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Posts Tagged ‘One Damn Thing After Another’

So, my friend and I decided to go to the cinema together – for the first time, I believe, since 2007’s The Invasion, which we saw at the Serialkillerplex in Chiba. Protracted to-doings about seats and tickets concluded, we took our positions in the auditorium expectantly.

‘What do we do now?’ my friend asked.

‘Why don’t we just wait here for a little while… see what happens,’ I suggested.

Yes, we were there for the latest incarnation of John W Campbell’s immortal tale of extraterrestrial polar nastiness, best known these days simply as The Thing. I am a big fan of the 1951 adaptation (hereafter ‘the Nyby version’) and a recent convert to the 1982 take on the story (hereafter ‘the Carpenter version’) and so 2011’s offering, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. (hereafter ‘the new version’, mainly as that’s easier to spell), was a movie I was rather looking forward to. Is it a remake of or a prequel to John Carpenter’s cult shocker? I’m not sure- let’s just call it a preremaquel and leave it at that.

Winter, 1982 (again), and a Norwegian expedition carrying out research in Antarctica makes an astounding discovery: a huge alien ship buried under the ice there, and what appear to be the deep-frozen remains of an occupant. Primarily to avoid the entire movie being conducted in subtitled Norwegian, comely American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is recruited to help with the extraction of the carcass.

However, as is practically a truism by now, ‘frozen alien’ is not the same thing as ‘dead alien’ and the entity in the ice takes advantage of its new situation to bust out of its frozen prison and run amok around the camp. Casualties ensue before it is burned to death by American chopper pilot Carter (Joel Edgerton).

But an analysis of the creature’s biology reveals something unexpected: the alien has the ability to absorb and then perfectly mimic any other life-form it comes into contact with. If the Thing can make it out of the barren wastes of Antarctica, there will be nothing to stop it assimilating the entire biosphere of the planet – and there are signs that prior to its demise, the original Thing was able to replicate at least one of the people at the base. But who…?

Well, the first thing to say about the new Thing is that this is such a good scenario for a story that it would take a very special film-maker to completely faff it up (and luckily Paul W.S. Anderson was busy elsewhere). This is by no means a dreadful film or even a particularly bad one: it’s never less than polished and competent in virtually every department. Unfortunately, it never goes much beyond this level of achievement, either.

This movie is being marketed very much on the strength of its connections with the Carpenter version, but something which slightly surprised me about it was the degree to which it draws on the Nyby version, too – rather more than Carpenter did. The chief Norwegian scientist (Ulrich Thomsen) is very reminiscent of the Thing-sympathising boffin played by Robert Cornthwaite in 1951, but there’s more to it than this. The biggest difference between the two previous versions is that Nyby’s is an it’s-out-there-somewhere! movie and Carpenter’s is an it’s-secretly-one-of-us! movie. You would expect the preremaquel to follow Carpenter, but it doesn’t: the Thing here spends much more time rampaging around in the open, spewing spiked intestines in all directions and chasing people about. Basically, the Thing here comes across as rather more stupid and less subtle than it was previously (or, given the nature of the narrative, it will be in future).

One could argue that this is a result of advances in special effects, making the realisation of the Thing much easier than it was in 1982. Well, maybe, but seeing more of the monster doesn’t necessarily help the movie. The startling effects sequences in the Carpenter version (described on the IMDB as ‘one of the most vile and scary movies ever’) work so well because a) they’re strictly rationed and b) they’re wildly varied and immensely inventive. And that movie works as well as it does because of what happens between the splatter – the tension and the atmosphere that is relentlessly built up.

In the Carpenter version the Thing doesn’t start doing its thing willy-nilly – but in the new one it does, as I mentioned up the page: people start splitting open and spewing viscera about, not quite at the drop of a hat, but certainly at times when it doesn’t strictly seem necessary from the entity’s point of view. And the CGI Things, while appropriately disgusting to look at, just don’t have the ‘eeuuuurgghhhh’-factor of Rob Bottin’s 1982 puppet and animatronic creations – they even get a bit samey-samey after a while, which is absolutely not how Things should be.

Nevertheless, the new version is deeply invested in its connection to the Carpenter version: and to some extent its achievement in this area is highly impressive. So far as I can tell, the two movies dovetail almost seamless, to the point where the last shot of this film is essentially the first of Carpenter’s – even down to the soundtrack. (Although I don’t quite see how the Norwegian videos in the Carpenter version fit into the story told here.) I was dubious as to how this would play, as it would surely mean depriving this film of a proper ending. That isn’t quite how it works out, but making the lead-in to Carpenter not much more than a coda really means it feels like an afterthought.

