Friday, October 14th, 2011

'The Thing' Is A Replicant Sent To Suck All Joy From Monster Movies

Monsters aren’t inherently interesting. Sure, by virtue of their being strange and menacing and outside the periphery of normal existence, they’ll usually hold our attention for 90 minutes or so. But their scariness is all in the context and presentation. And just as it’s possible to take a transcendent ensemble cast and putrefy it by adding Eli Roth (yes, I’m still pissed about that), so is it possible to make an utter yawn-fest monster flick. Case in point: The Thing, which opens today.

I’m one of those assholes who can prattle on for days about the 1982 version—seriously, just ask anyone who’s gotten stuck talking to me. It’s often credited (correctly) as the first great creature film. John Carpenter took a weird little movie (the 1951 The Thing from Another World) and plopped in a fantastic script, perfect pacing, Kurt Russell, and the best creature effects that anyone had ever seen. No CGI, no digital enhancing, just some dudes with a truck full of clay and fake blood.

Then there were Carpenter’s characters: a research camp full of isolated men (not a woman in sight, which honestly didn’t matter) who quite literally become the monsters. Once the mysterious beastie appears and starts killing and replicating everyone, the characters are reduced to twisting, shrieking, blood-spurting bodies—coagulated simulacra of humans. Set this freakshow in a desolate Antarctic base, then add a paranoia-laced script and Russell at his nihilist best, and there’s your friggin’ great movie.

Of course, what most of us don’t admit is that the real scare in the 1982 version wasn’t the monster, but the spectacle of the human body itself. Who isn’t a little terrified of his or her own body? I mean, look at this thing that we’re forced to live in. It’s mercurial, temperamental, unpredictable; it rips and cracks and oozes and swells and shrinks and bleeds and turns various colors and emits any number of viscous liquids and rarely, if ever, gives you an explanation why. Our bodies have an agenda that is entirely separate from our conscious minds, and the two don’t always communicate well, or at all. In a sense, your body is the ultimate prison—it’s going to do what it wants, and you are stuck inside with no escape. When you think about it, it's more terror inducing than a Perry-Bachmann ticket. Almost.

Cut to today, when we have director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. essentially saying, “Hey, remember that Carpenter flick? That was good shit. So good, in fact, that we’re not even gonna attempt a remake. Instead, we’ll give our movie the exact same title, but call it a prequel, to indemnify ourselves from charges of unoriginal assholery. And then we’ll go make the exact same movie, only draped in layers of humorless mediocrity.”

The remake's plot is a prosaic amplification of the 1982 film’s beginning, which opens with a helicopter trying to shoot a dog bounding across the snow. That opening is effective because it starts in media res. What Van Heijningen takes as his entire story was dispatched by Carpenter in a few minutes. Kurt Russell figures out that the dog comes from a Norwegian camp where everyone has been butchered by an alien capable of replicating its prey as a survival mechanism. Boom, done, plot explained, now let’s get to the escalating derangement of the surviving characters, and the attendant freaky gore.

The new version misses the point. We don’t need to know precisely what happened at that Norwegian base. And we certainly don’t need to spend 95 minutes exploring every detail. But hey, why not do it anyway, this time without a single iota of humor, suspense, or any of the elements that made the original great? Today’s cast is so dull, you want them to turn into the Thing simply so their faces will do something besides project a semi-comatose stupor. Mary Elizabeth Winstead puts her game face on as the paleontologist who figures things out, though even she walks around looking like she just popped two Klonopin. Granted, it’s not really a fair comparison. Kurt Russell can pull off perfect comedic timing while shooting a flamethrower, for Christ’s sake.

So yes, The Thing gets 1.5 chainsaws (out of five) for sucking all joy out of a horror classic. If you want a better scare, smash one of your digits in a door and watch what happens—now that's terrifying.

Melissa Lafsky, The Awl's Horror Chick, wants to be scared by your movie.

35 Comments / Post A Comment

Carpenter's The Thing is not only one of my favorite movies to watch over and over, it's also one of the best movies to watch with someone who is seeing it for the first time. Even for people who've been jaded by horror movies, it's a startlingly effective shot of the good stuff. God, I love that flick.

Thus, the existence of this remake / prequel / de-make is just, ugh. I don't even know. I'm going to go watch the original RIGHT NOW and be happily gobsmacked by its audacity.

Helio (#4,187)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose There isn't a movie that exists which I have recommended more than this one, especially after I saw the trailer for this wack remake. Ugh, couldn't they just re-release it and make it 3D like the Lion King?

And yes, it's re-watchability is remarkable.

riotnrrd (#840)

This movie is Exhibit #32742 in my ongoing case for why prequels suck. WE KNOW HOW IT ENDS, OKAY? We've already seen the "quel" you're pre-ing, so you better do something ASTONISHING within that box of known quantity. And nobody ever does.

