measurement of the saucer.
Hawksian team-work in The Thing (from Another World)


The Thing (From Another World) (Christian Nyby, 1951).  Yes, it says "Christian Nyby" in the credits, but the film is such a prime example of Executive Producer Howard Hawks' style that folks just assume he had a hand in directing it as well.  He almost certainly re-wrote the script, as it crackles with wit, banter, and includes the requisite "Hawks woman" who's tough enough to play with "the boys."  In fact, the dialogue and human interplay are better than the film deserves and is more entertaining than the "monster movie" that is at its frozen core

Hawks puts it in the arctic, then tossed out Campbell's psychological element—his military/scientific crew are Hawksian professionals and suspicions about each other would drive a wedge into that mix (it's enough that one scientist want to emphasize research over self-preservation to cause some heated exchanges*), fraying the team-spirit necessary to get through the crisis and the simple goal of staying alive. Nope. It's simple. The "Thing" is bad. "It" wants to kill us. We kill "it" before "it" kills us. Research? That's what autopsies are for!
So, The Thing (From Another World) is much more of a monster movie than the study of paranoia the story is. Teamwork towards a common goal is emphasized—you can say that a lot of Hawks' films are analogies to the disparate gypsy-camp of film-makers working together to create a single film—and it boils down to survival. Besides the interplay of the characters, the film also boasts some iconic scenes: the Air Force officers and scientists spreading out on the ice to determine the size of the saucer;
the sight of "the creature" (explained in simple unscientific jargon by one of the researchers as "an intellectual carrot") silhouetted in light as it kinetically bursts open the door of the room hiding the crew; the truly eerie scene of growing blood-sucking creature-clones like they were lethal daisies.

The Thing (From Another World) is a tough, no-nonsense monster movie with sides clearly drawn: us against them. But the only hint of the original tale's paranoia comes from the film's final line: "Watch the skies!"
Braised carrots are on the menu at the arctic station tonight.
James Arness (in a role he hated) gets fried in The Thing (From Another World)


The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982) Director Carpenter has long been a disciple of Howard Hawks (his Assault on Precinct 13 is an urban remake of Rio Bravo, and Halloween is merely The Thing in costume), so it was only natural that he would take on the sole horror movie in Hawks' CV.

Bill Lancaster's script hews a little closer to Campbell's story, re-introducing the character conflicts and the assimilating alien (and eliminating Hawks' lone female character, making the station very much a "boys' club," comprised of Carpenter's "go-to" top-liner Kurt Russell—as chopper pilot McReady—and a "who's who" of veteran '80's character actors, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Donald Moffat, Keith David, and Richard Masur).

In the Hawks version it was "us against them;" with Carpenter, it's back to "we have met the enemy, and he could be one of us."

Kurt Russell as MacReady in Carpenter's version
The tone is decidedly different, too. Carpenter's film is dark and brooding and creepy, punctuated by sequences of crazily unnerving violence concocted by make-up wizard Rob Bottin's creative realizations of the creature's ability to turn any part of a human's anatomy into a potential source of weapon or defense. It's icky and gooey and strangely goofy to see heads sprouting spider legs and skittering through the facility, or to see the detached head of one of the researchers pull itself along by whipping its tongue around a table leg and pulling itself out of harm's way.
Rob Bottin's creature creations for The Thing (1982) emphasize
a strange versatility when utilizing its human hosts.
Ultimately, though, for all the anarchic lunacy of the monster sequences, the movie boils down to a claustrophobic, paranoid fight between the men amongst themselves in their search for who is the monster among them, and Carpenter ends the film on a decidedly down note as the survivors of the carnage eye each other, each suspecting the other of being a creature, while they await certain death from the freezing elements, their previously secure station decimated by the events of the previous hours, providing no safety, no sanctuary or any warmth. There are no winners in the decidedly small intergalactic battle zone. 
And, though we're left with no ending and only a stalemate, we can be assured there will be no survivors, either. Any victory is hollow, and one is left pondering if any "thing" human came out of it.


The Thing (Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., 2011) A direct prequel to Carpenter's film,** but basically the same plot. Spaceship found. Creature in the ice. Thaws out. Starts absorbing people.

What's interesting is that van Heijningen also pays tribute to Hawks, by turning the sex-tables on the story, making paleontologist Kate Lloyd (
Mary Elizabeth Winstead from Scott Pilgrim, who looks unnervingly like Zooey Deschanel and can rock a mean flame-thrower) the "guy-in-charge" after the official authority structure breaks down. Just as Hawks up-ended The Front Page by casting Rosalind Russell in one of the men's roles for His Girl Friday, van Heijningen provides an interesting dynamic by putting a woman in control of a station full of panicking men.
One doesn't have to have seen the Carpenter version to appreciate what is going on in the film, but if one has there are touchstones that one can appreciate (and check off if one is a "completist" or continuity-obsessive) along the way—especially at the end once the credits have started rolling—there's the merged double-creature that is briefly seen in the earlier film, the axe in the door, the suicide, the fleeing dog pursued by snipers. But, the giddy, manic quality of the creature-creations has been muted for straight-out horror effects—van Heijningen even has a cheap-shot "Boo" effect early on that still makes one jump—but Carpenter's (and Campbell's) blood-test sequence is neatly sabotaged for a simpler, more organic, and slightly creepier, test that anticipates a potential attack every time someone opens their mouth.
It does its job well, but one is left feeling it really wasn't necessary to make this entry, as it its only function seems to be to ride the coat-tails of its predecessor and fill in some blanks of an already competent version that left some audience-members behind (in the same way that
2010 did for 2001).

Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) rocks a flame-thrower.

* And we all know how disastrous heated exchanges can be at an ice-station!

** The film literally ends where Carpenter's begins, with a Norwegian helicopter  and gunman chasing a dog over the Antarctic wastes.

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