Richard A. Dysart
Thomas G. Waites
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The Thing (1982)
22nd Mar 04
A US research base in the Antarctic becomes host to a shape-shifting alien organism which can imitate other life forms perfectly. The men are running out of time and must stop the organism in its tracks before all of them are infected...
Strangely, though, it is not scored by Carpenter himself, but Ennio Morricone, who was already so well-established and revered as one of the world's greatest and influential soundtrack composers (the work he was best known for being the Spaghetti Western films of Sergio Leone - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, For a Few Dollars More, etc...). However, the music Morricone wrote for the film could almost have been done by Carpenter himself. There are his signature pulsing rhythms, invoking dread and alienation with their monotony. Apparently, in terms of style, this was Morricone's intention all along anyway; to keep the score very much in the style of Carpenter's previous efforts. It worked a treat, too. Give that man a pat on the back and a dozen pies. Or perhaps a bunch of nice flowers, if be that his Thing.
The Thing From Another World was made by Howard Hawks and Chistian Nyby back in the 1951. The Thing itself manifested itself as a rather unimpressive giant vege-man-type creature. Hawks apparently directed most of the film, although he was officially only the producer of the picture. That's probably the biggest reason why Carpenter is such a fan of the original. He saw in the original elements which could be expanded, developed, modified, and basically the opportunity to bring colours to the story that were not in the original. Wouldn't be hard - the 1950 version was black and white... Carpenter's film is much more true to the original story that The Thing was based on - a novelette called 'Who Goes There?' (1938) by John W Campbell. In the Hawks/Nyby film, there is virtually no sense of paranoia, as the alien simply feasts on blood of the living (boring! Wake me up when it's over), instead of mimicking other life forms. The following is an excerpt from a 1982 interview Carpenter did with Twilight Zone magazine;
Why choose to remake THE THING when the original Hawks film is remembered so clearly by moviegoers all over the world? "Because it's one of my all-time favorites stories," he explains. "I loved the first film. I thought it was great. But they left a lot of Campbell's story out of it. I read the story before I saw the film. I guess I was about ten. Even then, I realized that the whole nature of Campbell's THING was different than that of Hawks'.
The novelette Who Goes There? is completely different from the Hawks/Nyby film. It pays very little respect to the original story, and Carpenter's version is, as he points out, much closer to the original. In many ways, it is very faithful to the Campbell's book. If you are familiar with Carpenter's film, you will find the following text, which is straight out of the book, to be almost if not completely identical with the script from Carpenter's film:
"...studied every cell of his tissue, and shaped its own cells to imitate them exactly."
"That, for instance, isn't dog at all: it's imitation..."
"...and as Dr. Copper said, every part is a whole. Every piece is a self-sufficient, an animal in itself."
"The blood - the blood will not obey. It's a new individual, with all the desire to protect its own life...The blood will live - and try to crawl away from a hot needle, say!"
"...that i'll try to show you what I already know. That I too am human."
and the following descriptive excerpts may ring a bell...
"The half-terrorized howl of the dog pack changed into a wild hunting malee. The voices of the dogs thundered in the narrow corridors, and through them came a low ripping snarl of distilled hate. A shrill of pain, a dozen snarling yelps."
"He turned to the men in the cabin, tense, silent men staring with wolfish eyes at his neighbour."
"The Thing in the test tube screamed with a tiny voice as McReady dropped it into the glowing coal of the galley stove."
It should be pointed out that while there are many similarities between the book and Carpenter's film, there are also many differences. For instance, instead of watching re-runs of a TV show, the men have access to a cinema projector and old cartoons. There are many more men in the book than there are in the film, in fact the Hawks film represented the quantity of men more precisely. Some names in the book don't make it into Carpenter's film, such as Kinner, Connant and Barclay. However, he retained some of the characters - McReady (to become MacReady), Bennings, Dr. Copper, Blair, Norris and Garry. One part of the book I found very interesting was the dream / telepathy element; before the thing is loose, the men dream about it - what it will do...they dream of it coming to life:
"The nightmares", Norris explained..."And that was?" Garry looked at McReady levelly. Norris answered for him, jerkily, uneasily. "That the creature wasn't dead, had a sort of enormously slowed existence, an existence that permitted it, none the less, to be vaguely aware of the passing of time, of our coming, after endless years. I had a dream it could imitate things." "Well", Copper grunted, "it can."
I can't help thinking that's where Carpenter (or was it Martin Quatermass?!) got the great idea for Prince of Darkness from - the idea that a being or race of some sort could link telepathically through dreams; through the subconscious mind. Perhaps those seeds were planted by reading Who Goes There?
Carpenter's film of The Thing works on so many levels – its one of those film where everyone you talk to about it loves it! It's Carpenter's best-made picture, and the pinnacle of his career. We've mentioned the music so far, but a much more on-the-surface feature has got to be Rob Bottin's special effects. This is where most of the film's budget went, and it's not surprising when you see where the money went. Because, in part, of these (very) special f/x, The Thing is an experience you will never forget. In addition, the chances are you will never see anything quite like this again. It is unrivalled in terms of its' bleak sense of paranoia, and when coupled with the very much in-your-face f/x, the overall result is one of the most miserable and depressing, but exciting and intelligent horror picture pictures ever made.
Hard to believe that the film bombed upon theatrical release in 1982. That year, the audiences wanted ET, and that's what they got. Satan Speilburg destroyed any chances of Carpenter's film becoming the success it should have been. However, we are now able to see that The Thing was in fact way ahead of it's time, while also fitting more comfortably into the more downbeat ideologies of 1970's US cinematic trends. In addition, It fails to conform to any of the horror film clichés, i.e. there's no sex in the picture. In fact, there isn't even a woman in sight! Some may argue that women have no place in The Thing, but I think that the character of Ripley has more than made up for the lack of female presence in the quality sci-fi/horror films with her multiple attempts to destroy the more defined creature from the Alien movies.
Ironic it is that Carpenter set the blueprint for the horror film clichés with Halloween, then proceeds onwards and upwards to make a film as original as this, where we really don't know what's coming next or, more importantly, who we can trust. Again, it is evident in this film that, as an audience, suspense is more easily aroused when we have no 'movie star' to lock onto; there's no sense of, "oh, well, there's Bruce Willis, so we know he's going to be our man, our hero..." The Thing could be anyone, and that's the magic of this film. We, as an audience, as well as the men themselves, can trust no-one...