The new version’s status as a preremaquel doesn’t always work to its advantage, either – in order to stay credible this means that it can’t repeat too many scenes or ideas from the Carpenter version. The new ideas it comes up with are too often substandard – Kate’s plan to see who could possibly be a Thing and who’s still human is scientifically based, which is good – but the discipline in question is dentistry, which I thought came dangerously close to bathos. (Certainly, at the screening I attended, people were openly sniggering.) A lengthy sequence aboard the Thing’s own vessel also feels like it’s taking the drama too far out of a recognisable world, too.

The great thing about the Nyby version and the Carpenter one is that neither of them is exactly overflowing with reverence for their predecessor – Nyby’s film does a major number on Campbell’s short story, while Carpenter in turn doesn’t try to imitate Nyby (though he does go back to Campbell in a lot of ways). I would have been interested to see a brand-new version of The Thing that didn’t try so hard to mimic Carpenter – then again, mimicry’s the name of the game where this beastie’s concerned.

But, having said that, this is not a replication that the Thing itself would be proud of. One of the defining qualities of the Carpenter version is that it’s so resolutely true to a very idiosyncratic and rather uncompromising vision. It’s a relentlessly bleak and downbeat movie that makes very few concessions to the audience – for instance, Carpenter didn’t put any women in his film as he didn’t see how it would help the story. Here, on the other hand, we have hitherto-unsuspected Brits and Americans at the Norwegian camp, for the reasons previously mentioned, and a gutsy-but-cute female lead very much in the Sigourney Weaver mould. It’s exactly what you would expect in a by-the-numbers SF-horror movie (just as happened in Alien Vs Predator, a distant cousin to The Thing lineage), but given the history of The Thing, by-the-numbers doesn’t cut it. This is a perfectly average, perfectly acceptable piece of forgettable entertainment – but when it comes to The Thing, just being acceptable is not acceptable at all.

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Our look at the shape of Things gone by continues as we look, with some degree of inevitability, at John Carpenter’s 1982 version of the famous story. This is a movie which was a fairly spectacular flop on its original release, marking the end of Carpenter’s time in the top flight of Hollywood directors, but the years and word-of-mouth have been very kind to it and these days it can boast an enviable reputation.

Certainly, when I was but a lad, The Thing was the subject of much awed discussion around school – said discussions mainly revolving around whether you were hard enough to watch it all the way through without crying or being sick. ‘What about that bit where it comes out of the dog!’ was a commonly-heard utterance, spoken in a tone of awed disbelief.

Lacking in physical, moral, or intellectual courage, this sort of thing put me off a bit and I managed to avoid seeing the film all the way through until many years later – although a TV documentary on the history of special make-up effects helpfully introduced me to most of the key sequences. And then when I did see it, it was a hacked-about TV edit that really did the coherence of the movie no favours.

What I’m really trying to say here is that I’ve always had a slightly ambivalent attitude towards this film and wasn’t particularly impressed when I eventually caught up with it. If it weren’t for the release of the 2011 remake I probably wouldn’t have gone back to it at all. However, more than once in the past it was only on the second viewing that I really understood when a film was coming from. And in this case…?

Hmmm. Winter, 1982, and the personnel at a US research outpost in Antarctica (quite what they are researching is never made clear, but they are well-provisioned with flamethrowers, dynamite, roller-skates and Stevie Wonder tapes) are surprised to find their camp receiving an unscheduled visit from some Norwegians from down the way. The Norwegians are frantically shooting and lobbing bombs at a dog, for reasons which are not immediately apparent, and not being especially good at this sort of thing it does not end well for them: one of them blows himself up and the other is shot dead by one of the Americans on health and safety grounds.

The outpost’s chopper pilot, MacReady (Kurt Russell), wisely attempts to discover what the Norwegians were up to, while the rest of the camp, unwisely, adopts the dog. MacReady visits the Norwegians’ own base and find it in ruins, uninhabited except for a team of researchers making notes for the prequel. He also discovers videotapes of the Scandinavians re-enacting scenes from the 1951 version of the story.

The Norwegians discovered an alien ship entombed in the ice, and the frozen remains of an occupant not far away. The alien, it appears, thawed out and wreaked terrible havoc before being incinerated. But why were the last two survivors so fixated on shooting the dog…?

