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Friday, 10 June 2011

Comparing: The Thing From Another World - 1951 & The Thing - 1982

This month's Movie of The Month over at the LAMB is John Carpenter's Science Fiction Horror film, The Thing. Made in 1982 The Thing is a remake of a film named The Thing From Another World made in 1951.

I thought it would be interesting to watch both films and compare them.So here are my thoughts on each film individually as well as my thoughts on how the the remake compares to the original.

The Thing From Another World is a pretty generic Hollywood alien invasion film of the 50's, complete with anti-Soviet overtones and touches of sexism.
It was produced by the legendary Howard Hawks, yet he did not direct it entirely himself, he hired a certain Christian Nyby who is credited with the directing, however Hawks did co-direct it uncredited. Nyby went on to have a petty impressive career making crappy TV series.
It features a cast of little known actors, most of whom continued their careers in TV after this film.
None of the performances were very good, or particularly memorable with the exception of Douglas Spencer who managed to create an almost unbearably annoying character. If that was what he was aiming for, he deserves praise, if not then he truly is a terrible actor.

 It really is incredibly dated, very much a product of it's times. But it did have many admirable aspects that definitely placed it slightly above other films of a similar kind.
For it does have some genuinely tense and even thrilling scenes, however more often than not the tension is destroyed by the fact that the characters stroll around being witty even while there is a threat to their lives. This I found to be extremely annoying, as the writing successfully set-up some great scenes only to ruin them with some dialogue.
It will be very interesting to watch John Carpenters film to see how the representation of masculinity changed in between the 1950's and the 80's. But more on that later.

The premise revolves around a research station in the North Pole. The scientists that occupy it are perturbed by some kind of freak accident, they call the nearby air force base who sends a Captain and his crew to see what the trouble is. Upon arriving there they discover a "flying saucer" which they destroy by accident. However they do rescue a humanoid creature from the wreckage and return with this find to base. Soon though the creature defrosts from the block of ice in which it was trapped and proceeds to wreak havoc in the base.
One aspect of the film that surprised me was the fact that the creature was rather intelligently conceived. It was some kind of vegetable life form from another planet which had all the attributes of a vegetable yet required blood to feed. As one of the characters puts it, a "super carrot". Basically instead of animals evolving into humanoid characters, it had been vegetables on whatever planet it came from.
While this is pretty ridiculous, I still thought it was original and I liked it for that aspect.
Another aspect I liked was the division in between the humans, in between the scientists and the airmen. This conflict was basically an opposition between science and common sense but still provides for some interesting arguments.
The film as a whole though isn't a particularly good one, it's extremely average in fact, with several good elements which are unfortunately undone by the many flaws.
But for what it is, it deserves praise, an entertaining B-movie that manages to tone down the anti-Sovietism to a certain degree and creates something enjoyable enough to keep me watching but not great.

Now we have the remake, directed by the great and often underrated John Carpenter. The Thing is often said to be his best film, and I'd agree with that statement For it really is one of the greatest Science Fiction films ever made.
John Carpenter is mainly known as a B-movie director, bit with this film he shows extraordinary talent behind the camera and manages to completely break away from his B-movies roots to make a film that is stylish, impressive and filled with special effects  that are far more advanced than one would ever see in a B-movie.
The creature design in particular was terrific.
This film has some of the best special effects I've ever seen, they were quite ground breaking when the film was released and far more impressive and unique looking than much of the CGI imagery used these days.
Amazingly revolting!
The premise of this film is very different to that of the original, in fact only a few elements from the original have been kept, a couple of distinctive images and memorable scenes. Apart from that the whole premise has been altered and I must admit, vastly improved.
A research station in the Arctic is infiltrated by a shape shifting alien who proceeds to wreak havoc amongst the researchers.
This film is more intelligently written, it does away with any racist sentiments and completely eliminates sexism due to the fact that there are actually no female members of the cast, not one. This is even more manly than Reservoir Dogs. Some may say that a complete lack of women is sexist, but I think that having a female character who's only purpose is to read notes and make coffee (as is the case in The Thing From Another World) is far more sexist than having none at all.

Technically, Carpenter's film improves on the original in every way. The music by the celebrated genius Ennio Morricone is fantastical scary and to be honest I'm glad Carpenter hired him instead of doing his usual synthesiser thing which I hate.
I've already mentioned how brilliant the special effects are, and Carpenter's directing is very simple yet very effective, he doesn't indulge in any flashy shots or even any unnecessary shots, all he does in film the events competently and with an unflinching camera. It does get pretty graphic at times (hands bitten off etc...) but it was never to excessive I thought.
The script was a definite improvement as well. Gone is all the meaningless chatter from the original, instead it has been stripped to the essentials and there is little more. I liked this a lot and on a whole I think it's easily one of the more intelligent scripts Carpenter has put to film. Of course there are a few silly one liners thrown in here and there, but the whole premise was far more interestign than the "vegetable man" from the original.
And while the idea to the original film was interesting in it's own way, it was poorly executed. This film however is one of my favourite Horror films and one of the best Science Fiction films, I would say it surpasses the Alien films in the sub-genre of SciFi Horror.

Whereas the first film mainly used the conflict in between scientists and airmen for it's source of tension, that is done away with in this film. Instead we have a Thing that is capable of taking the appearance of anyone it comes in to contact with, even several people at once. Thus the source of tension becomes the distrust in between the characters as they can never be sure who is human and who isn't.
The tension isn't broken up by irritating comic relief as it was in the original film, and juts keeps getting thicker and thicker until the impressive finale.
Another aspect in which The Thing surpassed the original film is the characters, sure the characters in Carpenter's film were pretty stereotyped, you have the cool black chef, the nerdy guy, the doctor, the leader, the dubious one etc... But this distinctiveness worked in their favour I thought, it certainly made them more recognisable than the characters in the original, who were hard to tell apart and pretty uniform.
Both films are set in similar conditions, but I feel the remake captures the remoteness and the harsh conditions of the Arctic far better than the original.
This setting is key to the success of the premise, had it been set anywhere else to would have failed in my opinion. But the Arctic makes for a remote setting, thus no help is available, conditions outside are harsh so much of the film is set inside, and of course it creates an effectively claustrophobic atmosphere which works well with the themes of distrust, betrayal and trickery.

Despite the massively different premises and execution, the two films do share some similarities. Mostly of thematic nature, but some scenes of the remake are clearly references and homages to the original. Such as the block of ice containing the monster, the scenes of burning the monster (which are more effective in the remake I might add), the scenes of the characters nailing planks to reinforce the doors and a handful of other such touches.   That is as far as Carpenter went towards the original though, the rest is entirely of his (and his writing team's) creation.

All in all, it really isn't very fair to compare these films. While The Thing From Another World is definitely a better than average Alien Invasion B-movie, The Thing is a Science Fiction Horror masterpiece and Carpenter's best film.
This is one of the rare examples of the remake improving on the original in every way, and one of the reasons I am not entirely against remaking films.

Have you seen both films? If so, which do your prefer? 

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