Where This Man Has Gone Before
The Thing Squared and Cubed
This past weekend I watched the 1951 James Arness alien cabbage sci-fi/horror classic, The Thing from Another World. Of course, this got my brain pondering a few things beyond just space vegetables and doors barricaded on the wrong side. I’m not going to delve into 50’s filmmaking, as the era was different, the acting and writing philosophies emphasized the melodramatic, the special effects were of the practical type, i.e. make-up, lighting, camera angles, etc. Now in the context of 1951, Howard Hawkes’ The Thing from Another World is an important film. The National Film Registry has said it is “culturally significant” and worthy of preservation. And it is one of the first, and one of the better, alien/sci-fi movies in a decade replete with them.
However, the real significance of this movie, is that it gave John Carpenter a basis for his 1982 now-cult classic. Of course, both the 1951 and the 1982 films are based on the 1938 novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr. Thematically, Carpenter’s is more in tune with Campbell’s written work. Visually, there is a definite homage to Hawkes’ film. From the burn-through letters of “The Thing” in the opening, to the interiors of the camp buildings, especially the corridors, and the short staircase with the two by four handrail surrounding the small landing. Also the alien ship crash sites resemble each other. And the dogs are there, though Carpenter’s (and Campbell’s) “canines” are not your friendly 8 Below sled dog team.
Campbell and Carpenter both emphasized the theme of paranoia, that an unknown killer could be sitting next to you. Hawkes took the anti-scientist approach, which was a prevalent one in 1951, during the post-Hiroshima era of atomic bomb apprehension. James Arness as a giant cabbage was never going to be mistaken for a human. However, Wilford Brimley, who looked like a grumpy vegetable, could easily be overlooked as the nefarious murderous alien.
More importantly than the connections between the two films is the fact that Carpenter even made his version. His movie is considered one of the best horror films ever made, and in the sci-fi horror genre The Thing is right there with Alien and the 1933 King Kong as the greatest of all time. In this era of complaints about remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, the complaints Hollywood and filmmakers have no originality, just think if Carpenter had listened to these critics and never made his movie, a film he made his own. The idea that remaking a movie is a result of creative-impasse is nonsense. I’m not going to claim all remakes or new interpretations are good, because some of them are just plain terrible. Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992 comes immediately to mind. But then, Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day was an excellent update of the 1953 War of the Worlds. The point is, when a studio or director announces plans for a remake, the “purists” automatically dismiss it as Hollywood money-scheming, something they can just throw together and the masses will watch it regardless of whether or not it’s any good. Hey, here’s a thought, Hollywood is in the business of making money. We, as consumers, like to spend money. This is kind of how this whole capitalist thing works. And of course, some not so good movies (and books) do make a lot of revenue. Being a writer I have visions of one day making some of that cash. In the meantime, I’m not going to automatically rip, tear, and destroy something just because it has been made once, twice, or in Dracula’s case over 200 times, before.
And in 2011, a pretty good prequel to Carpenter’s classic came along, thereby continuing the story for a new generation. Here is another reason for new versions of old films and characters. Just because something was made twenty, thirty, fifty years ago, doesn’t mean a contemporary audience has seen it. How many devoted fans of the Carpenter’s The Thing have seen The Thing from Another World? I know this sounds blasphemous, but how many fans of the 2011 prequel have seen the movie it precedes? How many Dracula fans have watched the Universal films from the 30’s or the Hammer versions from the 60’s? King Kong, either 1933 or 1976? Or is Peter Jackson’s the only one they need to see, or will ever see? Audiences do change over the years.
As I stated in the opening, films were made differently in the 1950’s, and they were made differently in the 1930’s and the 1980’s and the 2010’s. Watching a 1951 movie is something that can only be done if the time and techniques are placed in context. Even watching one from 1982 requires a viewer adjustment. One thing I’m trying to avoid as I grow older is becoming a grumpy old man (like Wilford Brimley) who believes the only good things are safely preserved in the past. Those films and albums and books from my youth should not be messed with, should not be remade; they are untouchable and the creative-lacking younger generations will only ruin them. That mindset is nonsense (though it is a natural one, as every receding generation laments the contemporary youth as wasteful, lazy, obnoxious, arrogant, and a few more archaic adjectives). The 1951 The Thing from Another World is still around for me to enjoy, as is the 1982 version, both untouched, in their original form (take note Lucas). Carpenter didn’t ruin the 1951 film. And the 2011 prequel didn’t destroy Carpenter’s. If anything the audiences have expanded, if for no other reason than curiosity as to what came before.