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.