Editor’s Note: We have a brand new series to answer the “Really” questions over remakes these days. Are they really necessary? Do they always really get better? This “Take Two” series seeks to answer those questions with fact and opinion. If you have an idea for this series, DM us or our @theexportedfilm.
Remakes have been around since the early days of cinema. There is always someone in Hollywood who believes they can make a classic better or make a good movie into a classic with some fine-tuning.
Despite the increased focused on rebooting and updating classic films (I’m looking at you Disney), there have been remakes since the silent era. There are even some remakes that many don’t realize are remakes. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with a remake, but each remake varies in quality which is going to lead to comparisons.
And that is the premise of “Take Two”.
John Carpenter’s The Thing horror-science fiction classic in 1982 is one of the most common examples of a remake that certainly exceeds its original film in quality. Carpenter’s film has cemented its place in pop culture so well that some movie goers and horror cinephiles don’t even realize that it is a remake. In fact, John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece is a remake of a childhood favorite from Howard Hawks.
Let’s dig into the first take, first:
The Thing From Another World (1951)
Both versions of the film are based on the novella Who Goes There? by Joseph W. Campbell, which is about a group of scientists that discover an alien spacecraft buried underneath the ice.
In the original novella, the alien can assume the identity of anyone it devours. The 1951 film is only loosely based on that novella.
The Thing From Another World, directed by Christian Nyby and produced by Scarface and Rio Bravo director Howards Hawks (although it has been argued that Hawks was the one calling the shots), is a movie that mostly disregards the novella taking only the bare minimum of the original premise.
The ’51 Thing takes place in the arctic where an Air Force crew or personnel and scientists uncover a flying saucer and an alien frozen in a block of ice. They take it back to their base and the alien escapes the ice and hides somewhere in the base.
The movie is a slow burn, using its claustrophobic setting to build suspense. Dawn of the Dead director and father of the modern zombie film, George A. Romero noted that the movie is all about “opening doors.”
The characters are constantly opening doors, creating anticipation for what’s behind it. Eventually, the alien is behind the door creating a third act full of thrilling moments.
The movie was made in the early ’50s and shows signs of what the decade would hold for horror films. The 1950s horror film is defined by fear of the atomic bomb and fear of communism, which followed the Hollywood blacklisting from Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare. This was further propelled into the public eye when the United States got involved in the Korean War, a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The alien in the 1951 Thing is a representation of that fear. It came from other space, it feels nothing and has no redeeming qualities — much like how Americans viewed communism and Soviet Russia at the time.
The good guys are a group of morally superior United States Air Force members who are able to defeat the alien with extreme force. This “black-and-white morality” robs the movie of thematic depth but is typical of movies like it of that era.
Still, that isn’t to say The Thing From Another World is a bad movie, but it is a movie that finds its best fit in its era. On the positive side, you will notice the movie has a restraining factor that most B-monster movies of its era do not have.
When the film indulges on the side of the spectacle, the movie delivers. In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, the entire crew light the alien on fire (and by extension, the room) on fire. It is an incredible special effect for even today to witness entire room (in only a few shots) go up in flames as the alien battles our heroes.
Enter John Carpenter
The Thing From Another World was a classic B-movie and made an impression on many filmmakers of the era, including the filmmaker destined to remake it — John Carpenter.
The future master of horror has cited both Howard Hawks and The Thing From Another World as a major influence on his career, going as far as saying The Thing From Another World has several of the “all-time great scare sequences.”
Carpenter famously paid homage to his hero and inspirations by having young Tommy Doyle watch The Thing From Another World on TV while Michael Myers stalked babysitters in Halloween. Carpenter had no idea he would remake it only a few years later.
With the script in development at Universal Pictures, John Carpenter nearly didn’t take the job believing the Howard Hawks film would be hard to top. He took the job after reading the novella, for which the current script was far more faithful. Carpenter took on the project drawing on the novella and mystery stories like Agatha Christie. He also wanted to make the film true to his day like The Thing From Another World was true to its day.
The results? A vastly different film than what came before.
Take Two: The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s The Thing shifts the location towards Antarctica and drops the Air Force characters. The film’s tone is darker and far more cynical than the ’51 version.
Carpenter was a director that came out of the counter-culture movement and while his films aren’t overtly political (save for They Live) his films are more reflective of a post-Vietnam and Watergate world. The characters are more grey, Kurt Russell as MacReady isn’t the traditional “morally just” leader trying to hold his crew together; he makes just as many morally compromised choices as the characters around him do.
The film adopts the idea (again) that the alien can shapeshift and take the form of its host. This creates a situation where both the characters and the audience can never trust the characters on screen.
Several have tried to analyze the film is a metaphor for mutually assured destruction.
Coming out not long after the election of Ronald Reagan, Soviet Union-paranoia returned with a force that was reminiscent of the 1950s.
Carpenter’s film explores the idea of a small community tearing itself apart through paranoia and mistrust, a dark mirror of the McCarthyism era of politics. The film’s dark ending is ambiguous, the characters don’t know who the alien is, suggesting that they’ve lost themselves in this conflict.
The alien isn’t given much depth like the alien in the original film. The difference here is the alien causes division. We don’t know the backstory of the characters on screen but we see who are and what they become by the actions and choices they make on-screen. The alien might be an external threat but the conflict in the movie isn’t about the defeat of external threats, it is about the internal conflicts between characters.
John Carpenter stated in the documentary Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue, that there are two types of horror stories. He explained these two types of horror stories by presenting a scenario where a wise man is sitting around the campfire and is describing the location of evil.
- One story is where the wise man says the location of evil is “out there” in the woods.
- Then, Carpenter presents an alternative where the wise man says, evil is in here, it’s in our own human hearts.
The Thing is a story where evil is waged within the human heart. The threat might “come from the woods” but the conflict is in the human heart.
Which Thing Is Better?
The Thing From Another World is a far more simplistic tale as a monster invading a United States military base and the characters are forced to fight it with extreme violence and no remorse.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with a good-versus-evil tale (if that were the case, I wouldn’t be a Star Wars fan) but The Thing From Another World lacks the constant suspense and terrifying paranoia provided by the 1982 remake. From the opening frame to the final fade-out, John Carpenter’s The Thing is unrelenting suspense and has some of the most shocking moments of gore, practical effects, and body horror that has ever graced the silver screen.
This isn’t to say we should disregard The Thing From Another World. It is a film of its era and has several great scenes but political and thematically it isn’t as interesting as the bigger budgeted and faithful remake.
Check both out, but John Carpenter’s The Thing is an example of a proper remake. He takes a concept and updates it for the modern era with a filmmaker giving his own point of view on the story, while not being too beholden to the original and simply repeating the same story.
The results make for two vastly different films. You might enjoy the simplicity of the original but Carpenter’s The Thing is the one that is remembered for a reason and remains my favorite Carpenter film.
Not to mention, the 1982 film has Kurt Russell wearing the greatest hat in cinematic history, so the ’82 film has that over the original as well.