Well folks, it’s the Halloween season, and you know what that means.
Time for me to finally dust off the old Film Library section of this website, and discuss a horror novel and the movies that it inspired. I haven’t done one of these in a shockingly long time, a fact I’m quite embarrassed about, but Halloween has always been a really good excuse for me to tackle one of these projects. Because, who doesn’t love to saturate themselves in horror stories around Halloween? And, this year I decided to take a trip to the frozen South by discussing one of my favorite horror films of all time, John Carpenter’s the Thing. And, in case you weren’t aware, the Thing is indeed based on a novella called Who Goes There? and was even previously adapted as a 50’s sci-fi film called the Thing From Another World. Not quite as ambitious as some of the other stories I’ve tackled for these Halloween posts, but still a really fun trip into the spooky world of alien invaders, while delivering three really unique stories. So, bundle up, and let’s get talking about shape-shifting aliens, flame-throwers, and carrots.
“Just because its nature is different, you haven’t any right to say it’s necessarily evil.”
This whole icy adventure began in the mind of John W Campbell, Jr. Campbell was a science fiction author and the editor of a popular sci-fi magazine known as Astounding Science Fiction. He wrote numerous novels and novellas, under both his own name and several pen named, all while editing the magazine. He was also kind of a crappy guy, having very bad opinions on race, politics, and health, but he was also someone living in the early half of the twentieth century, so I guess that’s not particularly shocking. Campbell isn’t a particularly well-known author, but he’s considered a foundational figure in American science-fiction, mentoring and befriending several authors who would go on to define the genre in the 1950’s, while pushing Astounding Science Fiction in new directions. But, scanning through his works, it’s pretty easy to say that Campbell’s biggest influence on the world of science fiction, and the work that he’ll most be remembered for, is a novella that he published in 1938 called Who Goes There? And, primarily just because of the incredibly famous adaptation that it inspired, while I feel like few people may realize that the film was based on a novella. Which, is a shame, because it’s a quick, brutal, and very enjoyable read.
The novella is a finely tuned narrative, really only coming in under a hundred pages. But, it wastes no time. It tells the story of a group of 37 scientists currently living in Antarctica, studying the South Pole, and running all manner of experiments. However, they notice a strong magnetic pull from a location other than the Pole, and seek it out, finding a frozen space-ship deep under the ice. And, they also spot the corpse of an unrecognizable creature, seemingly trying to escape the ship. It’s a terrible abomination, with three eyes and red snake-like hair. And, they become instantly fascinated with it, especially a biologist named Blair. He convinces the rest of the scientists to bring it back to the base so that they can thaw it and experiment upon it. Which is, not surprisingly, a bad idea. Once the creature thaws it comes back to life, and immediately starts killing people. Plus, as they learn later on in the story, the creature has the ability to transform itself into other shapes and sizes, even replicating itself into multiple living beings.
But, the group learns about the Thing when it tries to replicate one of the sled dogs, drawing quite a bit of attention while the dogs lose their minds. The scientists realize what is happening, and quickly accept the ramifications of what would happen if this shape-shifting creature were able to escape Antarctica and reach a populated area. So, they begin destroying any source of escape, while pairing up and keeping an eye on everyone. Some people begin cracking under the strain, such as the biologist Blair, who is locked up in a room by himself to keep himself safe. At which point they begin trying to ascertain who is human, and who is Thing. They device a blood test, but it ends up proving inconclusive, suggesting that many people may already be Things. A man named McReady takes over, after the test does manage to show that he is a human, and he continues the testing, trying to find a way to discover the Thing. Which, they’re eventually able to do after realizing that even a small piece of the Thing is a thinking being, able to react. So, They begin drawing blood from everyone, and threatening the blood with electrocution. The human blood obviously doesn’t react, but the Thing blood reacts like a living creature, thus proving who can be incinerated with a flame-thrower. It all eventually comes down to testing Blair, who is revealed to have been replaced, giving the Thing a week of solitude where it began work on an atomic reactor and an anti-gravity device it could have escaped with. But, they’re able to kill the final Thing, saving the world from it’s impossible threat.
It’s hard to put the Thing aside while reading Who Goes There? since I was so familiar with the film. But, doing my best to read this story as it’s own independent piece of storytelling is still a very rewarding experience, delivering a tense, scary, and quick little read. It makes sense that this story appeared in a magazine, thus giving it no real breathing room, but also no real room to get lost in the weeds. While researching this piece I learned about the idea that this story was only part of a larger novel that Campbell never actually published, and which is now available. But, honestly, I’m not really all that interested in reading that book. Partly out of laziness, and partly out of a strange feeling that book published after author’s deaths sometimes don’t contain the legitimacy of one published when they were alive, but also because I think that this story works best in the form that it’s in. It’s a tight, frenetic read, grabbing you immediately and throwing you into a paranoid world where everything seems to be happening at once, instantly disorientating you. Which, is exactly what this story needs. It’s a microdose of anxiety and dread, and Campbell handles it beautifully, giving you a story you could easily knock out in a single sitting, but that will sit with you for days to come, giving you a chill and a paranoid sense of those around you.
THE FIRST FILM
The first attempt to adapt Campbell’s novel came about in 1951 when a certain special genre was absolutely burning up the big screens. In the aftermath of World War II, when humanity’s power over science lead to the most devastating weapon ever created being unleashed on an unsuspecting world, instantly getting people fascinated in science, and the horrors that it could cause. And, with that fascination in science, the atom, and space came quite a lot of interest in monsters from space, leading to the surge in sci-fi films that have come to define the 1950’s. And, wanting in one the fad, producer Howard Hawkes teamed up with RKO Pictures to make their own alien picture. At which point screenwriter Charles Lederer began adapting Who Goes There? taking the horror of being trapped in the Arctic with a killer alien, added a dose of Red Scare paranoia, and created The Thing from Another World, which went on to become one of the more highly regarded sci-fi films of the decade. It also remains kind of famous for being one of those movies where no one can really agree on why actually directed it. It’s credited to Christian Nyby, and lots of people involved in the production agree that Nyby was indeed the director. But, there’s also a lot of people who insist that Nyby actually had very little to do with the film, and it was actually directed by Howard Hawkes, who seemed to dip his toes into just about every genre. None of that is exactly pertinent, but I always find these sorts of directorial urban legends fascinating. Because, regardless of whoever actually did direct the film, it does feel exactly like what you’d expect a Howard Hawkes 50’s sci-fi film to be like, which certainly isn’t something I’ve ever experienced before.
The story begins in Anchorage, Alaska when a reporter named Ned Scott runs into Captain Patrick Hendry, a member of the United States Airforce. Hendry and some of his men are preparing to fly to a United States base near the North Pole, where they’ve been summoned by the scientist in charge of the base, Dr. Carrington. Apparently he has discovered something strange there, involving a crashed vehicle, and he needs the Air Force to help. And, smelling a story, Scott decides to accompany them to the North Pole. Once there, Hendry begins meeting all the assorted scientists and staff working at the base, and in the process finds that he’s intimately familiar with Dr. Carrington’s secretary, Nikki Nicholson. The two had been in love at one point in time, and their flirtation immediately rekindles, almost distracting himself for the real reason he’s been brought here. They found a flying saucer! Apparently while doing some research at the base they discovered the ship, and with the Air Force’s help they go to investigate, attempting to thaw the ship with thermite. Unfortunately, it ends up destroying the craft in the process. But, on the positive side, their Geiger counter does pick up a radiation spike that ends up being the frozen body of one of the aliens. So, taking that as their consolation prize, they bring the frozen corpse back to the base to continue examining it.
Hendry takes over control of the base, and encourages the scientists to leave the corpse alone, worried at what it is. He orders one of his men to stand watch over it, and the man ends up accidentally thawing the creature with an electric blanket while trying to just keep it covered so he didn’t have to look at it. Eventually the creature thaws, comes to life, and immediately starts wandering the base so it can attack the sled dogs. This causes quite a bit of attention, and as the soldiers arrive to find the strange scene the Thing escapes, but its arm is left behind. The scientists begin examining the arm while the soldiers begin hunting it, and find that the alien appears to be an advanced plant form, even going so far as to referring to it as a “super carrot.” All of which confirms to Dr. Carrington that this is a superior being that they must bow down to and accept as their master. Meanwhile, the soldiers have discovered two things. The Thing is hiding in the greenhouse, and it apparently is killing people and drinking their blood. They begin fighting with the Thing, but an oncoming storm forces them to abandon the Thing in the greenhouse. Which gives Hendry the chance to come up with a plan. They’re going to light it on fire. They draw the Thing into the laboratory with some blood, and end up dousing it in kerosene and igniting it. But, the Thing escapes back into the base, extinguishing itself and then attacking the base’s furnace, dropping the temperature for everyone. To which the humans come up with a plan to electrocute the Thing, reducing it to a pile of ash as it come lumbering towards them all. And with the Thing defeated, they allow Scott to report this fantastical story, informing the world that there are aliens, and that they want us dead.
The Thing From Another World is actually a pretty strange movie. On the one hand, it’ s a pretty clear-cut example of a 1950’s sci-fi movie. I’ve seen far too many movies like this, predominately due to my deep love of Mystery Science Theater 3000. And, that means we get a whole lot of talking about aliens, but not a lot of actually seeing aliens. Instead, we see a bunch of greasy white people sitting around in offices and labs, telling us that something horrifying is going on that the budget couldn’t produce, so instead we’re going to listen to a lecture on pseudo-science and morality, all until a legitimate monster can show up at the very end to be vanquished. And, there’s a certain charm in that formula. But, where so many of these 50’s B-Movies fail is that fact that we’re required to spend to much time with some weak actors delivering drivel. But, regardless of how involved Howard Hawkes was with the film, one of the biggest trademarks of his work is quick-witted dialogue delivered hilariously. And, this movie kind of gets that across. Yeah, it could mean Hawkes directed it, or that Nyby just did his best Hawkes impression, but regardless, we get something very familiar done with more skill and panache than normal. It’s a movie where we sit around with a bunch of people talking about a Thing rather than seeing it, but at least it has fun dialogue instead of people rambling about atoms. All while propping up an incredibly paranoid bit of fear regarding the Russians, whose base is explicitly name-checked, as if we wouldn’t pick up on the terrible fear of Communism that’s pervading this whole thing. Because what’s a 50’s sci-fi movie without a heaping dose of anti-socialism?
THE SECOND FILM
Of the three stories we’re discussing today, John Carpenter’s the Thing is hands down the most famous. It’s the reason I decided to make this my Film Library post, because the Thing is one of my absolute favorite horror movies, and when I realized that it was based on a novel, and had a previous adaptation to boot, I knew it was time to discuss it. It’s one of the scariest and most upsetting horror movies I’ve ever seen, and it represents perhaps the high point of practical visual effects, pulling off some of the most bizarre and hideous sights any film has ever contained. And, it didn’t even begin as a passion project. Apparently Hollywood spent most of the 1970’s attempting to get a remake of the Thing From Another World off the ground, one that would skew more closely to the source material, and after going through several directors and iterations, the project was eventually proposed to Carpenter, hot off the heels of success with Halloween. And, he wasn’t that interested. He seemed to think that the original film was fun, and didn’t think he’d be able to make something better than it. But, after reading the novella and realizing how creepy and strange the source material truly was, he started to get a different feeling. He ended up pairing with screenwriter Bill Lancaster after looking through a litany of terrible sounding script ideas, and the two hammered out the plot for their film, taking elements from the novella and the original film while adding new concepts as well. Carpenter then had to deal with the most terrible and complicated aspect of the film-making. The effects. Universal Studios has always been known for their monster films, but it’s generally been make-up that brought these horror figures to life. But, Carpenter’s plans for the Thing went far beyond anything done before, and his work with special effects artist Rob Bottin ended up dwarfing any creature effects that Universal had ever given before. And it all came together to create a film that absolutely did not connect. The film was a massive failure, both critically and commercially, and was haled as one of the most hated films of the year, if not all-time. Which, certainly seems a little insane nowadays when it’s considered one of the finest horror films ever made. People have suggested that part of that may have been due to the fact that it was an incredibly dark, nihilistic horror take on aliens with truly upsetting gore which just put people off since it was coming out at the exact same time as E.T. which was basically the exact opposite. That’s a kind of hilarious double-feature to consider, but I don’t know if that’s legitimately the cause of the massive disconnect when it was released. Regardless though, the film eventually found its audience on home media, creating a legitimate cult phenomena. that would eventually lead it to be viewed as the beloved piece of horror fiction that it is today.
