Nine times out of ten remakes suck. Usually, they’re nothing more than pointless drivel made, not only to cash-in on the legacy of the original source material, but to also miss its point entirely and shovel it down the throats of gormless twats in rose-tinted nostalgia glasses. It seems these days Hollywood is content with sitting about in its grey sludge-puddle of mediocrity rather than take a risk on a new idea for the sake of making a great movie, rather than worrying about their bank statements. However, there are some exceptions, especially some remakes that were done during the 1970s and 1980s. During that era, some talented filmmakers plucked the potential from otherwise lousy films from the past, resculpted them and produced some amazing works. That’s what John Carpenter did with a cheesy science fiction film from the 1950s and remade it into the 1980s horror classic, The Thing.
Unlike the original Howard Hawks production from 1951, Carpenter decided that he wanted to be more faithful to the source material; John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella, Who Goes There?. Carpenter wanted to stay true to Campbell’s original shape-shifting creature, rather than the Frankenstein’s Monster reject that was in 1951 adaptation. Carpenter also cut out a lot of the fat that weighed down the 1951 version by exorcising such a large amount of excess characters and evening out the pace. Upon my third viewing of the 1951 version for this review, it really does pale immensely in comparison.
Not only does the 1951 version suffer from a slight symptoms of Idiot Plot (contributed mainly by the lead scientist), but the film is populated with far too many characters to keep track of. And because there's so many of them, there was no room for character development, thus nothing to become emotionally invested in, which kills any chance for suspense or horror. Not even the beautiful Margaret Sheridan could keep my attention as the movie slowly plodded through stretched out establishing shots and dull exposition. The pacing alone is so excruciatingly slow, I had to keep stopping myself from doodling in my notebook and pay attention.
The Thing itself is surprisingly lame, even for a 50s science fiction movie monster. Perhaps it wasn't until later that they were able to make half-decent alien costume designs and makeup, but even for its time period, the "terrifying creature" is just a tall bloke in a jumpsuit. Every scene with the creature is dull as the Thing wobbles about the frame, seemingly with little to no direction on what he's supposed to be doing and it justs comes off as contrived. Every shot with him is too far away so you never get a decent look at him, nor does he ever bring a striking presence to invoke fear. The 1951 version is a relic and has aged poorly. Thankfully, time has been so much kinder to this far superior version.
As the story goes, somewhere in Antarctica an American research station’s seemingly mundane world becomes a lot more interesting when two half-crazed Norwegians chasing a husky with a helicopter fly around the base attempting to kill it. The helicopter crashes and one of the Americans shoot the surviving Norwegian as he threatens them with his firearm. The fires are put out and the rescued dog is put in the pen with the other canines, unbeknownst that the Norwegians were anything but crazy, and they were all going to learn that the hard way.
Bill Lancaster’s script is polarising. On the one hand, it’s subtle. The pacing is terrific and it understands how to build a suspenseful atmosphere that keeps you on your toes, and lacks the predictability of your garden-variety horror film with their jumpscares and unrelenting focus on gore for the sake of shock value. On the other hand, it falls short with the characters. While they are undoubtedly distinctive thanks to the performances, you never learn much about them. Aside from MacReady (Kurt Russell), Childs (Keith David) and Blair (Wilford Brimley), they’re not very memorable. But the sheer terror it inflicts keeps you invested and afraid for all of them none the less. Another horror cliché Lancaster's script thankfully avoids is the Idiot Plot, where things only seem to progress thanks to stupid decisions made by its characters. There are no dumb arguments or moronic choices made by any of the characters, which helps add to your investment and relatability towards them. They're believable, you want them to survive, and you feel the tension and hysteria as much as they do throughout the whole film.
