The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

The Thing(s) pt. 2

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…continued from yesterday

Carpenter’s 1982 attempt is actually a remake of the 1954 Howard Hawks film The Thing From Another World, itself a monster movie of some repute.  Hawks’ film is drier and far more scientific, actually almost intellectual given the philosophical differences between the scientists and military commanders at the research station.  Hawks’ monster, though, is definitely humanoid and non-shapeshifting.  Instead, it is a blood-thirsty shamble of conscious, regenerative vegetation impervious to all but extreme electrical shock (which should tell you how it is ultimately dispatched).  Both Carpenter’s and Hawks’ films are based on John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?  The premise is the same, of course, but Campbell is far more subtle with his message and makes excellent use of symbolism.  The aptly named MacReady (Carpenter’s mainstay leading man Kurt Russell in the 1982 film) is among the first to uncover the alien; another researcher inadvertently buries an ice-axe in the creature’s frozen head, and it’s an image that is revisited frequently throughout the story.  Once the researchers wise up and discover that somebody is not who he appears to be, they get the idea to test everybody’s blood to discover the creature (Carpenter recreates this scene in one of his film’s most suspenseful moments that ends, predictably, in another gorefest).  The blood test serves Campbell’s message, which is really about the Red Scare—the spread of Communism.  It’s no coincidence that Who Goes There? made print in the midst of the Great Depression, when there was substantial fear about the spread of Communism.  To go further, Campbell crafts some of the dialogue in WGT? to function as double-entendre applying equally to dealing with the alien and dealing with Communism.  What’s more, the symbolism of the blood test is very prescient in that it came a mere decade before the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings.  Unfortunately, both Carpenter and Hawks ignore this most critical part of the source material.  But I can’t complain—both films still work pretty well.

Besides the barf-bag special effects, Carpenter employs effective screenwriting techniques to further scare the pants off the audience.  Due to the nature of the beast, we never know its true form.  It takes human form, but when it’s revealed, it takes on all kinds of crazy, horrific shapes and sizes, thereby leaving the true shape of the monster to the viewer’s imagination.  Though Campbell describes the creature in WTG? as having three red eyes, and “blue hair like crawling worms,” and Hawks’ creature is no doubt humanoid (played by James Arness, actually), Carpenter never tips off the viewer.  I’ve always been psychologically terrified in such situations because my imagination gets the best of me.  The same approach works beyond explanation for most of Ridley Scott’s Alien and throughout The Blair Witch Project, both of which scared the crap out of me.

So where to go with all of this?  Who Goes There? ends with MacReady killing the alien moments before it takes off in a makeshift aircraft to reach civilization.  Carpenter’s The Thing ends with MacReady at least temporarily stopping, if not killing, the titular creature.  I guess that’s why I’m grateful for inventive screenwriting.  Thanks to Carpenter’s interpretation of the story, there is an untold thread about what actually happened between the Norwegians finding the alien spaceship and then chasing the creature out of their camp.  The screenwriter and director of the new film have said they consider their The Thing to be a “found film” based on the short scenes from the 1982 film in which MacReady and others visit the Norwegian camp only to find it completely waylaid.  The only catch, then, is that we already know what’s going to happen in this new film.  But so what?  That didn’t keep people from seeing Titanic, Apollo 13, or countless other history-based films, and even the slight X-Men:  First Class last summer.  Going back to the pre-history of certain film universes might be a flimsy excuse to make a movie and turn a profit, but in this case I’ll take it.

Written by seeker70

October 14, 2011 at 12:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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