The film takes place at an American research station in Antarctica, when the folks inside notice a helicopter from a nearby Norwegian research base chasing down a fleeing husky. The Norwegians attempt to kill the dog, and in the process are shot and killed by the Americans, who think that they’re being attacked. No one know what is going on, but they invite the dog into the base, and a group of Americans, including helicopter pilot MacReady, head to the Norwegian base to see what’s going on. And, they find a burned and destroyed base, containing several incinerated and malformed corpses, and a large block of partially thawed ice. They take some research logs, and the mysteriously malformed corpse, and return to begin studying what’s going on. The corpse proves to have normal human organs, but things start to get strange when they watch some footage of a Norwegian expedition to a strange location in the Arctic ice, which contains a partially buried spacecraft, which they guess has to have been covered for 100,000 years. And, in all of this chaos, they don’t think to wonder about the dog, who has been wandering the base the entire day, until it’s placed in the kennel with the other dogs. At which point the dog reveals itself to be a shape-shifting alien, dissassembling itself and attempting to eat and process the other dogs, and drawing the attention of the entire base, who now realize that they have an alien on their hands.
They incinerate the Thing, but part of it escapes into the base, leading them to go into emergency mode. Biologist Blair starts to run some predictive models that show that the Thing would destroy the world if assimilated into the general population, and immediately gets to work destroying all of their vehicles, just in case. And this fear is enhanced when the Thing manages to take the form of Bennings, one of their scientists. They catch the Thing mid-transformation to Bennings and incinerate it, but become worried that part of it is still roaming around. They attempt to verify their own identity with some blood samples, but the samples prove inconclusive, and they instantly become suspicious of each other. Especially when they find a ripped up jacket belonging to MacReady, assuming that that means the Thing has gotten to him. The rest of the men try to kill MacReady, but he defends himself, and in the process a man named Norris appears to have a heart-attack. But, when they try to resuscitate Norris his entire body ruptures and a massive Thing escapes, killing their physician Clark before it too is incinerated. At this point they come up with a new test, realizing that every little bit of the Thing is sentient. They draw blood from everyone and poke it with a hot wire, figuring that infected blood would try to defend itself.
Which, turns out to be the case. A man named Palmer is revealed to be a Thing when his blood reacts violently to the wire, causing Palmer to become a horrible creature and attack them, killing their radio-operator named Windows. The rest of the crew is deemed human at this point, until they realize that they’ve kept Blair locked up ever since he destroyed the vehicles. So, they go to find him, and realize that Blair has become a Thing, and has escaped to build some sort of spacecraft. At this point four men survive, MacReady, Childs, Nauls, and Garry, and they decide that they’re going to plant explosives around the base and destroy it, hopefully killing the final Thing left. And, in the process the Thing manages to kill Garry, and supposedly Nauls, but does end up getting blown up when MacReady finally detonates the explosion, destroying the entire base. He does manage to find Childs though, and the two defeated men sit down in the snow and share a drink, neither one trusting that the other isn’t in fact a Thing.