Well, once again I must put my hand up: whether you view this film as an account of a terrifying incursion by a hostile extraterrestrial life-form, or simply an unfortunate misunderstanding between an innocent alien missionary and some limited and ignorant Terran bipeds, this is a film which demands to be taken seriously.

One can kind of see why the film was so negatively reviewed on its original release – I can barely imagine the effect watching it would have if you went in completely unsuspecting what awaited you. Famously, it came out on the same weekend as E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial – now that’s what I call providing consumer choice! – and there’s no question as to which film has wider appeal: all The Thing wants to do is freak you out and mess you up, offering only the faintest grace notes of humour and hope throughout its running time.

The most striking aspect of The Thing is the creature itself. The sequences where it physically manifests are, to put it mildly, memorable – although there are only a handful of these moments in the film, they brand themselves into your memory and you come away thinking there are far more than is actually the case. It’s the inventiveness of their conception as much as their visceral goriness which make them work as well as they do – even after multiple viewings, the defibrilator moment and its aftermath is still an astounding feat of film-making.

Even this, though, is made possible by the concept of the Thing itself – a form of life so utterly alien and different that it almost defies description. The Thing operates like a viral infection more than a traditional in-the-flesh monster, and it’s this that makes it so frightening. The film strongly suggests that individuals infected/replicated by the entity aren’t even aware of the fact – even that its powers of mimicry extend to features such as psychological flaws and weak hearts. Is the Thing even conscious, as we understand the idea? Does it have an agenda of any kind? Quite properly, we are left to ponder.

However, The Thing is an 109-minute film, and – although I haven’t got my stopwatch out – I would be surprised if the entity itself is doing its spectacularly disgusting thing on-screen for a tenth of that time. The gore freak-outs are really just punctuation points in a story which for much of its running time relies on atmosphere and character to keep the audience gripped.

Kurt Russell gives the performance of his career as MacReady, but there’s a terrific ensemble performance from everyone involved – Keith David gives an eye-catching turn, and there’s solid support from veterans like Wilford Brimley and Richard Dysart. The developing narrative of the film, and with it the increasing distrust and paranoia between the members of the team, is relentless – as it surely had to be – and very tightly focussed.

For most of its length, this is an intensely economical film – another reason why the pyrotechnic excesses of the special effects are so striking. Even Ennio Morricone’s score eschews lavish arrangements for a very spare theme which, to be honest, strongly suggests the great man is pastiching the style of John Carpenter’s own compositions!

One thing that The Thing doesn’t do is try too hard to ape the 1951 version of the story – the full-body burn sequence from the original is recreated, and the Norwegians’ home video shows them repeating a key scene, but that’s really it. The conflict between the military and scientific philosophies and the close camaraderie of the human characters are both completely absent. I say this not as a criticism, because I think every film’s first objective should be to work on its own terms, and surely one of the reasons why The Thing works as well as it does is because it isn’t afraid to follow its own path.

Well, no matter what the quality of the new Thing is, it has at least made me come back and look again at this version, and I’m very glad I did. This still isn’t my favourite John Carpenter movie – for which, see 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13 – but it seems positively perverse that such an accomplished and impressive movie was so badly received that it effectively crippled his career. And as to whether it’s better than The Thing from Another World… I don’t know. I have such a fondness for that movie, and the two are so different. But the next time someone tells me that The Thing is a classic of both horror and SF film-making, I will happily agree with them.

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Well, it promises to be a gribbly few days here at NCJG as a new version of The Thing arrives in UK cinemas imminently. As I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of the 1951 version of this story, and I do appreciate that the 1982 iteration has qualities of its own. This seems like a good opportunity to take a look at John Carpenter’s version, which I haven’t seen in over a decade, but before that I thought it would be interesting to look back at the heritage of this story.

Three adaptations (we can quibble about whether to talk in terms of prequels, remakes, and suchlike) mark The Thing out as a bit of a banker as far as stories go – but we also have to take into account the legion of homages and other variations the different films have received. One way or another, there are a lot of Things out there of different kinds, some rather more obscure than others.

So, deep-frozen aliens under the polar ice. Back we go – where did this story originally come from? Which was the first Thing? Passing over the new version and moving back through time, in 2004 we encounter the possibly unexpected form of Alien Vs Predator, written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. An intruder from a different set of franchises entirely, you might say – but this film qualifies. The main difference from the Thing movies is the inclusion of a lost alien city at the pole, containing terrible secrets from ancient times – but even this, as we shall see, only confirms that this film is part of the same lineage, albeit something of a distant cousin.

