Friday, October 28, 2011

MAKE/REMAKE: The Thing From Another Word (1951) vs. The Thing (1982) vs. The Thing (2011)

Remakes are a tricky thing. They are almost universally reviled but only in the world of film. No one minds when a theater company revives Othello, or when a singer covers a famous song. It's not like the remakes are filmed on the bleached negatives of the originals. Perhaps it's because the originals are often beloved and the remakes are so often sub-par. But must it always be this way? It seems that if a remake where to work, the original would have to be good but lacking in some obvious way and/or the creators of the new version must have some kind of vision, or unique take that justifies the expedition. Which brings us to The Thing, the rare case that has been filmed, not once, not twice but three times. The first remake shows how to do a remake correctly, and the more recent remake shows how to get it all wrong.

The Thing From Another World, co-directed by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby is a great example of a 50's B-movie. It's got it all: the army, aliens, scientists, radioactivity even an intrepid reporter.

The film starts off at a military base on the edge of American civilization (Alaska) where we meet a curmudgeonly Air Force re-supply crew lead by Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) on their way to the research base deep in the Arctic wilderness. It's cold there. The wind blows horizontal snow. Icicles hang all the way to the ground. Snow is piled up 10 feet high outside. But there's more going on than the temperature. A strange crash has been reported a few miles from the base. The crew and a bunch of scientists go to investigate and discover the remains of a flying saucer. The craft is accidentally destroyed but our heroes are able to recover its pilot, encased in an 8-foot block of ice, and take him back to the base. 

Now obviously we know that the thing will get loose and start terrorizing the base. It was a law of the horror genre even in 1951. But there is a second conflict between the Air Force personnel and the scientists. The lead scientist Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) fills a role nearly analogous to the evil corporation man in more recent horror films. Dr. Carrington doesn't want to destroy the Thing, but wants to save and study it. He just can't believe that a super-intelligent creature can be malevolent He's not an evil scientist per se, he just has his priorities wrong. The second half of the film is fairly atmospheric, you can see the influence on future sci-fi/horror films such as Alien, and the ending is dynamite but the film has a few things that keeps it from transcending its genre.

Co-directors Hawks and Nyby do a great job of showing us how cold the base is on the outside, but when the film goes inside, it's quite easy to forget that theses characters are in the arctic at all. They try a bit, wind rushes inside when doors are opened and alike, but these gimmicks are few and far between and come off as cheap tricks. All it would have taken is the faint sound of the wind howling. The second, larger problem is that the group is too chummy. Even after the creature kills two people, the remainder of the crew still trade jokes with each other as if nothing has happened. Captain Hendry is almost more concerned with wooing his old flame (Margaret Sheridan) as he is with killing the creature that's threatening the world.  To be fair, the romance subplot is done well, and just racy enough to raise eyebrows (be prepared for some light bondage). Also the comradery between the men is fun, even if it is out of the war movie cliche handbook, but ultimately, while these elements help keep the film from being too one-note, make the film tonally wonky.

What really keeps the film going is the titular thing. In the short story that inspired the film, Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, the creature was a shape shifter, a great gimmick that was dropped for this version. Perhaps it seemed too technically difficult (though a lot can be done with shadows) but it's also likely that the idea of a monster that can look like anyone might have been a little too touchy in 1951, in the midst of the the Hollywood Blacklists. That said, the Hawks/Nyby Thing is still interestingly weird. Thought went into this creature, not in the sense that it's biologically air-tight or even plausible but in the sense that it perfectly strides the line between cheesy and creepy. The constant speculation and hypothesizing about that nature of the beast gives the film a mild creep factor that is enhanced by the fact that we don't really see that much of the Thing until the end. We know that it is basically humanoid but that's about it. Of course that is a very wise strategy considering that the final reveal of Thing is a little disappointing.