Although, for a great, creepy inquel (I just made that word up), check out this short story:

riotnrrd (#840)

Also, have you seen this pair of videos:

The author explores, in excellent detail, the costuming and shot choices of Carpenter and what information they give you about who became infected when. All leading up to answering the question: was Childs infected at the very end?

deepomega (#1,720)

@riotnrrd The number of people who will care to read that story and enjoy it is vanishing, but it is fucking amazing. Everyone! Do what riotnrrd says! Read it!

@riotnrrd : In the DVD commentary, Carpenter gets into all kinds of technical detail about the camerawork and blocking ("and here's how I managed to fit the entire ensemble cast into a single shot"). Even for a non-film-school-guy, I have to admit it's genuinely interesting!

melis (#1,854)

@deepomega I just did and it was the best decision that I have made this week. Holy cow.

I hate that they've even attempted this. Carpenter's film truly scared the crap out of me. Has Wilford Brimley ever been scarier, outside of Cocoon?

deepomega (#1,720)

@Clarence Rosario What about The China Syndrome?

@deepomega Maybe the Quaker Oats ads.

keisertroll (#1,117)

@Clarence Rosario Cocoon II. Brimley's dunking skills were so good, it's scary.

HiredGoons (#603)

Remember when Hollywood used to make movies about things besides movies that they had made about things?

deepomega (#1,720)

@HiredGoons No! The Thing was a remake and was made before I was born! I'm thinking maybe this "before time" is a myth.

HiredGoons (#603)

@deepomega: Yeah, I know, but at least it used to seem less ubiquitous.

melis (#1,854)

@HiredGoons Tell us. Tell us about the Before Time.

deepomega (#1,720)

@melis *pulls up beanbag chair, looks up with eyes wide*

HiredGoons (#603)

@melis: It was the 1920's, and someone had gotten the brilliant idea to pump water from hundreds of miles away into a previously arid desert in order to build a massive city…

melis (#1,854)

@HiredGoons Who had this brilliant idea? Was it Noah Cross?

deepomega (#1,720)

@melis Hollis Mulwray.

HiredGoons (#603)

@deepomega: I'm pretty sure it was John Huston.

keisertroll (#1,117)


melis (#1,854)

Alameda? Jake, that's in Chi-

I know where it is.

keisertroll (#1,117)

@melis Alameda's also where the nuclear wessels are.

LondonLee (#922)

They suck all the joy out of everything these days. Even fucking superheroes have to be all grim and joke-less.

keisertroll (#1,117)

One of my alma mater's most famous alumni is the late Charles Hallahan, who as Norris was quite literally "The Guy From The Thing". When the school had their alumni weekend five years ago, his widow allowed them to show part of his death/rebirth/etc scene, but not his death scene from "Pale Rider".

Backslider (#819)

At the risk of being called a dick, I would argue that the absence of women was integral to the structure and quality of the story telling in Carpenter's version of The Thing.

No gender mixing in a horror movie means no easy romantic/sexy sub plots. The director has to focus on the structure and suspense of terror in a bigger way. Carpenter achieved that in The Thing. Not having seen this remake, I don't know if it fails in this regard, but I expect that it does.

melis (#1,854)

@Backslider You dick.

riotnrrd (#840)

@Backslider I agree, kind of? Egregious romantic/sexy subplots are a bane to good horror movies (and good movies in general) but I don't think you can blame the presence of women. Witness "Alien," one of the best horror movies ever made and contains two female characters. (Three if you count Mother). Or "House of the Devil" or "[REC]" or "Halloween", and so on.

Batsheva (#160,884)

@Backslider Isn't the fact that there are no women actually part of the horror?

@riotnrrd : You mentioned "Halloween", which is a great example of a long tradition of very good horror movies with all-female or female-dominated casts (cf. "Suspiria", "The Descent", etc.) So I'll agree : it's the inclusion of female characters strictly to create girl-in-peril moments or for gratuitous T&A that's the culprit here.

Backslider (#819)

(Confessing that I just drank half a bottle of wine) The opening of Carpenter's The Thing is so gripping exactly because they're trying to shoot a dog from a helicopter. As Sarah Palin has taught us, there's nothing more repugnant than shooting any member of the canine family from the air. If you're taking shots at a dog from a helicopter, you'd better have a goddamned good reason to do so, and we all know that inherently. Carpenter's is one of the best filmic openings I can imagine.

@Backslider : And they're not even really speaking Norwegian!

alorsenfants (#139)

Not one mention of Howard Hawks anywhere to be found here?

Man, you guys really are all so young!

Riggsveda (#9,425)

I have to admit that I was really looking forward to seeing this version. But even as an ardent lover of Carpenter's re-imagining of "The Thing" (it was the second-scariest movie I ever saw), I have to wonder about your assertion that it was "the first great creature film". Only 3 years before, Ridley Scott had transformed the science-fiction/horror genre forever with his own remake, "Alien", and it, too, contained "no CGI, no digital enhancing, just some dudes with a truck full of clay and fake blood"; and, of course, an old tank, some oven mitts, and the brilliance of H.R. Geiger. Taking nothing away from Carpenter, credit needs to be given where it's due.

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