Proceeding back to 1993, we meet our first small-screen Thing-offspring, acknowledged as such by its creators: the first-season X Files episode Ice, in which defrosted parasitic organisms infect a human research station in Alaska, resulting in much paranoia and carnage. The Carpenter version seems to have been the main inspiration here, with infectious sled-dogs and icky body-horror much in evidence. The parasites are discreet and unassuming little Things, but none of the others in the family could really fault them for their attitude.

Innocent Looking Things (ice parasites from The X Files).

Passing over other marginal candidates such as the 1988 War of the Worlds episode The Raising of Lazarus, we arrive in 1982 to find John Carpenter’s famous version of the story waiting for us. This is probably the highest-profile member of the clan , probably on the strength of the eye-popping visual effects.

80s-style Blobby Thing (an iteration of Carpenter’s take on the monster).

This is one of those once-seen, never-forgotten films, which may explain why it has always had such a polarising effect on viewers. It has such a strong identity of its own that it’s arguably less available as a source of story ideas and images than some of the other versions.

We encounter a botanical addition to the Thing lineage in 1976, in the form of the Doctor Who story The Seeds of Doom. Typically, this story wears its sources openly on its sleeve – scientists in Antarctica uncover an alien pod, which infects one of them and initiates a shocking transformation from human to alien.

Green Thing (a Krynoid).

This story – amongst the very best of the series – is interesting in that it seems to be both looking back to the 1951 version of the story, with its hostile, humanoid plant, and forward to the 1982 one with its grim tone and emphasis on body horror. I suspect that to focus too much on this would be a mistake, as the metamorphosis in the story seems largely derived from that in the original Quatermass Experiment – although John Carpenter himself is on record as a fan of Quatermass writer Nigel Kneale.

(It may be worth mentioning in passing a number of other references to The Thing in the history of Doctor Who – most obviously in the 1967 story The Ice Warriors, which is based around the concept of deep-frozen and hostile aliens being defrosted with inevitable results.)

In 1972 we meet one of the more obscure and distant members of the family, in the Spanish horror movie Panico en el Transiberiano. No-one, to my knowledge, has made the connection between this film and The Thing before, but to me the similarities are too significant to be ignored.

Really Obscure Thing (wearing its ape-man body).

The Thing in this movie initially appears to be nothing but an ape-man, frozen in ice for thousands of years, but as the narrative progresses the startling truth is revealed – the ape is merely the latest host of a body-hopping, brain-draining alien, stranded on Earth for millions of years. The mutability of the Thing is psychological rather than physical here, but it otherwise behaves in a very similar way to its cousins elsewhere. The narrative waters are muddied somewhat by the ill-judged addition of supernatural elements to the story, but otherwise this is a fun movie which deserves to be better known.

Moving on back to 1951 we meet the first of the true Things, in Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ superb The Thing from Another World. This is really the source of the Thing archetype and nearly all the elements are here: the remote polar location, the frozen alien defrosted by mistake, the desperate battle to survive.

Black and White Thing (James Arness from the 1951 movie).

All that’s really missing is the paranoia and threat to identity which are present in most of the other versions. James Arness’ malevolent plant is rather more of a lumbering, snarling monster than most of its descendants, but the film remains a classic for all sorts of reasons.

Surely, then, we are getting close to the source of the Thing? The 1951 movie is credited as an adaptation of John W Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, the most significant change being the nature of the alien itself. Campbell’s Thing is no vegetable but the amorphous, assimilating horror familiar from Carpenter’s adaptation and beyond. So the origins of the Thing as we know it really lie here in Campbell’s story.

Dog thing (Campbell’s monster in mid-transformation).

Or do they? Published two years before Campbell, and written five years before that, was a story in which an expedition to Antarctica discovers frozen aliens, which are not as dead as they first appear. Later in the story the protagonists barely escape from an amorphous, protoplasmic horror.

Original Blobby Thing (a Shoggoth).

The story in question is, of course, HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness – which, incidentally, also features a lost alien city at the pole, containing terrible secrets from ancient times. The question of whether Campbell was deliberately drawing on Lovecraft or not is an open one, and one could of course go further back and look at Lovecraft’s own sources for this tale (Edgar Rice Burroughs and Edgar Allen Poe amongst them), but in terms of the recognisable story we’ve been tracking, this seems to be the beginning.

And the final, poetic touch? Lovecraft’s aliens – the ones that are uncovered in the ice, wreak havoc amongst the humans, and thus set the template for everything to follow – are presciently named as Elder Things. You can’t argue with something like that.

Elder Thing.

