A creepy shapeshifter from outer space.

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*Note: I do know there is a 1950 version of this film, but I could not find it available through my streaming services. A review of this version will come later if I can find the film.

1981:

The Thing is, in my opinion, one of John Carpenter’s best films. For horror/adventure fans, there is almost nothing lacking in this story. The film has been a favorite of mine for years and the special effects have aged incredibly well. Part of this is due to Carpenter’s mastery of puppetry and effects and his seeming unwillingness to cut any corners.

The Thing tells the story of US researches in Antarctica who discover a Norwegian outpost that has been destroyed. During their search, they find the remains of an alien life form. The alien is not dead (in fact, the dog at the beginning is not really a dog), and this species can transform into anything it comes into contact with. Isolated, cold, and scared, the researchers must now fight to determine who is human and who is an alien.

The premise is simple, perhaps overly simple, but it still works. Dozens of horror films have gone for the “cabin in the woods” type horror where our characters are isolated, but The Thing does it perfectly. Trapped by distance, weather, and sabotage, there is no realistic way for them to be rescued. The tension and claustrophobia make the film move at a relentless pace, but there is still enough time for character development.

None of the characters seem out of place. None of their reactions seem too over the top. How Carpenter manages to pull this off (time and time again) is completely beyond me. There is both a campiness and a fun-ness to this movie that somehow makes the scary aspects work better. Directed with the calm hand that allows the scenes to unfold to intense climaxes makes this a film you should not miss.

Lastly, the special effects need further praise. The puppetry of the monsters is so bizarre that they are fascinating to watch. The head-spider-thing (just watch the film—this description doesn’t do it justice) is hilarious and terrifying at once.

What the Thing is, and what is can and cannot do are an interesting question. The best aspect of this story is trying to work with the characters to determine who is who. A creepy story with greatness all around it. Of the 1980s, this is possibly my favorite horror film (and I know that is a bold claim). 10/10

2011:

The 2011 film is technically a prequel, but in reality it is nearly a shot-by-shot remake. While this film might not completely fit the bill of a remake, it is close enough in my opinion. Although it is obviously a loving ode to the Carpenter version, this film does not live up to the original, despite the good acting and the decent effects.

What exactly causes this film to suffer is not necessarily obvious. As said, on the surface, it seems to have everything going for it. We follow Kate Lloyd, and American scientist who travels to the Norwegian outpost after they discover the alien ship. Lloyd, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead differs from MacReady (Kurt Russell) in the original in that she is an outsider. When we first meet MacReady in the original, he is a hardened pilot who seems to be the second-in-command of the group. The people trust him and know him—this formula helps the audience know and trust him as well. Lloyd is at a disadvantage: we see the characters through her fresh eyes, which makes them seem distant and less knowable. While this is only a slight issue, it did affect the character relations.

Further complicating the characters is that there are simply too many. At two separate intervals in the film, is is shown that four characters die at once (though the pilots survive the crash). Four deaths at once shows how throw-away a lot of these characters are. For many of the deaths, it seemed like “random Norwegian dude gets killed” must have been in the script. The 1981 version could also arguably suffer from this to an extent, but we knew the team. Here, I do not know what all of the people did (and having just watched the movie I have already forgotten most of their names). A movie like The Thing basically demands two characters die at a time—one who is revealed to be the alien and the victim. Why they chose to up this ratio is not entirely clear.

The more CGI heavy effects look good now, but I do wonder how they will age in comparison to the 1981 version. The creature is creepy; there is no way around it. With any prequel, the creators must be cautious to not overtake or contradict the original. Why the creature seems so much more mobile (and less vulnerable exposed) is not fully explained. Further, we as the audience (more than likely) know how this story is going to end, which makes the suspense feel more manufactured than natural. I recognize that this is a problem of genre, but it is hard to separate such things completely from the film.

The aesthetic of the film is perhaps the most problematic aspect for me. Carpenter had the advantage of filming a movie set in the 1980s in the 1980s. The prequel didn’t work as well. The bungalow the survivors stayed in looked almost identical, but everything has a new and fresh shine to it. The clothes were too bright, hair too clean, paint too new. Everything looked like it could have been from 2011, not 1982. The design of the film is an unfortunate mistake, and while it does not ruin the film, it is hard to separate ourselves from it.

Oddly, the aesthetic of the cold is also lessened. The characters simply don’t seem as cold in this version. (Perhaps we are arguing the Norwegians are more acclimated?) The outpost doesn’t seem as isolated. My theory on this aspect is that when we meet Lloyd, she is not in Antarctica but in a lab elsewhere. Seeing the characters “home” changed the dynamic of the film in a way I don’t think the creators foresaw.

Despite all of these shortcomings, there are some good moments in this film. Lloyd is an intelligent and likable protagonist. She finds a creative way to determine who is human that is different from MacReady’s fire and blood test in the original. The creature is still very much the show-stealer, as each new mutation and transformation puzzles the mind. I appreciate this film and think that it did a decent job. While it does not ascend to the realm of greatness of Carpenter’s version, it also does not deserve the scorn it received. 7/10

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