RE:View – John Carpenter’s The ThingThe Dark Herald
Who Goes There has the singular distinction of being the only John W. Campbell story to have been made into a film. Twice in point of fact.
While The Thing From Another World is a classic in its own right, it comes nowhere near to what Carpenter delivered for his iteration of the story. The Thing is one of the all-time classics of science fiction horror.
The film started life as one of the last of the old-school movie studio projects. A couple of producers, Foster and Cohen, who were fans of Campbell’s novella wanted to do a remake that was a lot truer to the original story. Things were rolling on The Thing but then The Posiden Adventure blew the doors off and studios didn’t want to look at anything if it didn’t have gigantic explosions and tens of thousands of people dead. The Thing was put it on a shelf and the producers go told to get on with their lives.
Which they did until 1979 when one of the Moguls called them to say, ”Hey, that Ridley Scott movie Alien just made all the money. Didn‘t you two have something like that but a little different?”
John Carpenter was the affordable flavor of the month after Halloween, and he was approached about the gig. Carpenter was interested but was initially only hot on the idea of a remake of the original film. However, at the pleading of the Foster, Carpenter read Who Goes There and was intrigued by the idea of a shape-shifting alien.
The bigger problem was the lead. The studio had wanted at different times, Christopher Walkin, Fred Ward, Scott Glen, Peter Coyote, Jeff Bridges, and even Brian Dennehy.
John Carpenter however knew that he was going to be filming in fairly shitty conditions and wanted an actor who could both deliver a good performance under those circumstances but also wouldn’t bitch constantly about the environment.
He’d just worked with Kurt Russel on Escape from New York and knew what to expect from him.
For his part, Kurt Russel was delighted with his recent Escape from Disney Hell. He had started his career as a child actor on Denis the Menace and been in demand for kid parts during the sixties. This included Walt Disney’s Follow Me Boys. Walt had been favorably impressed with young Kurt and started hiring him regularly. Roy Disney and Ron Miller, eager as always to answer ‘yes’ to the question, “Is that what Walt would want?” Kept hiring Kurt Russel into the seventies.
On the one hand, it was definitely a paycheck and it was for a film acting job. On the other hand, they were Disney movies which were an industry joke after Walt died. Kurt was getting other work but it was all guest star of the week on TV cop shows. By the late seventies Disney was anxious to change its image and so was Kurt, which resulted in an amiable parting of the ways. Russel had made a few waves in the TV movie Elvis (directed by then-unknown John Carpenter) and proved himself bankable in the boner-comedy Used Cars. Enough so, that John Carpenter was to cast him for the part of Snake Plisskin with a minimum of studio interference.
By all accounts the harsh conditions of The Thing’s location shoot actually helped the production company work better as a team. The cast was a mix of old Hollywood hands that had never hit it big but never been out of the work either and young, hungry new faces like Keith David.
The movie opens with a UFO entering Earth’s atmosphere and boy did they go cheap here. But it does establish that the Thing is alien in origin.
We then see a dog running across fields of snow being pursued by a helicopter. The dog is being shot at, apparently for no reason so you instinctively sympathize with the dog. The Norwegians start throwing thermite grenades at the dog.
We then get a quick overview of life at Research Outpost 31.
There doesn’t appear to be much if any research going on. There are a lot of Vietnam military tropes in evidence but the only character that is wearing a uniform is Donald Moffat’s. There is a meteorologist, a biologist, and a geologist, but they seem to have no interest in their fields of study at all. Kurt Russel plays MacReady the pilot.
They mostly seem to be interested in drug addiction and alcoholism and the sad truth is those seventies movie tropes about the military were based in fact. Although, when The Thing came out the clean-up had begun.
Everybody goes outside when the Norwegians buzz the outpost. The dog runs up to the Americans and acts super friendly. The Norwegians land, one is chasing the dog with his rifle and screaming in Norse, the other drops a thermite grenade in the helicopter killing himself and the helicopter. The air cav viking starts shooting at the dog again and hits one of the Americans. Donald Moffat returns fire with a Colt Trooper Mark III, (which was a cop gun, not military), sending the remaining Norseman off to Valhalla.
