Who Goes There? Well, various alien Things, naturally. We shapeshift through four takes on the novella with The Thing from Another World, Horror Express, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and its 2011 prequel/remake. Join us as we test them with some heated copper wire and see which ones recoil.
We come to this Compare and Contrast episode on the back of our Howard Hawks episode, though the film that brought us here wasn’t actually directed by Howard Hawks. Unless you listen to certain people involved with the film, in which case it actually was. Or really wasn’t, according to some. Or wasn’t but may as well have been, according to others still. But I’m sure we’ll come to that. What is certain, though, is that we’re looking not at two films, as is usual for this strand, but four (an entire 50% of which even have more than one identifiable character with a describable personality), all adaptations of John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella, Who Goes There?
Who Goes There? is the story of a creature, or Thing, from another planet that is able to perfectly mimic other lifeforms, and that causes havoc when it is introduced to the population of an isolated scientific research station in the Antarctic, where it starts a-mimicking and a-killing. As the population decreases, so the fear, suspicion and paranoia of the survivors increases.
I’m sure that sounds very familiar to you, due to the most famous, and most faithful, adaptation of the source, John Carpenter’s The Thing, from 1982. Two of the other films provide somewhat different takes on the novella, with the first, something of a slasher/monster movie, being an unlikely propaganda piece of post-World War 2 America – the age of the rise of processed food – that presaged the coming of the TV dinner, as Big Ready Meal surreptitiously warned consumers of the dangers of fresh vegetables.
The second is like Monster on the Orient Express, a horror film starring two legends of the genre, and, for some reason, Telly Savalas, that puts the action on a train, and neatly bridges the nature of the previous film and the next, which is Carpenter’s, by bringing back a little of the mimicry and making the intellectual threat of the Thing considerably more convincing than “hangry carrot”.
We must also, I suppose (because I really can’t see any way out of it) talk about the 2011 “premake”: ostensibly a prequel to The Thing, it is, to all intents and purposes, a remake, but substantially inferior in every possible way: there’s no perfect and indistinguishable mimicry going on here, though I do suggest purging it with fire in any case.
Let’s go back to Howard Hawks, though, and begin our discussion with The Thing from Another World.
The Thing from Another World
Officially directed by Christian Nyby, long time Howard Hawks collaborator, with a degree of input from Hawks that varies from occassional advice to complete control depending on who you speak to, this adaptation of John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? maintains the remote ice laden research base setting, but makes some very major changes to the nature of the beast.
Beast, I hear you ask? Why, yes, our intrepid Arctic researchers, headed by Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) has unearthed a frozen extra-terrestrial and Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his crew are sent to deal with it, however it’s accidentally thawed out and turns out ot be less dead than expected. It’s also plant based, to everyone’s surprise, which is spoken about ad nausem, along with descriptions of how intelligent it is, entirely at odds with the lumbering brute that is depicted on screen to the horror of nobody.
There’s some interest to be had, I suppose. The quickfire, overlapping dialogue keeps things moving along, although with characters as bland as these you probably won’t care where it’s heading. Not the worst film in the world, but given the respect John Carpenter had for it I think it’s fair to say we were expecting more.
When I reached the end of John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, I was informed it had been adapted into film three times only. This, I feel, entirely unfairly erases from history 1972’s Horror Express, or Pánico en el Transiberiano a Spanish production very loosely based on the novella.
Helmed by spaghetti western stalwart Eugenio Martín, this sees anthropologist Christopher Lee’s Professor Sir Alexander Saxton discover what he believes to be the missing link in a cave in Manchuria. This being 1906 and air-freight not being so much of a thing, clearly the only thing to do is crate up the corpse and load it on to the Trans-Siberian Express. There he runs into his frenemy, Peter Cushing’s Dr. Wells, at which point you might be getting some strong Hammer Horror vibes which, of course, was very much the intent.
Consumed with curiosity, Dr. Wells bribes a train guard to drill into the case to find out what Prof. Saxton has found. Said guard, naturally, soon shows up dead, with the killer creature on the loose, and, well, you broadly know how this story goes.
The oddest thing about this adaptation, and it has some strong competition in this category, might just be what it chooses to focus on from the novella. While our Thing here can for sure assume the form of the people it kills, it also retains the glowing red eyes and weird telepathic powers of the novella that other adaptations sensibly saw fit to remove. I suppose it makes sense, of a sort, that a shapeshifting imposter should also have a mechanism to fit in to that shape more completely, although why said brain drain should also turn the victims’ eyes white is left unsaid, as is the penchant for leaving one hairy arm untransfigured most of the time. But who am I to doubt the science? I’m no monsterologist.
The changes to the source material are just as peculiar for this pelicula. You could, if you squint a bit, see the tundra of Siberia as equivalent to Antarctica, and I suppose you could argue the train is nearly as isolated as the research base, if altogether more opulent, but other than there being a touch more luxury it’s barely a factor in the script, and it appears, was a decision made purely on the basis of having picked up a train set at a knockdown price. And also a model train set for the special effects.
No, it turns out what the story needed to really push it over the edge, and I’m surprised Carpenter didn’t run with this, is a conflict between a Rasputin expy, Alberto de Mendoza’s Father Pujardov, and a scenery chewing Telly Savalas as a vodka gargling Cossack whipping said Rasputin expy. This is the greatest film I have ever seen and I will not accept your kink-shaming.