Every moment of screen-time is dripping with mystery, paranoia and fear draped over with a crippling atmosphere of despair as they grow more and more suspicious of each other, act strange towards one another, and sleep with their eyes open and a gun underneath their pillow. What follows is a relentless game of cat and mouse as the men desperately try whatever they can to stay two steps ahead of the creature, only for their efforts to be constantly sabotaged by the creature itself or by their own paranoia
Visually, the camera never disappoints. Carpenter has always known what to do with the camera and teaming up with cinematographer Dean Cundy was an amazing choice. The Steadicam movements, pans, zooms and wide-angle shots are masterfully crafted and serve a purpose. No angle or transition is done out of sake, but by careful consideration. Of course, all the craftsmanship of the cinematography is greatly enhanced by Carpenter and his editor Todd Ramsay. The timing of shots, the cutting from shot-to-shot and the intentionally slow and methodical way that each creature reveal is timed are nothing short of brilliant. It makes your skin crawl and sends quivers up and down your spine. You’re horrified, but you cannot look away as it twists and mangles its misshapen form, blood and viscera pouring out and jagged limbs of tooth and nail lashing out at the helpless men.
Two fantastic contributions to the film's visuals were the matte paintings done by film veteran and long-time Hitchcock collaborator, Albert Whitlock and special effects wizard, Rob Bottin. Whitlock provided matte paintings for some of the most memorable wide shots including the painting of the Earth in the opening sequences, and the wide shot of the UFO buried in the snow. His work still holds up significantly well today and is breathtaking to look at. These lousy JPEGs just don't do them justice, so you really need to do yourself a favor and see the film to truly appreciate the work put into them.
Rob Bottin and his special effects team hands-down created some of the most magnificently grotesque creatures ever put on film. The use of ingeniously designed puppets and animatronics only enhanced the performances of all the actors as they were able to truly see the hideous monstrosities, as opposed to trying their damnedest to appear scared of an otherwise unassuming tennis ball on a stick in front of a greenscreen. Every shot of every retch, convulsion and looks of shock and terror are believable. Bottin alone toiled endlessly to the point of exhaustion, barely eating or sleeping on a futon he had stashed under his desk as he worked 24/7 on the many astoundingly gruesome effects for the creature. Thankfully, before Bottin was able to work himself to death, Stan Winston and his team were brought in to help by building the animatronics for the very first creature reveal.
Both Whitlock and Bottin’s work alone makes the film a must-see as they harmonize a swan song to their now defunct crafts as poorly-optimized CGI dances on both of their graves.
The film was a very ambitious undertaking on a technical scale as well. The majority of its filming was done on specially made, artificially frozen sets to help create immersion and give more natural performances from its actors, while outer location scenes, especially of the Norwegian camp, were filmed in British Columbia near the border of Alaska. Despite how uncomfortable the actors felt during shooting, you cannot deny the effectiveness of the results. You will feel cold watching the characters as they shiver in their thick coats and snow boots.
The audio is delicious, both with its music and sound design. Ennio Morricone’s original score is sensational. It has a stark beauty to it as the opening theme is a haunting, ominous dirge, an audible menace that's there to let you know that there is more beneath the surface. Beginning in a low, electronic drone before creating a faux-heartbeat and swooning ambiance that’ll make you tremble. It isn't there to hold your hand and it certainly couldn't care less about your comfort. No, you're playing by its rules, and it wants to do nothing more than to make the electricity within your nerve cells snap with dread.
This film remains one of the most compelling science-fiction/horror films of the last 30 years and an 80's gem, which only puzzles many admirers today as to why it was so poorly received upon its initial release. It was criticized quite harshly for being "gruesome" and "nihilistic". Even the director of the 1951 version, Christian Nyby, turned his nose up at it. The reviews and general audience attitude really hurt Carpenter personally, making The Thing one of the very last mainstream films of his career. Clearly, the film was ahead of its time as I can only guess that people were complete wusses back then and could only be satisfied with a film if it had a happy ending, as opposed to an appropriate ending that perfectly illustrated the bleak helplessness of the film's overarching themes.
The Thing is truly a gorgeously disturbing nightmare that outshines a lot of its contemporaries and proves that for all the ridiculous schlock, populated by characters so atrocious that you actually find yourself actually rooting for them to die, horror is still a genre worth defending, and this film most certainly worth watching.