I suppose that, in this day of home video entertainment – DVD, digital downloading, iPods, iPhones (what – haven’t they found a way to beam movies directly into your brain yet?) – that there may be at best limited value in extolling the virtues of the revival house experience, yet I will soldier on, within the confines of this column (i.e. Hollywood Gothique), using retrospective screenings as an excuse to discuss classic horror, science-fiction, and fantasy films when they show up on the big screen in Tinsle Town.
This weekend brings us a double bill of paranoid sci-fi horror in the form of the 1978 remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of THE THING, which will screen at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles Sunday through Tuesday. It’s a clever combo: in light of the recent release of THE INVASION, it seems timely to revisit a previous version of Jack Finney’s tale of body snatchers from outer space, and since the American Cinematheque already screened the classic 1956 version a week or two ago (and since no one cares about 1998’s BODY SNATCHERS), that left the 1978 version as the best alternative.
What’s especially nice is the including of Carpenter’s re-imagining of THE THING. Although the film is justly famous for its extensive special effects (supervised by Rob Bottin), we should not forget that this is yet another tale of an alien that can assume the likeness of a human being – a plot element deleted from 1951’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, which was derived from the same source material, John W. Campbell’s story “Who Goes There?”
Carpenter’s rethinking of producer Howard Hawks’ classic is an honorable attempt to hew closer to the original story, but its special effects-heavy approach to the shape-shifting alien is less intense and dramatic than the older film, which relied on anticipation and suggestion to generate suspense. On the plus side, Carpenter’s version is also a bit more complex than the Hawks classic, which featured a simple conflict between the military commander (who rightly wants to kill the Thing) and a scientist (who naively wants to communicate with alien invader, even as it’s trying to kill them). (Carpenter has complained that the scientists come across like naive children; having grown up in the cynical Vietnam era, Carpenter is less likely to blindly trust the military to have the right answer.)
Unfortunately for Carpenter, the simplicity of the original actually made for a more dramatic story, and the new version lacks the rapid-fire dialogue that propelled the Hawks production at such a heady pace. Nevertheless, THE THING is a favorite among Carpenter fans because it creates a creepy sense of paranoia (and Rob Bottin’s special effects are pretty impressive).
As in the earlier film, the story is set in a polar region: this time Antarctica instead of the Arctic. An isolated team of American is interrupted by two Norwegians trying to shoot what looks like a dog – but is actually an alien creature capable of taking on the appearance of the victims it kills. One by one the crew is replaced, but those left alive have a hard time determining who is human and who is the “Thing.” Paranoia and suspicion mount until the story reaches a fiery climax that destroys the only shelter. The film ends with two characters left alive but doomed to death by freezing, and we have no way to be sure if both of them are human — a disturbing thought, because the Thing can survive being frozen and thawed out.
As interesting as THE THING is, it never quite reaches critical mass. Although repeat viewings reveal that not much happens in the 1951 film, a marvelous sense of anticipation makes the story seem very fast-paced – you’re always wondering what the Thing will do next. The remake, on the other hand, feels somewhat episodic, like a series of set-pieces designed to show off the gruesome special effects (for example, a doctor has his hands chomped off while trying to jump-start a patient’s heart — when the patient turns out to be the Thing and his chest opens up like a giant maw).
The storytelling in between these big moments is frustrating because it never quite grapples with the full implications of The Thing. For instance, although the Thing is not identifiable to the humans, those who have been taken over seem to be able to recognize each other: Carpenter hints at this with a couple of two-shots of conspiratorially exchanged glances, but the idea is never developed.
Also, no one ever seems to wonder the obvious question: how could such a creature have evolved into an intelligent life form capable of building a space ship and traveling to another world? My own personal explanation is that it did not build the flying saucer seen over the opening credits – it was biological sample captured on some other planet that got loose and destroyed the crew; hence, the ship crashed. The only problem with this theory is that the film later shows us that the Thing is capable of fashioning technological devices, implying it’s more than just a clever chameleon.
Strangely, the film is also not quite as quirky as it should be. Like Carpenter’s debut feature, DARK STAR, it features a small group of men cut off from civilized society, who show signs of atrophy when it comes to common social graces. This should provide an opportunity for some oddball characters, but few of them emerge in a memorable way. Kurt Russell, as the film’s hero, stands out mostly because his character is not a part of the research team; he’s just a pilot, not a scientist. That’s not a lot to work with.
Nevertheless, the cast work hard at making something out of the sketch characters. The cinematography captures the glistening cold of the exteriors and the sinister claustrophobia of the interiors. Ennio Morricone’s music is memorably ominous; his use of synthesizers is reminiscent of Carpenter’s music for his own films like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but it is a bit more sophisticated in some areas.
Whatever its flaws, THE THING features a genuinely frightening opponent in an isolated setting that conveys a forlorn sense of hopelessness as the humans fight their futile, losing battle with the invader. The film is wonderfully grim, refusing to provide an easy out or a happy ending. It feels as if we are watching not just a monster movie but the beginning of the end of the world. (Hence, Carpenter calls this the first of his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” which also includes PRINCE OF DARKNESS and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS.)
After making his name directing low-budget horror films like HALLOWEEN and THE FOG, a couple of television movies, and the modestly budgeted sci-fi action hit ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, this was John Carpenter’s first theatrical film for a major studio (Universal). Although it has developed a cult reputation among Carpenter fans, the movie was a tremendous box office flop during its initial release. Carpenter blamed the success of E.T., which was also released that year – a considerably happier and more upbeat alien encounter.
Although Carpenter had provided his own effective synthesizer scores for his earlier movies, Universal did not want himto score THE THING. Instead, Ennio Morricone was chosen — a favorite composer of Carpenter’s because of his work on the Sergio Leone Italian Westerns like THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGY. Although Morricone had worked in numerous styles (orchestral, rock, etc.), his music for THE THING sounds curiously similar to Carpenter’s: simple drones, repetitive bass lines used as an ostinato while other harmonies are layer on top, etc. In fact, Carpenter claims to have snuck into the recording studio and done one or two short cues for the film himself.
The film is intentionally cagey about who is the Thing’s first victim in the U.S. camp. When the dog (actually the Thing in disguise) wanders down a hallway and pauses outside a door, we see only the shadow of the human character inside. Just to be sure the audience would not guess who it was, Carpenter did not use one of the actor’s from the film to cast the shadow.
When the film first aired on network television, Universal executive Sid Shienberg provided a different cut of the film, which included early scenes introducing each character. “Shienberg thought he was going to show me how to do a horror movie!” Carpenter has remarked, adding that this version of the film no longer exists.
THE THING(Universal, 1982). Directed by John Carpenter. Screenplay by Bill Lancaster, from the story by John W. Campbell Jr “Who Goes There?”. Cast: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David CLemmon, Keither David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat.