The Thing About The Thing

Barf!The Thing About The Thing:
A Few Words About the Hazards of Prequels, Sequels and Remakes

I want to take a moment to talk about last year’s prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 classic film The Thing, which is also titled The Thing.  No, this isn’t a review so much as it my thoughts on the merits and pitfalls of playing in John Carpenter’s domain.

Before we go on, there are a few things (ha!) I feel need to be pointed about Carpenter’s The Thing. When it was released in 1982, it was considered a failure by Universal Studios, the film’s production company.  The Thing debuted at number 8, opening in nearly 900 theaters, before sliding out of the top ten three weeks later.

On a budget of 15 million dollars (that was big money back then) it was only able to net 19 million.  After promotional costs, the share of the ticket proceeds that go to the exhibitors and other expenses have been subtracted from the box office, the movie probably lost a tidy sum.  Don’t feel bad, until recently, the rule of thumb is that wide releases make their theatrical run’s box office at least once over again from their home video release.  No studio execs were in danger of starving to death.

Though fans of the horror and science fiction genres slobber all over Carpenter’s The Thing  (ha!), myself included (double ha!), it opened to mixed reviews back in the day. The Washington Post’s  Gary Arnold called the film “a wretched excess.”  Roger Ebert had good and bad things to say calling it a “great barf bag movie.”

Lastly, some have pointed out, including John Carpenter, that The Thing was released two weeks after E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. They are suggesting that Speilberg’s decidedly chipper view of alien visitors sucked up all the sci-fi ticket dollars.  I find that point of view rather dubious.   I cannot overstate how big E.T.: The Extraterrestrial was that summer.  It was huge! Huuuuge!  People were going to see it two and three times or more that summer — more importantly they were taking the kids.  People were going to see E.T.: The Extraterrestrial that didn’t normally go to the theater to see science fiction movies. To better illustrate my point about that film’s reach consider this: My mom saw E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.  She’s never bothered to see Star Wars all the way through.   Blaming E.T.: The Extraterrestrial for The Thing’s poor returns is like blaming Carpenter’s poor box office showing with Village of the Damned on the release of Toy Story. Whatever the merits of the respective films, they are not for the same audiences.  The families waiting in line for an hour to see ET: The Extraterrestrial were not likely to pony up for a family movie night with The Thing.

Further, it’s not as if E.T.: The Extraterrestrial sucked up all the movie ticket money that summer.  A few weeks before the The Thing opened, Poltergeist began its run, taking in 10 million its opening week and eventually pulling in 120 million dollars at the box office.  Tron opened shortly after The Thing, was made on a similar budget and made 33 million in box office.  I’m guessing that there was more audience overlap between Tron and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial than there would have been with The Thing.

Previously, I have contended that there is a limited but dedicated audience for horror and science fiction and that these genre fans are pretty ready to open their wallets to see a quality film.  Carpenter’s The Thing was only a failure in that it wasn’t able to transcend the threshold beyond genre fans.  If Carpenter would have been able to make The Thing on something closer to 10 million (or less) the studio would have been far happier – maybe.  Perhaps Universal was expecting it to have crossover appeal like Alien as few years earlier.  Given the quality of The Thing, it wouldn’t be an entirely unreasonable expectation but for one factor, which I will get to in a little bit.

As far as contemporary critical reaction is concerned, the mixed reception is not surprising.  Films of any genre are made for fans of that genre.  Critics look at films in a technical way and review for a general audience.  Often times, not being genre fans, they don’t get it.  Many critics didn’t like The Thing, and many didn’t like Blade Runner either.  Both films came out at the same time and both, over time, became hailed as classics.

Now we come to The Thing (2011).  Producers Marc Abraham and Eric Newman, the two  responsible for the cash cow remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, decided that they wanted to do something with The Thing.  Universal, smelling money, gave them the green light.  It’s now time to slip with them down the rabbit hole.

Newman and Abraham have no fear of playing with genre classics.  That’s not unusual for Hollywood producers.  What is unusual is that Newman and Abraham have respect for the material. Moreover, I think that they have discerning enough taste to understand what makes a good movie, a good movie, within the genre.

When presented with the opportunity to remake The Thing from Another World, John Carpenter decided to go back to the short story Who Goes There? on which the original film was very loosely based. Carpenter’s The Thing is a pretty faithful adaptation of the original story. It was a good call by John Carpenter.  He at once remade a classic  film by his idol Howard Hawks and created something new.  He got to have his cake and eat it too. Newman and Abraham weren’t to have that easy out.  The studio, blood suckers that they are, would have been happy with a straight up remake. Newman and Abraham, realizing that would be a horrible idea, decided against it.*.

The next stop on the producer’s decision tree: sequel or prequel?  Both options have their pitfalls.  If you are starting from the end of the Carpenter film, you have to ruin its ending by explaining what happens next.  Either you have the Thing unleashed on civilization or you have it attack another isolated outpost.  If you are going to do the latter, you are just remaking The Thing.  If you take the other route and have it introduced into society you lose the scale and tension of the story.

A very real part of the horror is the idea that once introduced into wider civilization, it cannot be stopped.  By showing  that happen the tension created by the threat is gone.  You have to lay down the cards and show everything.  It’s horrible but not very satisfying.  One introduced into the wider world, it wouldn’t have to hide. The Thing would just kill, kill, kill for 90 minutes. The End.   It would be like having Jason, instead of sulking around Campy Crystal Lake at night,  stalking up and down Union Square in San Francisco during broad daylight hacking up tourists, homeless people and the guy carrying the sign about alien abduction. It’s horrible but it would make a boring movie (though maybe a fun YouTube clip).

The opening scene of The Thing (1982) a helicopter chasing a dog gives Newman and Abraham their out.  Just what did happen at the Norwegian base? Ah, ha! There is a way to remake The Thing without remaking The Thing.  I bet they thought they had found a way to have their cake and eat too, just like Carpenter did.

I have often wondered about the end of the Norwegian camp.   A man hanging out the door of a speeding helicopter desperately trying to shoot a dog running frantically across the ice is a rather dramatic way to open a film. It pulls you right in. Immediately you think, “Shooting a poor dog from a helicopter! Oh, my gawd!” and  “What the hell is wrong with these guys?” and “Wait! Is that Sarah Palin?”  There is a whole can of worms that wants to be opened.  The choice to tell the story of the doomed Norwegians seems a reasonable and natural one to me too.

Once the decision to tell the story of the Norwegian expedition has been made there are new problems, one of which problems is language. Do you film the movie in Norwegian and have subtitles?  Do you have them speak English and just repeatedly remind the audience that the characters are Norwegian?  Making a movie in anything other than English isn’t going to work.  Americans don’t like to read.  The only director who ever made a largely subtitled movie that Americans went to see was Quentin Tarantino.  He got away with it because he tricked people into thinking Inglourious Basterds was a Brad Pitt action film.  No, there will be no Norwegian language movie here.

The solution? Have an American introduced into the group that way everyone has to speak English with a Norwegian accent, except for the one or two characters that don’t know English.  It works. Americans, as we all know, only speak English, and some of us can barely do that.  We expect that everyone else in the world with half a brain speaks English.  It is a chauvinistic conceit that fixes the problem.  No American audience will wonder why all the Norwegians speak English.

The next problem is a visual one.  Do you have the Thing look and act as it did in the 1982 film?  Visually, Carpenter’s Thing was a huge departure from Howard Hawks’ 1951 movie, which featured  James Arness putting in a bald cap and Herman Munster boots.  The brave thing (ha!) to do would be to go in radically new direction visually. We have CGI (eccch!) and other technologies available now that open new vistas in effects.  Or do you take the coward’s way out and stand pat?

Newman and Abraham wisely decided to stay with look Rob Bottin cooked up for the 1982 film.  It’s gruesome. It’s effective.  It works well dramatically.  Having a character suddenly morph into a horrible mess of tendrils and teeth is far more shocking than having it  jump from the shadows or leap into the room from a window,  or make obscene phone calls from the other room but doesn’t preclude those options either.  In short, Newman and Abraham realized that they didn’t need to mess around with that worked so well for John Carpenter.

There is one last issue – characters. You can’t make this movie revolve around another MacReady.  We need to mix it up a little. This is side stepped by making the hero another Ellen Ripley. It’s not a terribly original solution but it works.  Speaking of unoriginal but it works, screen writer Eric Heisserer also lifts the Dr. Arthur Carrington character from the 1951 Hawks film, transforming him into Dr. Sander Halvorson.  Let’s compare and contrast the two characters: Carrington of the 1951 film is handled in a rather hammer-handed way. He’s the egghead who can’t or won’t see the big picture.  Halverson, in the 2011 film is far more insidious, more subtle.  He isn’t in love with the Thing like Carrington.  He is just indifferent to the suffering of his crew. Both characters are very similar in spirit and dramatic function.  Both are ostensibly men of science who endanger their respective missions. Both men, in the name of science, are largely motivated by the care and feeding their own egos, even  at the expense of others.  Story-wise, both generate dramatic tension until the Thing shows up.

Visually and in mood, The Thing (2011) ends up being an extension to the 1982 film.  You could watch them back to back and they will fit together like gore covered Lego.  You know pretty much how the film is going to end before it starts but that really doesn’t spoil it, for me at least.

In the end, the numbers speak for themselves. The Thing (2001) had a 38 million dollar  budget and took in 28 million in world-wide box office.  Given that revenue for home video has shrunk in the last few years, it’s going to take a long time for Universal to make their money back on this one.

The Thing (2011) wasn’t a bad movie.  Why did it do so poorly? Originality is about the only thing (ha!) this movie lacked. A lack of originality is certainly no impediment to profit; if it was Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked would not have made 300 million dollars last year. So what is the problem? I have an idea about this. Let’s do an experiment. Call your mom (or another older, non-genre fan), then find a child under the age of ten-years-old and a random non-genre fan. Ask all three of them the following questions: Can you describe a zombie? Can you describe the Thing?  I bet they can talk for days about zombies and will give you a blank stare when it comes to The Thing.

I suspect that the 2011 movie did poorly with general audiences because they had no idea what it was about.  There is no shorthand like, “Oh, it’s a ghost movie” or “It’s a vampire movie.”  The closest you come to that is “It’s a monster movie” which is pretty vague.  There was also no buzz. People were not seeing it then telling their friends to see it. Critics were not shouting from the rooftops.  There was no reason for people to want to see it.

Horror and sci-fi fans might have been more supportive of the movie. I am a horror fan and I didn’t go see it.  You might ask, “Rob, why didn’t you go see it at the theater?”  My answer, “Because Carpenter already nailed it.  What’s the point? I’ll probably catch it on Netflix.”  And that, dear reader, is exactly what happened.

In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t see John Carpenter’s The Thing at the theater either.  I saw Blade Runner, Poltergeist, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Creepshow, Amityville II: The Possession and The Beastmaster instead. So why on gawd’s green earth did I not see The Thing?  To be brutally honest, I had seen the The Thing from Another World and thought it was one of the most boring films  ever.  Watching a remake of a movie I found dull seemed a poor way to spend my limited movie money.

 

The Thing (2011) was doomed from the start.  It’s not part of a beloved franchise. It’s not something casual movie goers can immediately conceptualize, unlike zombies or vampires, so it’s not able to expand beyond the core horror audience.  The horror audience was lukewarm to the idea of a The Thing prequel as the 1982 film widely considered a classic that didn’t need to be touched.

In the end, Newman and Abraham made all the right calls in making the movie except for the first one – choosing to do it in the first place.

 

While I’m here, I’ll give it a rating.  The Thing (2011) is an entertaining but unremarkable movie.  It’s a nice extra to go with Carpenter’s 1982 film.

Three out of five Vincents
*Remaking Dawn of the Dead was also a terrible idea but they made it work.  Perhaps zombie remakes are more forgiving, consider Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead . Also, the performances in the original Dawn of the Dead were, in my opinion, pretty weak. Romero’s imagery is what made Dawn of the Dead iconic. Carpenter’s The Thing, on the other hand, was a uniformly strong film, benefiting from: a great cast, a good script, excellent source material and some of the best special effects ever.

4 Responses to “The Thing About The Thing”

  • Heather:

    Regarding the poor 1982 turnout, I’d add that it may have just been too gory for the general public and mainstream. When I saw it at the theater I was too busy being shocked at the FX and was unable to grasp the depth of the story. It was not until years later that I really saw the greatness of the Carpenter film.
    These days it’s nothing to see all that crap flying about on the screen, but in 1982 it was totally new. Yes, there were others beforehand, but these films were viewed by kids who went to the newsstand looking for Fangoria and made on a B movie budget. This was not your typical Saturday night date night horror show. Freddy Kruger was date night horror. The Thing was not date night material but I kind of think that is what the studio had in mind. JC made it big with Halloween, then came back with date night movies like The Fog, Escape from NY and Halloween II. This film was a radical departure from what the studio may have been expecting.

    Again, if I look back, the FX were a big deal in this one and may have overshadowed the story.

    It’s been a while since I watched JC’s The Thing with the director commentary on, but I seem to recall he and Kurt discussing the extremity of Bottin’s FX and how JC actually had to consider wheter or not to throttle him back a little, in the end deciding to let him go crazy with whatever he had. Kurt was just amazed that one could buy KY jelly in 5 gallon buckets.

    So that’s my theory. Bottin was unleashed on a world that was not yet ready for him.

  • Captain Midnight:

    That’s a very good point. I first saw it in 1983 or so on HBO. I remember thinking the sled dog scene was one of the most horrible things I’d ever seen in a movie. It really bothered me. IIRC the dog is a Stan Winston effect with Rob Bottin doing everything but that.

  • Scary Gary:

    I second the gore point. I don’t recall when I saw it first, but I remember my first impression was that it was nothing more than a gore-fest. I disregarded the film for decades. It literally wasn’t until I started listening to the Horroretc podcast that I decided to give it a second try. Then I was able to see past the gore and get to the heart of the story – the paranoia. Now it is clearly at the top of my list of horror films.

    • BigIKE:

      I would like to add my 2 cents. I remeber the summer of 1982 I was 7 years old. My dad was excitied about the The Thing we saw the trailer just before Rocky 3 came on. He was so hyped he thought was going to be like the 1951 version. I saw it and it blew my mind, its not scary at first because you think they will prevail but when Childs runs out, and you see Child’s from the Thing perspect and that creepy heart beat song comes on, you know shits bout to go down. The blood test awesome. IThat movie blew me away, and I always loved it, at 7 I could not understand it which made me love it. I got it but, you could not put a finger on the thing. Alien was great too but the thing took it further. Each time you saw the thing it was never the same monster each time. The ending was so unsettling too. “Maybe we shouldnt”. My dad hated it, and it was the first time he and I were at odds. He wanted a remake of Howard Hawks. It was good, but Carpenter’s on cerbral on so many levels, it was ahead of its time Regan years, aids extra. You all above hit on the head, “The Thing” did not have a true form or shape so its not a simple villain, and with its downbeat ending fans wanted to see scifi uppers. Had it been done in 1968 after planet of the Apes it would have been huge. But that was “The Thing 1982”

      Now we get into “The Thing 2011”. Same is true for this one too. Fans of horror want to see a less complex villain. Zombie and Vampier easily spotted. Paranomal , ghost are fears of the olden days so people relate to that. Im going to say it, but lets face it audiences today are not that sophisticated . They want the evil in their face. No suspense because super fast computer games and fast pace world. Now those are the non traditional fans of movies such as these. The real nails in the coffin comes from the “The Thing 1982 fans” themselves. Most never saw it in theaters and saw it years later like they will do with this. They are the type who would rather see it on cable bacause they are not the out going types. They wanted Carpenter’s Thing left alone. They hated on the fact this one has women in it. They refuse to support it. And they picked it appart . The biggest thing that was interesting to me, they hated the cut New York sequence. Listen to the gripes of the “The Thing 82” fans they are not to different from “The Thing 82” actual characters. For example they hated on a pretty chick being the lead, they wanted an all male cast. They even wanted the prequel cast to be totally Norweign. Now granted you want to be true to the art, but even art must give into Hollywood machine “what sales”. No in a way its an anti-social anti-pop culture view, like the character’s in Carpenters were anti- usa/civilization types. They secluded themselves from the world, did not look like much research went on down there. Blair was even half as compentent as Kate Lloyd “The Thing” would not had gotten as far. But thats it in the nut shell, the anti-social characters the drags of society is how The Thing beat them! Yes the thing can assume any shape, but it fed off their distrust that was already there for fellow man, and a screw him its all about me attitude. They never stuck together for any common goal and they were all each an island to themselves. The same as the fans. They hated on this thing from start to finish. They could have put their imput to make it better but rather than comprimise they just hated on it. It got to the point the stars of the film had to address the hate. Now the thing 2011 was not the film of 1982 not by a long shot. I think it could have come close if the original ending had stuck. Pilot rather than the tetris scene. I think they should have shown clips inside the spaceship of the thing assimulating 1 of the pilots as the opening. The suspense should have been a bigger build up like the juliette thing, should have Colin act strange and try to get in when they tried to get the keys. and waited then show Juliette thing. They needed more screen time with Sam and Jamison, they were too cool!!!!! The film was actually real good. though. it played out well. I think they should have kept the poster of Mac saying dont except rides from him in Carter’s office. Space ship interia could been better too. Carpenter’s thing was superior but this was a nice companion piece and the studio should have not ge rid of the live action thing outs, and not replace it with CGI. The Thing 2011 is a victim of the core fans. They could have rallied together and made this a success and got more of these great movies. But the thing 2011 lost because of the same reason mac and company lost people’s own anti/humanism . People sat on their own island like in 1982 and the characters in 1982 which is “The Thing” and “Poor Boxoffice” greatest strengh.

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