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Come back with me now to the Earth Year 1987 and a place on the South Coast called Littlehampton. We had gone on holiday there for a fortnight (‘we’ being my parents, my sister and I) and were having a fairly pleasant time. One particular evening lingers in my memory, though: I had been left in on my own for reasons I can no longer recall. It may be simply because I wanted to watch the film that this post is about, which even then was 36 years old.

It was, as you may not be surprised to learn, an old SF movie: The Thing From Another World, to be exact. I had seen many examples of 50s SF even by that age and found them either amusing or interesting, but The Thing… there’s a scene about half-way through this movie where the characters have learned that the monster is on the loose somewhere in the camp and set out to look for it, and I found myself suddenly very conscious of being alone in a cottage on a very dark night. Even back then, only very rarely did a movie genuinely scare or unsettle me, and this 36-year-old ‘antique’ managed it (the startling shot in which the creature first appears also made me jump and make embarrassing yelping noises).

The original 1951 Thing has really been eclipsed in the popular imagination by John Carpenter’s visceral 1982 remake (in turn, a prequel/remake is due this autumn), and while I’ve seen and admire both films my loyalty will always be with the older one, simply because I think it takes more skill to frighten than to nauseate.

The plot of the original movie has been hugely influential (and while John Campbell’s short story Who Goes There? is credited as the source, it seems to me to be ultimately derived from H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains Of Madness, but that’s by the by). Reports of a crashing plane or impacting meteorite draws an Air Force crew to a scientific outpost at the North Pole. Working with the scientists there, they discover an alien craft buried under the ice – attempts to retrieve it fail (the manner in which the ship is destroyed, as presented on screen at least, doesn’t really make sense: one of the few holes in The Thing‘s plot) but they do get second prize: one of the ship’s occupants is discovered buried in the ice, and transported back to their base.

Needless to say the resilience of the alien is grossly underestimated and a mishap leads to the creature being freed from its icy prison. The true nature of the being becomes apparent: it’s a carnivorous humanoid plant, which has come to Earth intent on propagating itself…

James Arness plays the Thing itself. He plays it as a brutal snarling monster, which is a little at odds with the script’s depiction of it as a dangerously intelligent being – he doesn’t look much like a plant-man, either – but the truth of the matter is that he only gets about five minutes on-screen. The Thing From Another World isn’t a traditional monster movie, in that it isn’t particularly interested in its monster, and one of the reasons it’s so effective is that it isn’t afraid to strictly ration the creature’s screen-time.

What this movie does seem to be interested in, to me, is the relationships of a group of guys in a very tight spot. Kenneth Tobey is the ostensible leading man, Margaret Sheridan his love interest, but The Thing is really an ensemble piece: scene after scene is packed with characters, mostly painted in broad strokes, but all still recognizable human beings. And, compared to the stilted and often crummy and/or pretentious dialogue bedevilling so many genre films of this decade, The Thing‘s script zips and crackles along, and it’s genuinely funny in a laconic sort of way: you could argue that this is The West Wing of classic SF films.

More traditional genre elements make an appearance in the nature of the monster – which is pleasingly bizarre – and in the tension between the Air Force characters and the scientists as to how they should handle the creature. Needless to say, the chief scientist (Robert Cornthwaite) is a rum cove, wont to produce such dubious utterances as ‘Knowledge is more important than life… [The Thing’s] development was not handicapped by emotional or sexual factors… we owe it to the brain of our species to stand here and die without destroying a source of wisdom‘ and overlook the Thing’s innate blood-lust. 50s SF was certainly often ambivalent towards science, but on the other hand there are so many movies featuring scientist heroes and wise old boffins – The Thing From Another World is unusual in that it comes out and depicts scientists as out of touch with common values and Not To Be Trusted.

On the other hand, if this is a piece of anti-communist propaganda, as many have argued, then it’s one which operates on an almost subliminal level. I suppose you could say that the depiction of the Thing as a product of a totally alien way of life is an attempt at political allegory (plant vs animal = communism vs capitalism) but to me this is stretching a little: the Thing simply isn’t interested in political or conventional military conquest.

Subtext is only really of interest in hindsight, anyway. The Thing From Another World has a well-deserved reputation as one of the very first truly great SF movies – but this is a case of film-makers shaping genre conventions to suit themselves, rather than feeling beholden to the constraints of the form. There’s a solid core of human drama and emotion to this movie, which is what provides it with such vitality and tension, and gives the genre elements their bite. As a piece of SF, The Thing From Another World proves that less can definitely be more.

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