January 16th is an important day for horror fans because, on this day in 1948, visionary writer/director John Carpenter was born in Carthage New York. This year, the Horror Master’s birthday falls during Nightmare on Film Street’s Return month; our look at horror remakes and reimaginings. So, we thought the best way to honor this occasion would be with a look at his very first horror remake, 1982’s The Thing, which is a reimagining of director Christian Nyby and Howard Hawk’s The Thing From Another World; a 1951 Cold War era horror film.
Carpenter called his version of The Thing the strongest film he ever made, and it’s one of the most beloved and well regarded remakes of all time. It even inspired a 2011 version of The Thing. On top of that, the entire cinematic cycle of The Thing is actually an adaptation of a 1938 pulp novella from writer John W. Campbell Jr titled Who Goes There?. So, in this piece we’ll look at how John Carpenter was inspired by the stories that came before him and how his reimagining of the first film and Campbell’s story continues to inspire people today.
“Carpenter called his version of The Thing the strongest film he ever made, and it’s one of the most beloved and well regarded remakes of all time.“
Eagle eyed fans of Halloween(1978) will recall that Laurie Strode and Tommy Doyle were watching The Thing From Another World on television. Carpenter included clips from the Nyby-Hawks film because he was fan of both it and the original Campbell novella. He had no idea though that a few years later his first big studio film would be a chance to remake it as The Thing.
Looking back at The Thing From Another World, which is an entertaining film for the era it was created in, it’s easy to see some of the things Carpenter loved. The characters are great, the action is well staged, and part of the plot is driven by the fact that the lives of the characters are not as important to the government as capturing and studying the monstrous invader (James Arness) that is preying upon an arctic research station. There is one particular standout moment for me and I’m betting for John Carpenter as well.
It comes when the soldiers realize they can attack the Thing with fire and set a trap for it. That ambush begins in a scene that is full of shadows and darkness. The Thing then throws open the door to the outside and the soldiers douse it in kerosene and light it ablaze. Fire spreads throughout the set in a seemingly uncontrolled manner as the soldiers continue their assault. The scene then ends with the Thing smashing through a window and retreating into the arctic night. I would guess that incredible scene is part of the reason why fire plays such a huge part in Carpenter’s The Thing.
Carpenter’s love for The Thing From Another World meant that he didn’t want his remake to adhere to closely to the story of that film. In a 216 video interview released as Requiem for a Shapeshifter he told Mick Garris that all he felt he could do would be to contemporize it. So, instead, Carpenter went back to the original John W. Campbell novella for inspiration. It’s there where he found the paranoid elements that gave his film such a great feel like the shapeshifting alien and the blood test. Characters like MacReady (Kurt Russell), Blair (Wilford Brimley), and Garry (Donald Moffat) are also directly taken from the book.
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In the Thing From Another World the titular monster is a plant based life form out for the blood it needs to replicate itself into an army, and the paranoia and mistrust is directed at alien invaders instead of the other inhabitants of the arctic base. It’s a message found in many Cold War era horror films where strange alien invaders are met to be metaphors for Communism.
Screenwriter Bill Lancaster (the son of veteran actor Burt Lancaster), whose sole other writing credits were The Bad News Bears series of sports comedy films, convinced Carpenter he was the right person to turn Who Goes There? into a contemporary screenplay. He did so by pitching him the shocking scene where Norris’ (Charles Hallahan) chest opens up and bites the hands off of Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart). Carpenter was pleased Lancaster’s script also included the now classic heated wire blood test scene, which the director felt was the whole point of the movie.
“Looking back at The Thing From Another World, which is an entertaining film for the era it was created in, it’s easy to see some of the things Carpenter loved.“
Carpenter also tapped past and frequent collaborators to help him realize his vision for The Thing like Director of Photography, Dean Cundey, who worked with him on both Halloween(1978) and The Fog (1980). In Requiem for a Shapeshifter, Carpenter credits the way Cundey lit a scene as a large part of why the film turned out so well. The other major credit he cites is Rob Botin who created and designed the film’s now legendary special make up effects.
The then 23 year old Botin had also worked with Carpenter on The Fog, but has done nothing on the scale of The Thing before. He saw a film about a creature that can become anything as the opportunity of a life time and the chance to take special makeup effects to a whole new level. That’s just what he did too. Even now, 40 years later, Botin’s work on The Thing is a testament to the power of practical effects and their ability to create scenes of gut churning and thrilling horror. In Requiem for a Shapeshifter, Carpenter said he knew that he and his cast and crew had created something special when he saw Botin’s work on the scene where Norris’ head crawls off his body.
The way Carpenter brought together Botin’s incredible effects, Cundey’s perfect and moody lighting, Lancaster’s script of dark twists and turns, and the intense performances of his excellent cast truly is remarkable. He even got a great performance from the film’s animal actors, especially the dog who played The Thing’s canine form that infiltrates the base at the beginning of the film. That canine perfectly delivers a sense of alien curiosity, and having the murderous alien infiltrate a human camp in the guise of “man’s best friend” is a great way to establish the film’s creepy and paranoid tone.
Unfortunately, critics reviled The Thing upon its release in 1982. It took a few years for the film to become embraced by a larger audience and be considered a critical success. Pop culture embraced the film too. The influence of John Carpenter’s The Thing can be felt in such diverse fare as the 1993-1999 TV series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which feature a race of shapeshifting aliens that could become anyone and a unique blood test that could detect them, and the Resident Evil video game series where people and dogs are transformed into monstrous forms reminiscent of Rob Botin’s visionary work on The Thing.
One of the biggest indicators that The Thing has found a place in the public zeitgeist is Universal Pictures continuing desire to remake Carpenter’s remake. They first attempted that in 2011 with director Matthijs van Heijningen and writer Eric Heisserer’s The Thing. The movie is technically a prequel instead of a remake, since it chronicles the fate of the Norwegian base that first unearthed the titular alien menace and was found destroyed in Carpenter’s 1982 film. It very much feels like a remake though since it slavishly focuses on a number of details about the camp that appear in the Carpenter film. A lot of those references end up feeling like nudge, nudge, wink, wink instead of loving homage. The film does have a fun and interesting hero though in the form of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Dr Kate Lloyd, who is recruited by a Norwegian science team to help investigate an ancient alien spaceship they found in the ice of Antartica.
“The way Carpenter brought together Botin’s incredible effects, Cundey’s perfect and moody lighting, Lancaster’s script of dark twists and turns, and the intense performances of his excellent cast truly is remarkable.“
The biggest cinematic sin of the 2011 Thing though is failing to understand that a large part of what made Carpenter’s film so beloved is Rob Botin’s practical effects. Some animatronics and other practical effects were employed to bring the shapeshifter to life during production of the 2011’s The Thing, but later the majority of those scenes were replaced by a fully CGI rendered creature that was nowhere near as impressive. So, the film is not particularly well regarded by people who love the original.
Carpenter didn’t have anything to do with the 2011 Thing, but there is a chance he may be involved in future attempts to reboot/remake his beloved 1982 film. At last year’s Fantastia Film Fest, he revealed that Blumhouse Productions had begun developing a reboot of The Thing, and he has some involvement and might have more further down the road. Time will tell what Carpenter’s role will be in Blumhouse’s version of The Thing and whether or not it will be a reimagining of or sequel to his film.
One thing is for certain though; By delivering a horror remake so compelling, creepy, and entertaining the Horror Master’s 1982 version of The Thing has metaphorically become like the shapeshifter it depicts. That’s because it’s enduring and when you least expect it emerges in a new terrifying form.
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