We Celebrate The Thing's 40th Anniversary
Score 10/10 - A Masterpiece
Posted by Samuel Glass | September 3rd, 2022
This year marks the 40th Anniversary of one of the best horror remakes ever to hit the big screen, John Carpenter's version of THE THING. Based on the classic sci-fi short story, "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, it was given life first as a Howard Hawks production for RKO Pictures. A versatile, celebrated director known for everything from Westerns to screwball comedies, Hawks handed the reins over to Christian Nyby instead. (Rumor has it that he may have “ghost-directed” it to protect his rep, in a similar situation to Spielberg and Hooper on POLTERGEIST.)
Working from a screenplay by Hawks, Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht, Nyby lensed THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD as a “man-against-alien-monster” thriller, with the creature wreaking havoc at an arctic research station, once the scientists discover its spaceship. (It's worth noting that The Thing, often jokingly referred to as a "walking carrot", concealed a legendary star. Lumbering unrecognizably beneath the cumbersome costume was future GUNSMOKE star James Arness.) As a youngster, Carpenter's imagination was captured by the film.
It was one of the main influences that inspired him to become a filmmaker. Little did he know that some 31 years after the RKO version, he'd go it one better, creating another widely acknowledged classic. The extra ingredient that sets the Carpenter and Hawks versions apart is deceptively simple: paranoia. Well, that and practical and visual effects technology that could hardly have been possible to create back in the 50's. The Bill Lancaster adaptation revived an important aspect of the original source material: not only did the creature attack living things, but it could assimilate and mimic their forms, so that no one could tell who or what the alien was impersonating at any given time.
The extra ingredient that sets the Carpenter and Hawks versions apart is deceptively simple: paranoia.
The innovative effects work was spearheaded by acknowledged master Rob Bottin, who suffered a breakdown from exhaustion, trying to come up with new techniques and resources to depict the sinister shapeshifter. His mentor and friend, Stan Winston, is said to have stepped in to help finish some key effects. It may have been a remake or “reimagining”, but Carpenter doesn’t have anything else like it in his filmography.
No surprises there, or in the fact that 40 years on, it still holds up as a masterpiece of suspense, terror and shocks galore. With the care and attention to detail that went into it, is it any wonder? Production designer John J. Lloyd, art director Henry Larreq and set decorator John M. Dwyer actually built sets on location in Juneau, Alaska and Stewart, British Columbia to capture an unmistakable sense of realism. Carpenter guided an incredible and diverse cast of both seasoned vets and newcomers, from Donald Moffat and Wilford Brimley, to relative newcomer T.K. Carter, and now-celebrated character actor Keith David, starring in his first big screen role.
And in the lead, Carpenter’s go-to actor, Kurt Russell, in one of three iconic parts he’d inhabit vividly as JC’s “male muse.” And handling the score, including a bleak, menacing theme notable for the trademark sparseness of a Carpenter composition, was one of the grand masters of film composition, Ennio Morricone. When Universal finally gave a green light to a prequel (also called THE THING), the filmmakers didn’t even try, to their credit, to best the predecessor. Rather, they fashioned a work that supplements Carpenter’s, creating the story of what happened at the Norwegian researchers’ base camp, leading up to the events in Carpenter’s version. You know the old saying “Don’t believe the hype?” In the case of THE THING, believe it. It’s all that AND a bag of ice cubes.