Well, not really, but it is a thoroughly ridiculous film that I had a great deal of fun ridiculing. There’s some early doors stuff that’s a bit dodgy – it’s leaning a bit too far towards the Yellow Peril end of things, and it maybe takes a touch too long to make peace with how silly a concept it is and start poking a bit of fun at itself. Like when Lee and Cushing’s characters are asked, “But what if one of you are the monster?” and the reply from Cushing is “Monster? But I’m British, you know!”. Although I’m not sure the Spanish are best placed to be lecturing about colonial attitudes.
Anyway, if you take this film seriously you will have a very bad time of it. So I recommend that you do not do that. To be clear, it’s not any good at all, falling below even the worst of the Hammer Horrors that it’s styling itself after, but it’s a diverting weird alternate universe take on the source material that I’d say is worth a look for die-hard fans of the Carpenter film.
The Thing (1982)
After a brief shot of a flying saucer plunging into Earth’s atmosphere (pretty much the only thing about The Thing I really dislike as it’s redundant, given later events), we’re dropped immediately into action as a helicopter chases a “dog” across a snow-covered plain, the helicopter’s passenger attempting to hit the dog with a rifle. This presents a threat to the crew of the US Antarctic Research Station that both “dog” and helicopter soon reach, though not, as it may at first seem, from the crazed Norwegian firing haphazardly across the camp.
Among the inhabitants of the base are Garry, who is the nominal commander, but he clearly does not command the respect of those under him, being considered something of a joke. Rather, most seem to defer to the gruff but competent MacReady. There’s also the stoner Palmer; the spiky and potentially dangerous Childs; hippie-ish radio guy Windows; Nauls the cook; the caring doctor, Copper; Clark, whose compassion clearly lies with the quadrupedal denizens of the station, rather than the bipedal ones; and the slightly crotchety biologist, Blair.
Some characters are less well-defined: Norris is kind of forgettable, Fuchs is in danger of reading as “the one who looks a wee bit like Steven Spielberg”, but within ten minutes we know everything we need to know, with a minimum of exposition: each person’s role is well-established, we know their routines are well worn-in and that they’ve been there for quite a while. We can identify a number of individuals quickly and easily, and their personalities are distinctive, as is the dynamic between them. It’s superbly efficient (and underpinned by really great casting and performance), and we can then just get on with the business of the group realising what they’re dealing with, and trying to come up with strategies to survive it. Nobody does anything stupid, and there are certainly no scientists making mindbogglingly irrational decisions, and no unnecessary fat, like explaining their journey to the research station, both of which two of the other adaptations have. Which is nice.
The whole film is marked out by a complete lack of fannying about, either from the characters or the screenplay. Instead, there’s just pretty much relentless tension, a menacing and unsettling score, fantastic lighting and cinematography, and some superb, often peerless, creature effects. It remains the definitive adaptation of the story.
The Thing (2011)
It’s not a remake, sort of, technically, as this is set in the Norwegian base, Thule, shown to us in already devastated form in Carpenter’s outing. However, it’s also hewing very close to the same concept, so a prequel-make, perhaps.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Kate Lloyd, a palaeontologist takes point in most of this film, having been recently recruited to the base by Ulrich Thomsen’s Dr. Sander Halvorson, the expedition leader and all round jackass. She’s called upon to excavate this weird frozen alien thing, and, well, by this point I think you all know how that goes.
I think the most telling thing I have to say about this version is that having watched this only two days ago, as I write this, any fine detail has already fled my memory and I suspect the broad details will have gone within a week, so that’s hardly a good sign.
However, for about two thirds to four fifths of this film I was enjoying it well enough not to be upset by it. The cast is pretty decent and Matthijs van Heijningen Jr keeps things whipping along well enough, aided by a Marco Beltrami score that follows the rest of the movies’ template for just copying the bits of Carpenter’s version that worked.
My one mild criticism at that point would be the switch to CG monsters over the practical effects, and I suppose I understand the budgetary constraints – adjusted for inflation this has broadly the same budget as Carpenter’s – but they certainly manage to look less imaginative, less disgustingly disturbing, and crucially much less part of the same world as the actors. Which is an almost universal criticism of all less than excellent CG effects, so I might have let that slide were it not for a final act that the budget clearly did not stretch to – in particular there’s a shot of them running over the top of a spaceship that looks like it was a rear projection – and it all gets a bit Robocop 3 as it comes to a close.
While that’s arguably nothing a bit more time and money couldn’t fix, there’s a more fundamental problem with the film, and I believe this was more or less the consensus opinion at the time, so no awards for originality here, but there’s just no real reason for the film to exist. I don’t think I’d go so far as to say it’s bad, or a disgrace to the memory of the original or anything, it’s just on its own merits an average film that’s aping a version that is better than it on every axis I can think of, and doesn’t add anything to the formula, apart from making it a bit less of a sausage-fest.
I don’t think I’d necessarily warn anyone away from watching this, taken overall it’s competent enough, but it’s the least interesting alternate version we’ve spoken of, and also the least alternate alternate version, and as such you’d be better served by simply watching Carpenter’s outing again.
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