#1 in my ranking of John Carpenter’s films.
Wow, John Carpenter really loves Howard Hawks, doesn’t he? Well, he was hired onto this project after it had been through several drafts, managing a new draft written by Bill Lancaster, and didn’t originate the idea, at least. Still, what Carpenter helped script and ended up directing is an ideal remake. Returning to the ultimate source, the short story “Who Goes There?” by John Campbell, Carpenter recast the whole concept with a twist while firmly planting the new film in a new time, never feeling like he’s just repeating what Hawks and Nyby had done before in The Thing From Another World.
One of the key differences between Carpenter’s remake and Nyby’s original is in terms of its construction. The original starts away from the remote, icy camp and moves into that team finding the alien trapped in ice. The remake starts with the creature having already been dug up, torn apart a Norwegian camp, and arriving at the American camp with our heroes in the form of a dog. This is important for one big reason, the monster is incredibly different. In the original, there was just a monster (that apparently looked like a carrot in color) that needed defeating. In this remake, pulling more from the original source material, the monster is vastly different, able to morph from one shape into another as it absorbs the essence of other creatures. There’s a lot of questions that arise about how it does it and how perfectly it can hide in its form, and the movie, having the refuse of a previous encounter to sift through, provides those answers on the front end of the film.
The dog runs into camp, the final Norwegian dies by a gunshot to the head, and Mac (Kurt Russell), the helicopter pilot, flies to the Norwegian camp to investigate with a couple of others. There, they find the half-burnt remains of something. There are distinct signs of human appendages and two heads melting into or away from each other. This is obviously not human, and we get a scene where Blair (Wilford Brimley), their biologist, dissects it, finding perfectly normal human organs inside. This is telling us that whatever this thing is, it’s not human and it will look human down to its organs. There will be no telling it apart from anyone else. It’s great that this information is introduced early because once the questions about who might or might not be the creature, we’re not bogged down with questions of how. We already know that.
The dog wanders the enclosed hallways of the camp for a day, and there’s something to be said about the dog’s performance. I guess I wouldn’t have thought of this if I hadn’t had my most recent watch of this film with my visiting mother (the movie was her idea) who noted it as we were watching, but there’s an eerie quality to the dog. It’s too calm, collected, and still to be real. How it steadily wanders the halls, eventually choosing a room to go into, or how it stands perfectly still at a window looking outward is off-putting. Anyway, after a day roaming the camp, Mac tells the dog handler Clark to put the dog with the rest, and things go pear shaped quickly. Alone with the sled dogs, the creature changes shape into an amorphous set of tentacles, jaws, and flesh, spraying dogs with liquids, grabbing them and absorbing them while chaos erupts.
This points to another of the film’s great attributes: the creature effects. Done by Rob Bottin (with some work by Stan Winston), the creature work is amazing. The wide variety of manifestations of the creature represent months of work, and there’s a fleshy, other-worldly quality to all of it that unites them as one. Everything changes from one situation to the next, but they all feel like they’re part of the same thing at the same time. My favorite is the variety of effects that make the head independently crawl away from the burning corpse. So well done and creepy.
To get to that moment is a series of steadily increasing doubts that each man has about everyone else around them. It becomes obvious that no one can truly trust each other, especially after the doctor proposes a blood test that would identify the creature and the store of blood gets sabotaged. No one knows who does it, but suspicions are directed in some specific directions at the same time. An admirable element of all this is that we, the audience, are completely in the dark about who is or is not the creature, as much as anyone else in the movie, and it never feels like a lie. It never feels like Carpenter is artificially keeping information from us, even though we see the moment that leads the dog to infect the first person in the camp but we can’t see who it is. It never feels like a lie to us. Instead it feels like we’re reaching the edges of perception based on point of view that’s pretty solidly set in the film. Most of it is told directly from Mac’s point of view, though we do move in and out of it here and there, and it never feels like a cheat.
That lack of clarity about who is who is the ultimate source of tension in the film. We’re never sure if anyone can be trusted, and there are moments where we even begin to wonder about Mac, even though we’ve walked most steps along with him. The centerpiece of creating clarity amidst the confusion is the blood test scene where Mac takes blood samples of everyone and uses a hot needle to see if the blood will react violently in response. It’s an amazingly tense sequence because we honestly have no idea what’s going to happen. One of them, at least one of them we figure, has to be a creature, and we don’t know who. We also don’t know how its blood will react or how it will react if exposed. It’s also remarkably cleanly filmed, providing a very clear sense of geography around the room that helps to hide some of the special effects when they pop up.
There’s a remarkable professionalism to the filmmaking in general here. That’s a way of saying that this movie simply looks great. There was something about the generation of filmmakers that came about in the 70s that gave them this great combination of old school aesthetics with new school sensibilities. Like how Coppola’s The Godfather is rather perfectly framed from beginning to end but focused on a more grounded, dirtier, and more detailed violence than gangster movies of the past, Carpenter’s The Thing has the roving Steadicam shots of a new filmmaker while framing several men in small spaces without every losing sight of the focus of the scene, helping to keep the variety of men separate in our minds. This extends into the special effects sequences where the detailed puppets are filmed in the perfect light to keep them looking real and terrifying at the same time.
And what do I think of the ending? Both are human and are going to die a very cold death. They won, and they will die heroes in the cold.