In 1951, Howard Hawks was as independent as a filmmaker could be at that time, a name-above-the-title director, and what he wanted to do, just for fun, was a science fiction film. From a story he purchased in the 1940s, John W. Campbell Jr.s “Who Goes There?,” Hawks and screenwriter Charles Lederer shaped the very different story of The Thing From Another World. With Christian Nyby, an old associate trying his hand at directing, Hawks created one of the best SF-horror hybrid films of the 1950s.
In 1982, John Carpenter was a name-above-the-title filmmaker, and after the success of Halloween (1978), Escape From New York (1981) and other films, he could pick his projects. What Carpenter wanted to do was a new version of The Thing, drawing from the themes of Campbells story, the events of the Hawks film, and other influences. The result was one of the best SF-horror hybrid films of the 1980s.
Contemporary critics didnt welcome either version. In the early 1950s, SF writers were struggling out of the pulp publishing ghetto into a semblance of respectability, and wary of juvenile Hollywood adaptations. After the efforts toward realism in George Pals Destination Moon (1950) and with the sophisticated The Day the Earth Stood Still(1951) in production, they saw the depiction of James Arness in monster makeup as a setback. Similarly, in the early 80s, Carpenters version shocked critics with a detailed exploration of baroquely twisted anatomy, sometimes referred to inaccurately as “gore effects,” and the seeming nihilism of its body-count plot. It appeared not long after Alien (1978) and was labeled imitative, though its a considerably darker film driven by entirely different themes. In Alien, the creature avoids confrontation by exploiting its victims narrow preconceptions about biology and reproduction; in Carpenters The Thing, the creature exploits the humans alienation to hide among them.
Now the original Thing is considered a classic, a carefully balanced blend of action, humor and horror, and a showcase of Hawksian style and preoccupations. Once viewed as a shocker, it now reveals its artful use of suspense and suggestion, now that the shocks have abated. I see a brighter future for the 1982 version as well. To an audience battered by a couple of decades of blood and viscera on film, to the point where grand guignol spectacles such as The Cell and Hannibal are considered mainstream, the FX in Carpenters The Thing arent so tough to take. Really, the malformed half-humans and scuttling monstrosities that populate the film are more in the tradition of Hieronymus Bosch than Herschell Gordon Lewis. And though the terms of the story are simpleon the surface its a by-the-numbers giallothere are interesting ideas simmering beneath the action.
Campbells story of an alien that takes human form is all about conspiracy and paranoia, among the recurring themes of Astounding, the magazine he famously edited. Hawks, whose movies are all about camaraderie and strength of character, would have none of that. In his hands the story became one of conflicts among values resolved under outside threat. His characters define themselves by alliance with professional groups: the military men who grow to see the alien as a deadly enemy, the scientists who initially treat the alien as a subject of study, and the reporter who stands outside it all. In the end, except for one maverick scientist, the human antagonists are joined in battle, and defeat the alien with teamwork.
Carpenters film is about incompatible individuals who are further separated by fear. Before the alien invades their ranks, theyre already bickering, an undisciplined and testy bunch. Once they recognize the true nature of the threat, theres a brief period of cooperation, but its too little too late.
Each movie takes place in an isolated setting in the “old dark house” tradition. In these cases, tension is added by deadly environment, the arctic in the Hawks-Nyby version and Antarctica in Carpenters version. I cant vouch for the realism of the settings, but I did loan a tape of Carpenters movie to a friend, Tom Ratzloff, who worked for several months in Antarctica, and he reports that Carpenter got most of the details right. The mountains that occasionally appear in the background would imply that the group is in the interior of the continent, which is too cold for some of the clothing and headgear theyre wearing (I suppose faces hidden by snorkel parkas dont make for good character development). Carpenter employs an all-male cast, with no Margaret Sheridan type to brighten up the proceedings, but Tom assures me that there are women in Antarctica. Theres some truth in the friction between laborers and scientists (Toms fellow workers called the scientists “beakers”), and an accurate depiction of frequent and excessive boozing.
The Hawks-Nyby film was made for a low budget; Hawks told Peter Bogdanovich that it was shot primarily in an ice house, and the star-free cast worked cheap. Sheridan and top-billed Kenneth Tobey were not exactly marquee names. Carpenters was the most expensive movie he had done so far, at $14 million, much of which evidently went to pay for the elaborate alien effects by Rob Bottin, Roy Arbogast and Albert Whitlock, and for star Kurt Russells salary. The sets could have been furnished from a salvage shop, and the character actors who filled out the cast (including Wilford Brimley playing brilliantly against type) probably didnt command big pay.
Carpenter has been criticized for a lack of style, particularly in his filming of The Thing, as if it were possible to create a style-free movie. Carpenters style in his best films is straightforward, technique in the service of the story, a refreshing departure from todays MTV-influenced excesses. He and Hawks are two of a kind, in this way; Hawks also steered clear of expressionism and frills, and worked toward his own kind of naturalism, including his well-known use of overlapping, conversational dialogue. Whether directed by Hawks himself, as is rumored, or by Nyby as credited, The Thing bears the mark of Hawks, who staged scenes for efficiency and filmed them from an objective viewpoint, typically from eye level. Like Hawks, Carpenter has a “transparent” style, but Carpenters art is in the manipulation of point of view to heighten suspense, a technique Hawks used sparingly. For example, most of The Thing is viewed from the point of view of Kurt Russells character MacReady, but when MacReady leads a party into the storm and comes back alone, the viewpoint shifts to the characters left behind, and MacReady becomes suspect. (By the way, before the movie settles into the head of its star, there are some excellent sequences featuring a very creepy sled dogthe Karloff of dog actors.)
It seems to me Hawks might grudgingly admire the outcome of Carpenters remake/sequel. While Hawks characters win the day, the implication is that its just a holding action: “Keep watching the skies.” Carpenter ends his movie even more ambiguously, but he makes it clear that the survivors are willing to sacrifice themselves to save humanity, if need be. In that way, at least, they approach the heroism shown by characters in a classic Hawks drama.