John Carpenter's 1982 masterpiece The Thing, based on the short story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr., was a huge flop upon release. When it first came out, the film was able to make enough money to reclaim its budget, but was for the most part a flop that was heavily criticized. In his movie guides, respected film critic Leonard Maltin would go on to describe Carpenter's film as "More faithful to the original story, but a nonstop parade of slimy, repulsive special effects turns it into a freakshow and drowns out most of the effects." Evidently he didn't see the same movie I did, because I what I saw was a suspenseful claustrophobic piece about a group of men who are easily turned against each other by paranoia.
There are many reasons posed as to why. One of the most commonly cited is the fact that E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial came out just before. That was a family movie about a friendly alien accidentally being stranded on Earth and engaging in light-hearted shenanigans as he tries to find a way home. Maybe people just preferred going to see the humorous and friendly alien over the terrifying shape-shifting monstrosity that featured in Carpenter's film, especially ironic given that when you really examine them The Thing is by far the better movie. Fittingly, the 2011 prequel, also titled The Thing, would have similar results at the box office (although with a slightly warmer reception).
Since then, like many of Carpenter's films, The Thing would obtain a cult following after playing on late-night television. Over time, people would begin to warm up to it, and now it is often recognized as a masterpiece of suspense and tension. What is easy to forget is that The Thing is a remake. Admittedly, it is a very good remake that might be better than the original, but what of the original? What was the original film like?
The 1951 horror film The Thing From Another World by Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks might not seem so scary now, but it was chilling when it first came out. John Carpenter himself first saw the movie in 1952 when he was about four or five, and according to him it was a movie so terrifying his popcorn flew out of his hands. To be fair, the idea of a "super carrot" (that description is literally used in the movie) is actually handled better than one would expect.
The Thing is obviously a man in a suit, but the filmmakers made the smart choice to show it as little as possible. We really only get a good look at it right at the end, and up to that point it is only partially seen, kept in shadow, shown very quickly, viewed from a distance, etc. Instead most of the movie is about the characters trying to deal with the problem once it gets out. In keeping with Howard Hawks' usual style, most of the plot becomes one of character interaction complete with his usual rapid-fire dialogue.
In many ways it's not hard to see the influence this had on a lot of later science fiction films. Its basic concept is remarkably similar to the plot of Alien. Aliens even led up to a really big fight scene with one of the marines watching and constantly reporting movement on his tracker very much like how the men in The Thing From Another World use a Geiger counter to tell when the Thing is approaching.
Carpenter evidently took a lot of inspiration from this 1951 horror classic. According to him, part of what led to him making The Thing was when he read the original short story in high school and realized how different it was. The Thing From Another World has very little to do with its source material. The Thing here is a vegetable (literally referred to as such by the characters) that is capable of reproducing various plant life, hardly the shape-shifting alien of Campbell's short story and Carpenter's version.
However, there are elements of Campbell's story that make it into The Thing From Another World. Among other things, the discovery of the Thing plays like in the story (an interesting contrast to the Carpenter film, which has a Norwegian expedition discover the Thing before it encounters the American protagonists). It is also the sled dogs who are the first ones attacked when the Thing gets loose, the Thing's severed arm suddenly coming to life is reminiscent of a plot point in both the book and the Carpenter film, and it is electricity that is finally used to destroy the Thing (in the book, this was the most reliable method, while Carpenter's version preferred flame).
In most respects, however, Carpenter's version is probably the closest to the original short story and goes in quite a few different directions although Carpenter clearly drew from The Thing From Another World. Probably the most obvious similarity is the effect used for the title card (in which "The Thing" appears to burn into the screen) that would in turn be copied for the 2011 prequel film.
Carpenter takes a very different approach in his work, going back to the original story instead of directly remaking Hawks' film. Like Campbell's story, Carpenter opted to create the movie with an all-male cast (both The Thing From Another World and the 2011 prequel introduced female characters). This actually lends a new dimension to the story and an additional layer of suspense.