The Thing is a glorious, disgusting, horrifying film, and I love it dearly. It’s the kind of movie that my older cousins showed me when I was far too young, and was obviously repulsed by, but also fascinated by. I’ve always been a movie dork, and the effects in this film were at once horrifying and tantalizing, the kind of thing that I would stare at, despite being terrified of, trying to figure out how in the world it was accomplished. Bottin’s creature effects are some of the most impressive of all time, representing a true peak in practical effects, all coming together to create one of the more terrifying monsters in all of cinema. I really love Carpenter, and one of the things that I love most about him is the fact that he’s been able to make so many different horror movies that have different sorts of horror in them. He can do slasher, psychological, ghost story, and existential horror, and do it all well. But, from his entire filmography I think that this is his most frightening film. And, not just because of the terrifying and disgusting creature effects. Carpenter manages to make an incredibly claustrophobic horror film that makes you feel trapped and terrified, giving us a bunch of men screaming in terror while witnessing something that defies description or explanation, and doing everything in their power to defeat it. It’s a film about the horror or seclusion and failure, showing every single plan of their fail to this unstoppable force of nature as it eviscerates and assimilates everyone around them, forcing them to remain resolute in the face of pure insanity. It takes the vague implications of Campbell’s novel and brings them to their most gut-wrenching conclusion, creating pure, beautiful nightmare-fuel.
John W Campbell really struck upon something fascinating and terrifying when he wrote Who Goes There? He was able to mix a fear of the unknown, a fear of isolation, a fear of being replaced, and a fear of everyone around you into a perfect storm of paranoia and terror, creating a novella absolutely brimming with mood and fright, which has gone on to leave a pretty indelible mark on the psyche of media. A terrific story of aliens and the fear of others, which has made for two very interesting adaptations.
That said, The Thing is the best.
Who Goes There? is a very interesting concept but it’s really just a small morsel of a story. It’s overflowing with needless characters and jam-packed in a relatively short length. But, what we get is a lot of fun. It’s tense, it’s scary, and it’s a great starting point. The only problem is, I can’t quite tell what it’s really going for. Other than a fear of those different than you, I can’t put my finger on what Campbell’s Thing was supposed to represent. Not that it really needed to represent anything, I guess, but it just seems like he was going for something by creating a creature that could totally and complete replicate a person that you knew. But, is it the rise of Nazis? An early fear of Communism? I’m just not quite sure, because there’s no real insight into anything. It’s a plot summary. It’s a good summary, and you can knock it out in an afternoon, which I recommend, but it’s just kind of a starting point for something better.
And, despite the accolades that it receives, I’m just not sure that The Thing From Another World is where that starting point needed to end. The movie is largely fine, just feeling like the perfect example of a 50’s sci-fi film, for better or for worse. Honestly, the strangest aspect of the film may be the Howard Hawkes influence, giving us some quick-witted dialogue and witty banter between two love-birds in between them fighting a sentient carrot. The film loses most of the interesting aspects of the novella, instead just really becoming a monster movie set in an isolated frozen land. Hell, they even go to the North Pole instead of the South. And yet, weirdly, they also put in a heaping dose of anti-Communism fear, specifically name-checking the Russians in the beginning of the film, only to then go on to make a story without any shape-shifting, kind of ruining any sort of commentary on McCarthyism, and really just becoming a story about a pissed off vegetable man.
But, just a few decades after, John Carpenter and crew were able to take the launch pad that Campbell’s novel created and make something beautiful with it. The Thing is an absolute masterpiece, taking everything that worked about the novella, stripping away what didn’t, and adding enough to make it feel like a fresh story. It innovates while respecting the source material, and serves as a high-water mark for horror film-making. It’s a monster movie with a lot of its mind, which has led to endless analysis. It could be a movie about Communism, it could be about the burgeoning AIDs epidemic, it could be about mutually assured destruction and the general nihilism of the 1980’s. Or, it could just be about how scary aliens are. Or, it could be about all of that at the same time. It’s a movie of its time, leaning on generations of storytelling to make the ultimate scary story, and it’s a sheer delight. So, get cold this Halloween, and stare abyss in the face.
Who Goes There? was written by John W Campbell, Jr, 1938
The Thing From Another World was written by Charles Lederer, directed by Christian Nyby, and released by RKO Radio Pictures, 1951
The Thing was written by Bill Lancaster, directed by John Carpenter, and released by Universal Pictures, 1982.
Categories: Film Library