Our enduring fascination with The Thing

With a third version of The Thing out in cinemas on Friday, Terence examines why a story originally written in 1938 is so enduringly popular…

Note: this article discusses the 1951 and 1982 Thing movies in depth, but we have been careful not to mention specific details about the new film.

There is now a third movie in what could now be referred to as The Thing franchise. Like the titular shape-shifting creature, the story and basic premise of The Thing has mutated and adapted to the themes, issues and even fears of the various times in which the films were made.

There has consistently been a new movie version of The Thing every 30 years or so since 1951. The original novella, Who Goes There?, written by legendary sci-fi writer John W Campbell Jr under the pseudonym Don A Stuart, was first published in the 1930s. If you take into account the underlying archetypal themes of the story, such as shape-shifting, spiritual possession and the evil twin, it’s a tale almost as old as civilisation itself.

Who Goes There? first appeared in the pulp magazine Astounding Stories in 1938. It is a well-written piece of short fiction that gets a lot of mileage out of a simple premise. The story follows a group of researchers working in a base in Antarctica who stumble on a spaceship in the ice that has been buried there for 20 million years. In a classic bad move typical of these kinds of stories, the crew brings a frozen alien being back to the station. Once the alien thaws, it comes to life. It soon becomes apparent that the Thing (as it is referred to in the story) can take the form, shape, memories and even personality of any being it kills.

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The story quickly becomes a classic game of cat and mouse, with the added twist that it’s never really clear who is the cat and who is the mouse. The Thing is finally detected and destroyed by MacReady, the base’s assistant commander. Stopped just short of building its own atomic-powered anti-gravity device, its plan was to escape Antarctica and infect the rest of the planet.

The altruistic motives of the crew in Who Goes There? trump even their own instincts for self preservation; a telling premise for a story that first appeared on the eve of World War II.

The Thing From Another World, Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s movie loosely based on Campbell’s novella, was released in 1951. The Antarctic research station of Campbell’s story has become a US Air Force base in Alaska. The Thing itself is now a classic guy-in-a-suit 50s sci-fi monster movie alien. The decision to dump the shape-shifting angle is interesting, given the Cold War era context of the film. The movie could easily have gone in the direction Invasion Of The Body Snatchers took five years later – distrust of everyone and everything for fear of Communist infiltration was an idea heavily promoted in politics and the media in the early 1950s.

In The Thing From Another World, it is suggested that the monster could be the vanguard of a much larger alien invasion. Protecting the rest of world from the evil creature is paramount. The underlying threat of the Thing taking over the world most likely resonated strongly in the era of the Red Scare. The film’s central conflict is just like the film it was shot on: black and white.

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The Thing is ultimately destroyed, thanks to the actions of the brave and resourceful US servicemen, another powerful theme of the post WWII early Cold War era (one that, quite understandably, has resurfaced in a post-911 world). Even the media is heroic in the end (not really something that has stayed with us in our post-911 world). The reporter, played by Douglas Spencer, is sent to the Air Force base to cover the crashed flying saucer story. He gets on the radio at the end of the film and broadcasts to everyone back home that the threat from another world was defeated this time, but warns that there may be many more invading Things to come. He utters the now classic line that has come to define much of 1950s Hollywood sci-fi: “Keep watching the skies!”

In 1982, John Carpenter (director of the 1978 sleeper horror hit, Halloween) got his chance to remake one of his favourite movies. However, he kept very little of the original film in the remake. Instead, he returned to the plot of Campbell’s original novella (even the character names are mostly the same). The setting is back once again in an Antarctic research station. The malevolent alien returns to its shape shifting assimilation roots. Even MacReady’s (yep, that character is back too) unique blood test for detecting alien duplicates is almost the same. One of the only things Carpenter retained from the 1951 version was a similar font in the onscreen title sequence.

Kurt Russell (who, by 1982, had finally successfully ditched the typecasting curse of all those 70s live action Disney comedies like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and The Strongest Man In The World) plays MacReady. The movie characters are not exactly identical to Campbell’s. For one thing, MacReady and the other characters are pretty much only concerned with their own survival and self-preservation. Not only is protecting the rest of the world a secondary consideration, but so is protecting the other members of the crew. With a creature so deadly and so evasive, it becomes every man for himself pretty quickly. Who is the bigger threat, the monster or other people?