It was only a few years earlier that John Carpenter accidentally created the slasher formula with Halloween. Subsequently, one usually gets an idea of who lives and who dies. The virgin girl is usually likely to live while her sex-obsessed friends get killed off in overly-gory ways. By switching things up and making an all-male cast, especially one where none of them are teenagers, it becomes much harder to anticipate who will live and who will die.
The big element that really fascinated Carpenter when making The Thing was the claustrophobia and paranoia. In The Thing From Another World the characters are simply unsure when the Thing will make its next appearance. Carpenter's film has the added element where the Thing could be... well.. anything. Imagine you are stuck inside this camp, and this creature is present and imitating some of your partners so perfectly that you never notice when it happened. You know that someone isn't human, but you don't know who, and how do you figure it out?
The Thing also relies on a small degree of subjectivity, since the fact that several plot threads are left unresolved. We never find out for certain who got to the blood or when certain members of the team were infected. Fuchs disappears for a while and later his body is found burned outside and we only get a few guesses as to why. Nauls disappears entirely in the film's climax (although there were practical reasons for this, he was originally supposed to be ambushed by the Thing like Garry but they couldn't get the effects right). Special mention goes to Blair, whose actions throughout the movie can take on whole new meanings depending on when you believe he was infected by the Thing.
The 2011 prequel, also titled The Thing would try and recreate that same sense of paranoia and claustrophobia and while not as successful it is a worthy effort. As unnecessary as a prequel was I can't fault the director for taking on the project (it was originally supposed to be a remake of Carpenter's film, which in turn was already a remake of The Thing From Another World, it's not hard to see where a prequel would have been preferable). Looking at that film, I get the sense that it was a group of fans of Carpenter's work who went in knowing they'd never top it and just did their best with the studio restrictions.
While I would still be interested in seeing a directors cut of some sort, given that the studio interfered a lot with the final product (they did originally use animatronics before the CGI was forced in against the will of the filmmakers), I can appreciate the effort that went in. The attention to detail at times is amazing and you can really tell the production crew wanted to be faithful to Carpenter's movie.
Ultimately, I'm not sure one could ever truly capture the sense of dread that came with the Norwegian Camp sequence of the 1982 film. In Carpenter's film, nothing particularly scary actually happens when Mac and Copper arrive at the Norwegian camp. What makes the scene so dreadful is just the knowledge that something really frightening happened here. The damage to the camp, the dark lighting, and even the frozen corpse of a man that cut his own throat open with a razor blade make that much clear. However, the 2011 prequel might be the closest anyone could get to achieving that aim.
Bringing the whole trilogy full circle, it is apparent that the 2011 prequel may actually have drawn from, in addition to Carpenter's The Thing, Hawks and Nyby's The Thing From Another World. This becomes most apparent when we look at a particular character from each. In the 2011 prequel, there is a character named Sander who comes into conflict with the other characters. He is fascinated by the Thing and even after it escapes and proves itself to be a threat he becomes determined to study it and understand it.
Another element that made Carpenter's film work so well was that all of the men tried to be professional. They made (sometimes fatal) mistakes but they seemed like real, rational people going up against something the likes of which they have no idea how to deal with. As the scientist whose pursuit of knowledge endangers everyone around him, he likely did not draw from The Thing, but The Thing From Another World had the very similar character of Dr. Carrington. Like Sander, Carrington was a scientist who was so obsessed with studying the Thing he is willing to put everybody's life at risk, even going out of his way to sabotage efforts to destroy it. It's not too hard to see where the connection comes in.
Ultimately out of all three "Thing" movies, Carpenter's is undoubtedly the best. That is the one that really has the fear and suspense, with effects that still hold up today and a sense of paranoia that allows it to continue to be effective on multiple viewings. That said, both the others are still decent and enjoyable movies in their own right, even if they're not as impressive.