Creating horror remakes is often a thankless job. Taking familiar intellectual properties with built-in audience recognition and repackaging them with a little more sex or violence than the originals were allowed isn’t often conducive to great work. But for every pointless retread like Gus Van Sant’s dreadful Psycho or Rob Zombie’s Halloween, just occasionally something brilliant is created. With Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake hitting cinemas this week, let’s examine one of the best: John Carpenter’s The Thing.
To say that The Thing’s debut in 1982 was inauspicious would be an understatement. A claustrophobic tale following a group of Arctic researchers who discover an alien capable of imitating any life form it comes into contact with, it opened to a lacklustre box office and scathing reviews. In the wake of cheerier sci-fi fare like E.T. or The Wrath of Khan, critics and audiences alike struggled to connect with Carpenter’s bleak, violent horror. “This material has been done before, and better,” Roger Ebert wrote in his lukewarm review, “especially in the original The Thing”.
But, with all due respect to Ebert, was this truly the case? By “the original”, Ebert referred to The Thing From Another World, the 1951 flick very loosely based on 1938 sci-fi novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell. Christian Nyby‘s film eschews the paranoia of Campbell’s infectious shapeshifting monstrosity in favour of a plant-based creature (yes, really) who feeds on blood. It may feature the same broad strokes (an isolated team of researchers make a shocking extraterrestrial discovery beneath the ice) but it leans far more heavily into its sci-fi sensibilities than its horror. The eponymous Thing is less… Thing-y, and more like a vampiric Frankenstein. A tall, broad humanoid creature with no shapeshifting abilities, it takes a definite form in the shape of actor James Arness. It puts up a good enough fight, but the group of square-jawed scientists and military personnel who face it largely emerge unscathed and victorious. There’s little in the way of psychological horror to be found here.
John Carpenter’s The Thing is of course so drastically different from this sci-fi classic that it even calls its own status as a remake into question – and therein lies its strength. Certainly Carpenter emulates the beloved original in superficial ways (most notably when the iconic jagged title font burns onto the screen, or when an ablaze Thing runs into the snow to douse itself), but he mainly focuses on emphasising the inherent horror of Campbell’s source material – this idea that something truly evil could be hiding in plain sight.
From the first scenes, it’s clear Carpenter won’t be following Nyby’s blueprints. Prompted by an unusual encounter with a Norwegian researcher, our heroes MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Copper (Ryan Dysart) explore the man’s nearby base. The ravaged building they find houses trails of blood, charred remains, frozen corpses with self-administered slit throats, and a bloodied axe lodged in a door. It’s an exciting, terrifying tease for the audience. Whatever did this certainly wasn’t any plant-based life-form, and there’ll be no escaping unscathed.
Sticking closely to Campbell’s novella, Bill Lancaster’s script isn’t about humans stoically working together to stop an alien threat whilst scientists spout exposition. It’s about a team – colleagues, co-workers, friends – succumbing to mistrust and paranoia. They have no idea what’s going on, or even who the real enemy is, frantically tearing themselves apart psychologically while barely requiring the Thing to raise so much as a tentacle. Carpenter makes stellar use of the men’s isolation, and the paranoia it stokes. How can humans unite against an alien threat when it’s hiding inside one or more of them?
Madness ensues as solidarity crumbles. Blair sabotages the radios and helicopter. Someone tampers with the crew’s uncontaminated blood samples, rendering a revealing blood test impossible. Suspicion rages, and mob mentality threatens to take over. “What if we’re wrong about him?” an anxious Windows asks Childs as they plan to take down suspected Thing MacReady. “Well then, we’re wrong!” Childs snaps back dismissively. Stranded a thousand miles from nowhere, these men are just as likely to be stabbed, shot, or flamethrowered by each other as assimilated by an alien creature. Carpenter maintains a taut, razor-sharp tension throughout, broken by sporadic bursts of fantastically creative gore that truly churn the stomach.
Ah, the gore. The masterful work of special effects wizard Rob Bottin, abject body horror is the name of the game here. The source of many critics’ displeasure, Bottin’s creations are undeniably repulsive, but they’re also inextricably part of the film’s identity. Queasy masses of distorted flesh, gooey innards and writhing tentacles, the real horror is often found in discerning recognisable human elements buried within. The first human “imitation” the crew come across, the charred remnants of two screaming faces fused together and twisted in agony, seem almost demonic in their horror – more Exorcist than Extraterrestrial. If it weren’t for the flying saucer in the film’s opening shots, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Thing spilled through from some hell dimension rather than a distant planet. If they look a little hokey to a modern eye, one need only look at the bland, uninspiring CGI of the 2011 prequel to appreciate how practical effects can inspire horror in a way that computers rarely achieve.
Nowhere is this deft balancing of unbearable tension and gory mayhem better exemplified than in the famous blood test scene – the very scene in the script which compelled Carpenter to join the project. After witnessing Norris’ head detaching and crawling away like a spider, Kurt Russell’s Mac hypothesises that every part of the Thing has its own survival instinct – even its blood. A sample of every man’s blood is tested with a piece of hot wire; if there’s no reaction, they’re human. If it recoils, they’re infected. Rife with fear and resentment (the others are tied to chairs while Mac brandishes a flamethrower) the painfully taut scene exudes Crucible levels of mistrust. Delivered entirely without a score, the only sounds are the hum of the poised flamethrower and the gentle whine of the scorched wire. Garry, the prime suspect for sabotaging the blood samples earlier, voices his disapproval. “We’ll do you last,” promises Mac darkly – right before the sample of Palmer’s blood he’s holding screeches and lurches into the air. It’s a brilliant piece of misdirection (not to mention a great jump scare), joyously allowing the carefully nurtured tension to erupt into bloody chaos as Palmer’s eyes distend and his transformation begins.
Ultimately, The Thing’s success as a film and a remake lies in its enduring ambiguity, and its willingness to stand deliberately apart from its predecessor. Rather than retreading old ground, this is a remake that immediately justifies its existence, cementing its own legacy as a wildly original concept in the process. Its many unanswered questions mean interpretations of the movie are as changing and nebulous as the Thing itself. Who actually tampered with the blood samples? When were certain characters taken over? Do victims know when they aren’t human anymore? Are Mac and Childs human by the final reel? It’s the kind of open-ended ambiguity that demands careful thought, impassioned arguments, and repeat viewings – the lifeblood of any film’s longevity.
Despite a string of commercial home runs with Halloween, The Fog, and Escape From New York, The Thing’s less-than-glowing reception in 1982 was a huge stumbling block for Carpenter’s career. Universal bought him out of the multi-picture deal they signed with him. The New York Times labelled the film “the quintessential moron movie of the ‘80s”. Cinefantastique went one further, wondering if it could be “the most hated movie of all time”. Not even composer Ennio Morricone avoided the fallout, with his understated bass score nominated for an undeserved Razzie. Thankfully though, like many of cinema’s neglected children, this grisly and wildly creative film eventually found its audience on television and home video, and today it’s considered a veritable classic. Remakes rarely take a chance on making significant changes to their predecessors, but The Thing proves that there’s greatness to be found in daring to be different (and adding a few tentacles).