The Thing From Another World is a fun film, full of enough gee-goolies to bring out the 10-year-old in anyone and it's got at least one great jump-scare but a remake is still understandable. It's easy to see how, with the right director, this material can be tweaked to make a truly terrifying picture that works as something more than a genre picture, something that, to quote the film, truly makes you watch the skies in fear.

Which brings us to John Carpenter's 1982 remake titled simply The Thing. By the time Carpenter started work on the film he had already established himself as an important, bankable director. Why do a remake at this point? Well, Carpenter was a fan of the original film, but was also a fan of the original short story, which the Hawks/Nyby team had largely reconfigured to fit their sensibilities and the technology of the time. But fidelity alone is not enough to justify an adaptation. Anyone can follow the source exactly. For example: Zack Snyder essentially took himself out of the equation on his adaptation of Frank Miller's comic 300 by following the graphic novel word for word, panel for panel, too in love with the material to fully filter it through his own mind and make his own film. Something that Carpenter is willing and able to do with his version of The Thing. The result is a film that is not only faithful to the short story but also feels like it could have only been made by John Carpenter.

Right from the opening scenes it's clear that Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster (Bad News Bares) have more on their minds than Hawks and Nyby. The film is a series of questions, many of which are never answered. The film opens with Norwegian scientists hunting a dog via helicopter. The scientists chase the dog to an American outpost. They try and warn the scientists there to stay away from the dog, but get themselves killed before they can get the message across. This leaves the Americans to wonder why in the hell a bunch of scientists would be trying to kill a dog? Did they go nuts or is something more sinister going on?

Two of the Americans, Cooper (Richard Dysart) and MacReady (Kurt Russell) check out the Norwegian camp. The place looks like it's been firebombed. The bodies they find look like murders or suicides. But then there's the other body. The thing doesn't look right, doesn't look human. "Is that a man in there?" Cooper asks. They bring it back to base and have the camp surgeon, Blair (Wilford Brimley), do an autopsy, revealing that despite the heavy deformities the body has a perfectly normal set of human organs.

Meanwhile there's that dog they rescued from the Norwegians. He's a strange mutt. He looks catatonic and rigid. It turns out that the dog is not really a dog, and the body isn't really human. They're Things; alien creatures that can flawlessly replace any life form they touch. By the time the Americans find out, it's too late; some of them are still human but some aren't. 

Isolation is a bigger theme this time around. We never see anything outside of the base. The radio is even less functional here before being destroyed altogether. The exteriors feel a lot colder, and the interiors are dank and claustrophobic, no forgetting where you are in this version. Cabin fever really sets in. 

 The whole business with the Norwegian camp is an invention of the Carpenter film, but it's a great device. It allows Carpenter to slowly develop the film as he introduces the characters and plants images that he'll come back to later in the film. It's also a great piece of misdirection. The film looks like it's a mystery centered on what happened to the Norwegian camp, but the real mystery has much more immediate stakes. Also, finding the creature among the corpses of it's previous victims is just a lot more atmospheric than what appears in the short story or the Hawks/Nyby version

Another choice that Carpenter makes is in his characterization. Like the Hawks/Nyby version, Carpenter has a large group of people populating the base but they're not separated along the ideological lines of "military might" vs. "scientific curiosity." Carpenter's crew are more diverse than that. Some of them are scientists of varying fields, some might be ex-military, some are blue collar schmoes. As a result they feel less like abstract archetypes and more like real people and this makes their eventual conflict more believable. Unlike the original, no one is concerned with studying or making peace with the Things. The creatures are too gruesome and horrifying to inspire any empathy.

The portrayal of the creatures is an interesting choice. We see a lot of them here, that seems to break the so-called "Jaws Rule" which states the more you show of a monster, the less scary it is. But Carpenter gets away with it because he's mixing different kinds of horror. He has the gooey creature effects, but he also has long stretches where the things go unseen as the heroes try and figure out who is human, and who is a thing. There is the famous scene where MacReady thinks he finally has a way to delineate man from thing via blood test that shows how Carpenter builds up the psychological tension and then gives it a wondrously icky payoff.