We now get to know our ten little Indians better. We also see the Norwegian sled dog wandering around the base. Jed the Alaskan Malamute carried his weight during his scenes, he was padding around the outpost in a hunting posture like a wolf, looking just a little too intently at everything. Your brain may not have noticed it but your instincts did.
Kurt Russell and a couple of other characters fly out to the Norwegian station and find it’s a burned-out ruin. Everyone is dead and some of the corpses are in a half-melted state. They grab some of the more interesting gross-out props and a few video tapes and fly back to their own turf.
Sidenote: The film company used the burned-out sets of the post-climax Outpost 31 as the Norwegian outpost. It was a cost-saving measure.
At this time the Norwegian dog is locked in a kennel with the rest of the station’s sled dogs.
Quick review, the three elements of horror are:
Fear: You are trapped in an old building with IT.
Dread: As you are walking around in the building you begin to suspect that IT is following you.
Shock: You turn around and IT is reaching for you.
The Thing attacks the other dogs and is absorbing them when it is discovered. They kill it with fire but one of the Things escapes. This was an unusual way to do business in a horror because it was using shock upfront to establish the fear, instead of provoking fear through tone. But once you see the gross-out scene with the dogs you quickly start to feel isolated in this remote station at the bottom of the world.
They all saw the Thing so there is no spending any time trying to convince themselves it was anything easily explicable. The Americans review the tapes from the Norwegian base and piece together what happened there and that the Thing is a sapient alien.
However, there is no attempt at peaceful resolution. The Thing is self-evidently hostile.
The atmosphere of fear is maintained rather than escalated by discoveries of equipment that have been sabotaged. The snow ATV and the helicopter have been wrecked.
Then the biologist played by Wilford Brimley (apparently) goes nuts and smashes the radio as well as killing the rest of the sled dogs thus completing the isolation of Outpost 31. The environment now has them trapped as thoroughly as the crew of the Nostromo was by hard vacuum.
Fear turns to dread but it’s not caused by the Thing but by constant suspicion of each other. They all know one of them is the Thing but they don’t have any way to tell who. The remaining crew of Outpost 31 are now hopelessly paranoid and are constantly lashing out at each other over the slightest suspicion. Donald Moffat’s character looks like good bet because his keys give him access to everywhere but how can they be certain?
Finally, after nearly being killed by his friends and watching the doctor’s arms being eaten off of him by another man’s abdomen, MacReady works out that all of the Thing will try to preserve itself instinctively, even a small petrie dish of blood. It works although they lose another couple of crew members. They are now down from twelve men to five, although they are now certain that four of them are human. Time to find out about Wilfred Brimley.
Brimley was hired on the basis of him being such a forgettable face. When the Senior Biologist was locked up by the MacReady after ripping up the radio and killing the dogs, the audience was so busy being tense they forgot about him completely.
Turns out the Thing had gotten to him a while back. Any question about the Thing’s sapience was answered by the fact that it was building a flying saucer with stolen parts.
The climax begins and the entire station is destroyed in an apparently successful attempt to kill the Thing. The last two survivors are MacReady and Keith David. They slump down in wounded exhaustion in the arctic cold, not quite trusting whether one of them is an alien or not.
Kind of a downbeat ending but Who Goes There also had a downbeat ending. Carpenter was aware there might be trouble with the studio so filmed a bunch of different endings. One of them was a denouncement where the light fades back in after the base is destroyed, MacReady is in a government hospital having his own test performed on him. He passes but the Men In Black won’t tell him anything about the Thing other than it is clear they already knew all about it.
The thing opened to reviews that were so terrible you’d have thought it was an early Hammer film. The critical consensus was that the gross-out effects had gone way too far. The marketing campaign didn’t seem to know what it was trying to sell and consequently failed to sell it. The Thing was a box office bomb.
However, it bounced back thanks to that new-fangled creation of the 1980s, the video rental shack.
Popular view quickly swamped the critical view. It was clearly and obviously a great 1980s horror movie.
Which raises the question: Does it hold up today?
Answer: Oh hell yes.
It’s still a master class in how to compose the elements of horror into a symphony. Since the special effects were practical and were as good as Stan Winston could make them and those look better than CG any day of the week. Carpenter’s direction was simple and effective. The cast while not having a good time gelled together and delivered an all time great horror picture.