Carpenter and his effects crew created some incredibly creepy and wonderfully cinematic appearances for the eponymous monster. Each time we see the Thing either being detected or getting caught in the act of assimilating another victim, the visual effects take centre stage.

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People and animals are distorted; their faces or other body parts are twisted into screaming mutilations of nature that have become the creature’s appendages. The Thing itself is filled with pulsing veins, spurting blood and unknown organs. Tentacles, claws and crab-like legs writhe about as the creature assimilates living beings and lashes out for more victims. The Thing is disturbing and compelling at the same time, and tinged with an undertone of pathos. It is a dangerous beast, to be sure, but its actions are also portrayed as those of a cornered animal, deeply aggressive in its fear.

The Thing is an exaggerated version of its enemies. It is fighting for its own survival and self-preservation, just like its human counterparts. Overall, the portrayal injects a grim yet compelling vision of the human condition in what could otherwise be mere horror movie escapism.

In 1982, the Cold War had heated up once again in the early days of the Reagan era. Gone were the dominant anti-war, anti-establishment ideologies of the 60s and 70s. Carpenter’s nuanced portrayal of a creature just as frightened as its human enemies reads almost as a last gasp of liberalism in an increasingly reactionary era.

That portrayal may explain why the film bombed in its initial theatrical release. Ultimately, on an almost subconscious level, The Thing is bleak and nihilistic. The nihilism of the film holds up much more strongly over multiple viewings. That is perhaps why The Thing only attained its classic cult status after its initial home video release.

The Thing had such a long and distinguished track record as a cult classic that rumours of a remake or a sequel have been lingering for years. Thirty years on, however, it’s clear the rumours were wrong. No remake. No sequel. But there is a prequel.

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The new version of The Thing depicts events that immediately precede the classic 82 version. In terms of narrative, that’s a prequel. However, the movie has the exact same title as the 1982 movie. Ostensibly, that makes it a remake. Or maybe a premake? Perhaps a requel?

The now classic themes of The Thing are all present: terror, paranoia, violence and plenty of elaborate effects. The story focuses on the Norwegian outpost referred to in the opening of the 1982 film.

While director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr displays reverence for Carpenter’s The Thing, the film differs from the 82 version in many significant ways. Gone, for instance, is any sense of pathos for the alien creature. The creature is violent, aggressive and horrifying. Like the man-monster in the 51 version, The Thing is evil. Kill it now. Period.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) such imagery, The Thing 2011 is able to build suspense with the best of them. Van Heijningen knows how to direct his actors, compose his shots and edit his scenes to create tension that is often palpable. The paranoiac undertones of the story are probably the strongest feature of The Thing 2011.

The current Thing is unmistakably a product of a post-911 landscape. We live in a time when most of the western world still remains on edge about potential terrorist attacks. Those plotting such attacks, we are told, are potentially living in our midst. The recurrent “trust no one” theme of The Thing plays particularly chillingly in 2011.

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Despite the fact that the Thing is a pure force of evil, the humans are not necessarily a pure force for good. Their actions in their quest for survival against a deceptive and powerful enemy are often morally compromised.

In the 2011 Thing, the character of Doctor Kate Lloyd (another solid performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead) plays more or less the same role in the story that the MacReady character played in the original novella and the 82 film. The young American female scientist seems to intuitively understand the potential threat of the creature almost from square one. Unfortunately, her “more mature” male colleagues do not share that intuition. In that sense, Lloyd’s character is closer to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character in the Alien franchise than she is to Russell’s (or even Campbell’s) MacReady.

The Thing 2011 is often intentionally ambiguous both in terms of its narrative and its morality. Doctor Lloyd makes some extreme decisions, working on what appears to be (to the viewer at least) somewhat questionable evidence. Her choices make for some of the most emotionally charged moments in the film. Is Lloyd a hero or an anti-hero? Did she do what was necessary to survive? Or did she irrevocably cross morally unacceptable boundaries? What was that about a post-911 world again?

At the current rate of prequels and remakes, we are due for another version of The Thing in roughly 2041. What changes to our world will the next 30 years see? More importantly, how will those changes impact the story and underlying themes of the next Thing movie? We will just have to wait and, in MacReady’s final words of the 82 Thing, “…see what happens.”