If John Carpenter’s Thing was an example of an exceptional, well justified remake, than the 2011 re-remake by first timer Matthijs Van Heijngen Jr, is an example of a remake that has very little to offer.

Technically speaking, The Thing 2011 is not a remake, but a prequel (though they still titled it as if it were a remake). This immediately gets the film into trouble. What made Carpenters version work was that it was its own beast. It didn’t try to be anything like the Hawks/Nyby version, nor was it afraid to deviate from its literary source. It was a case of a young director taking per-existing material and putting his own, indelible stamp on it. In the process, Carpenter made his third classic film (after “Halloween” and “Escape From New York”). By choosing to set his film in the same universe as the '82 film, chronicling the events at the Norwegian camp before the Thing escaped and made it’s way across the Antarctic tundra to trouble Kurt Russell and his friends, Heijengen limits its potential, shooting himself in the foot right out of the gate.
There's another conceptual problem: the whole point of the Norwegian camp affair in the ’82 Thing was to foreshadow what was about to happen to the American camp. For those who saw the original, there's no extra mystery added by switching camps and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Final Destination 5), don't do much do exceed those rock bottom expectations. Yet again, an Antarctic research camp finds a flying saucer trapped in the ice. Yet again, the scientists find a passenger entrapped in a block of ice and bring it back to base only to see it thaw (this time it explodes out of the ice) and wreak havoc by imitating people. At this point it should be very clear that although this film is technically a prequel, it follows more than enough of the basic plot points to qualify as a stealth remake. 
But even from this compromised position, I'd like to think that a film can still recover. A good director, a good screenwriter can still make a worthwhile film. Unfortunately a series of poor choices Heijngen makes shows that he is poorly qualified to follow John Carpenter and Howard Hawks.

Firstly, while Carpenter populated his film with well defined characters, Heijngen populates his with monster food. Many times I found myself wondering who these people were and whether I should care about any of them. Second, in the Carpenter version, the monsters where intelligent. Only attacking when they had selected a good target or they backed into a corner. They bided their time, and were more chilling for it. In Heijngen’s version the things attacked whenever the screenplay was getting dull, which was quite frequently.

The monsters themselves looked good. I suspect that some of these designs could be made into popular action figures. However, the physicality of the monster has never been the scariest element in these films and in this new version the things are gooey for sure, but never was I scared of them. They are shown too often and too clearly. The film often feels like a run-of-the-mill slasher film with anonymous people hiding in the shadows, getting picked off one by one.

Adding to the films generic qualities are the unnecessarily, ubiquitous camera shakes, and a laughable musical score by Marco Beltrami. As the film goes on, it becomes more and more about connecting the dots between it an the original (incorrectly I might add) than telling its own story. The climax of the film takes place inside the flying saucer. The one location in the Thing universe even less in need of further investigation than the Norwegian camp.

The film wasn't all bad. There where some clever details. Like the idea that the things can't replicate non-organic matter. It's a reasonable idea that might help answer lingering questions from the '82 film. It pays off well in a scene involving tooth fillings. Also, it was interesting to see a female lead in this material and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) was fine casting. That said, because the film is set in 1982, you might expect sexual politics to play some role in the film, but they don’t. Also, more could have been done with the fact that this group of scientists where a multi-national crew. It could have been the American's vs. the Norwegian's vs. the Thing. But this film is full of stuff that could have been good had the filmmakers made the choice to pursue them instead of making a cookie-cutter monster mash.

So there we have it. This film has been made three times now. The material has inspired countless other films from Alien to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The material can work or not work. The versions that do work, work because their directors made intelligent choices in how to execute that material.  

“The Thing From Another World” B+
“The Thing” (1982) A
“The Thing” (2011) C

NOTE: If you'd like to know more about John Carpenter as a director and his version of  "The Thing,"check out this excellent review by Max O'Connell, over at our sister blog "The Film Temple"