(NOTE: Article contains spoilers. -ed.)
John Carpenter’s take on John W. Campbell Jr.’s classic sci-fi novella Who Goes There? and Howard Hawks’ 1951 classic The Thing From Another World hit theaters 30 years ago on June 25th – and The Thing has been scaring the fuck out of people ever since.
It’s not just the alien, or seeing an adorable sled dog become a bloodthirsty killer – what sends The Thing over the edge is its masterful use of paranoia and distrust to instill fear in the viewer – watching Kurt Russell’s “MacReady” (the name alone should go into the halls of bad-assery) attempt to figure out who’s infected and who’s still human keeps us on the edge of our seats all the way through to the final scene – which appropriately gives us no sense of resolution at all.
The Thing is more than just awesome creature effects and stuff blowing up; it’s an allegory to our own society. In an isolated setting our characters hash out what Americans have feared since before our revolution from the British: a loss of identity, loss of autonomy, and the suspicion that grows among us when we’re unsure if our compatriots are friends or enemies. That last shot – with MacReady and Childs sharing a drink and eyeing each other distrustfully as they watch the remnants of Outpost 31 burn – is like the last dab of icing on a ‘fuck you’ cake because there is no resolution for humanity – we’re going to keep being balls of suspicion mixed in with blood and guts – we don’t get a happy ending in The Thing because we don’t get a happy ending in reality – well… at least not every day… unless that’s your bag. No judgments.
Of course Universal went and fucked this up with their sanitized for TV version created with TBS – removing the “Are they or aren’t they infected?” doubts from the end and replacing it with another sled dog slinking away to infect others. Oh that little scamp! Since then it’s been released on DVD in 1998 and again in 2004 – both DVD’s contain about the same extras: a documentary called The Thing: Terror Takes Shape, which features details and interviews from pretty much everybody involved in the film. The 1998 version also includes deleted scenes, the stupid ending from the TV version, and features commentary by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. The 2004 version includes all of the same extras but with the added bonus of an HD version of the film (the extras sadly are still in their original formatting). It was then given the Blu-Ray treatment in 2008, again with pretty much all the same stuff but with the added (and pointless) picture-in-picture feature which splices the documentary in with the movie at key points of the film. I’m not even really sure why that’s important, but as a bonus the Blu-ray’s are region free, so next time you’re planning that trip to Europe – feel free to clutch it to your traveling bosom like the ’80s-horror primer that it is.
For all its brilliance The Thing actually got pretty shitty reviews when it premiered. Critics loved the special effects but hated Carpenter’s mash-up of sci-fi and horror. The poor reception could’ve been due to its competing with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner which opened the same weekend, or because a far cuddlier alien named ET hit theaters two weeks earlier to terrorize stuffed animals and Reese’s Pieces everywhere.
Despite its initially cold reception, The Thing lives on: a prequel of the same title was just released last year, chronicling the Norwegians experience with the alien that lead to the opening scene of the 1982 film. That was total crap, but I’m more interested in the failed attempt by SciFi Channel to turn a sequel into a 4 part miniseries in 2003. Return of The Thing would’ve been helmed by the one and only Frank Darabont (former show runner for The Walking Dead and director of one of the best movie adaptations ever made, The Shawshank Redemption) and was based on a story written by Darabont’s own former assistant David Leslie Johnson, who’s gone on to pen several episodes of The Walking Dead (including one of my favorites, the Daryl heavy “Chupacabra”), as well as Orphan and Wrath of the Titans. I dug up a writer who was able to get their hands on Johnson’s screenplay in 2009. Johnson’s take brings the terror of The Thing to the US (kind of like Mormonism) – and it actually sounds like it could’ve made a decent story if Darabont didn’t fuck it up (I’ve seen The Mist, Frank, they can’t all be gems).
SciFi’s resurrection plans were inexplicably scrapped. I’d try to lobby for an internet campaign to get it going again but what could we deluge them with in the mail? Siberian puppies? That could actually work…