Examining Hollywood Remakes: The Thing

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When people talk about remakes of old films, the one that is most often mentioned as being better than the original is John Carpenter’s 1982 horror flick, The Thing, which is a remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks classic The Thing From Another World. There’s a good argument to be made for the newer one. Not that the first one isn’t an excellent movie, but this is a rare occasion where the reputation of the remake seems to overshadow the original.

Both films were based on the short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell but the original strayed further from the source material, whereas the remake was more faithful to Campbell’s story. Usually it’s the other way around.

In the 1951 version, an artic scientific research team lead by Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) discovers a change in the magnetic poles and so a military unit lead by Captain Hendry (Kenneth Toby) comes to investigate. They discover a UFO buried under the ice and the pilot is still alive. The scientists want to study it and a mishap with an electric blanket causes the frozen alien to thaw out and begin its attack, terrorizing the scientists and soldiers.

The “Thing” in the 1951 film is played by 6-foot-7 actor James Arness, best known as Marshall Matt Dillon in the long running series Gunsmoke. (1955-1975) He’s also the brother of Peter Graves, star of the TV show Mission Impossible. He wore a latex mask and some sort of space suit to portray the hostile alien. In an interesting twist, the alien monster here evolved from vegetation rather than from animals. While the creature is mockingly called “a carrot” by some of the soldiers, it’s a bit more complicated than that. It spreads its seeds and needs blood to pollinate its ‘children’, so it wants to kill the humans to grow a race of invaders.

In the 1982 version, an American research team (Including Kurt Russell) meets an apparently insane group of Norwegian scientists in a helicopter who are trying frantically to kill a dog, but their copter crashes before they can succeed, or explain themselves. The dog turns out to be a shape-shifting alien being that kills people to feed and then duplicates their form and even their thoughts. It begins to pick off the team members one-by-one. Since the alien can change its form, paranoia begins to run rampant among the team because no one knows which of them is human and which is the alien.

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The alien in the remake has no real agenda, as the 1951 monster did. This newer one has been described by John Carpenter as a sort of ‘space virus’ that infects people, assimilates them for fuel and as a side-effect, duplicates their form. This latter part seems to be some sort of survival reflex, designed to keep it safely camouflaged while it feeds. It’s not clear whether this ‘thing’ even had an original form or if it was just some sort of germ or fungus that duplicates more complex life forms.  This version may have been created as a weapon, rather than being a soldier from another world.

The 1951 film is less of a monster movie and more of a story about people trying to survive a dangerous threat. It’s much like a disaster movie or a film like Lifeboat where survivors try to continue to survive long enough for help to come. The “Thing” in the older version is rarely seen, and it pops in and out of the film, often retreating to the artic wastes and then returning later for another blood hunt. The focus of the film is how the characters react to their situation. The scientists want to preserve it for study while the military guys want to destroy it. The unseen General Fogerty, superior officer of the soldiers, communicates periodically to tell Captain Hendry to keep the alien alive, hoping to use it as a weapon. Lead scientist Carrington even sabotages the soldier’s efforts due to his obsession with saving the creature. The focus of the movie is clearly on the human interactions, with the alien as a catalyst for their interactions. The alien is like the Volcano in Dante’s Peak or the asteroid in Armageddon. The real story is about survival. 

The alien is much more prominent in the Carpenter version, and the SFX team has a field day with the transformation effects, such as the head with the spider legs. The clever thing about the new film is that you never know when the alien is actually on screen because you don’t know which form it is in. The remake also adheres more closely to the Campbell book, which was an analogy for Cold War paranoia, about not knowing who to trust and who is really an enemy. The remake also keeps the same character names from the story. It’s more of a combination of character interactions, horror, special FX and gore.

 

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The 1951 film was mostly directed by Christian Nyby but its common knowledge that legendary producer/director Howard Hawks had his hand in this, and you can tell easily enough by the trademark Hawks style of fast-talking/overlapping dialogue, which is his signature. Carpenter, the master of cinematic spookiness who gave us Halloween and The Fog, does a great job of maintaining the tension in the remake while the cast is excellent at portraying ever-increasing panic. The newer one doesn’t have the moments of light banter that the Hawks/Nyby film had but that can be either a plus or a minus, depending on how you feel about comedy relief in a horror film.

The remake also has a nice nod to the original. There’s a scene in the Carpenter version where they watch a film of the Norwegian research team and it recreates the iconic moment in the 1951 version when the cast forms a circle to reveal the shape of the flying saucer under the ice. A great homage to a great scene.

Kenneth Toby, who played the hero Captain Hendry in the older movie, had good things to say about the remake, although his one criticism was that the newer film gave you no one to root for since you didn’t know who was innocent and who was the monster. Other than that, he scored it 80 out of 100. (Original director Nyby was much less generous in his appraisal of the remake, saying “If you want to see blood, go to a slaughterhouse, not a movie.”)     

Obviously the FXs are much better in the Carpenter version but you have to admire the 1951 version for doing so much with so little. With a small budget and no big name actors (Even Arness was not yet famous at the time) they put together a moody, claustrophobic horror classic.

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There were no female characters in the Carpenter version. The 1951 film had two, but only one of them got any dialogue. Margaret Sheridan played Nikki, assistant to Dr. Carrington and the love interest for Captain Hendry. This made her character interesting because when the schism occurs between the scientific and military groups, her loyalties are torn between the professor who she admires and the Captain who she loves. She also has a Marian Ravenwood-like ability out outdrink the hero.

The biggest flaw I had with the older film was that we are told repeated by Carrington that the alien is of superior intelligent but it does nothing in the film except crash through doors and attack people head-on. The only sign of cleverness it displays is sabotaging the generator, which didn’t take a higher intellect to do.  The Carpenter film had a more tense and ambiguous ending, leaving us on a sort of cliffhanger, not knowing which of the two survivors is the alien. The original ended on a more definite note, with the alien being destroyed, although the final line “Watch the skies! Keep watching the skies!” was a sufficiently ominous way to end the story.

So was the remake better? While I personally prefer the original because of my fondness for Howard Hawks, the remake has so much to offer that it’s hard to find fault in it as a horror movie. (Although Nyby found fault in it.) The newer one is a very different film and that’s what makes a good remake…it retains the spirit and tone of the original but alters the story in interesting ways so that you’re seeing something new, not a stale rehash. Carpenter achieves the right balance. So let’s give a thumbs up to Carpenter’s The Thing, as a successful remake.

 That’s all for this week. Come back next week when we’ll talk about a bad remake that stunk up the theater and did no honor to the original.