Nope, this post is not about characters created by Dr. Seuss. (I don’t even think there was a Thing 3.) It’s about three science fiction/horror movies that share a commonality of title, spread out over the unbelievable period of six decades. This is about—The Thing.
Well, at least the majority of people think that the three films, from 1951, 1982, and 2011, have the same title. But in truth the original bore the longer title of The Thing from Another World. The late James Arness, he of Gunsmoke fame, played the wayward creature from space, and forever after the movie was referred to as simply, The Thing. And if you want to get technical, the 1982 version was promoted as John Carpenter’s: The Thing. But really, who gives a rat’s butthole?
THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951)
Thing 1 is based on a 1938 novella titled Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell. The film is a classic, and still has the chops to creep viewers out with its subtle buildup of terror. Some of it can be attributed to the overdramatic weird music that accompanied so many 1950s films of this genre. The story takes place at a research station near the North Pole where a bunch of scientists, Air Force guys, and the requisite good-looking secretary make a startling discovery: a flying saucer buried in the ice, and a humanoid life form that apparently got out of the ship and was flash frozen nearby. They carve out a block of ice containing the humanoid and take it back to study. But the genius guarding it, creeped out by looking at the humanoid’s face, covers the ice with an electric blanket and falls asleep. Oh crap!
Yep, the ice thaws, and The Thing (Arness), brought back to life, escapes out a window into the snow, where it is attacked by sled dogs. It runs off into the night but leaves behind an arm, which excites the scientists no end. As they study it, the arm starts moving. Seems that the alien is a vegetable (a sort of giant carrot) and can reproduce itself—but it also needs blood to survive, as it later kills and bleeds one of the dogs.
Thus begins a familiar conflict: the scientists want to continue studying it, the military guys want to blow it out of its socks. The head scientist removes seed pods from the creature’s arm, incubates them with blood, and they start growing (at rapid speed) a bunch more of the little beasties. Other scientists guarding the greenhouse containing the plants are killed by The Thing. (Off screen, of course; this was the 1950s.) It attacks again, but the military guys torch it, and it runs back into the snow.
Now all but the head scientist are convinced the creature has to die, especially after it sabotages the heating system and tries to freeze them out. They set up a trap to fry The Thing with electricity. The scientist tries to talk to the alien but is knocked out. After they coax it onto a grid they zap The Thing into oblivion.
The film ends in the manner of most science fiction and horror movies of the 1950s, with a warning. A reporter has been on hand throughout the ordeal, and now he’s on the radio talking to a pool of newsmen in Alaska. He says, “Tell the world. Tell this to everyone, wherever they are. Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.”
THE THING (2011)
Wait, Mike…are you saying that this film is Thing 2? But it came out sixty years after the original, and twenty-nine years after John Carpenter’s 1982 version. So how can this be?
Well, easy. The 2011 version of The Thing is a prequel to the 1982 film, not a remake of either one. I didn’t realize this the first time I saw it, but recently I watched them in the proper order, and it made a lot more sense. To begin with, the setting of the 1982 film had been moved from the North Pole to Antarctica, so when the 2011 version opens with the subtitle, “Antarctica, 1982”…well, duh.
Sticking to the original story—more or less—a bunch of Norwegian scientists at a research station discover the space ship (buried for 100,000 years, they say) in the ice, along with the flash frozen life form. They take the latter back to the station, where a woman named Kate, a paleontologist brought there by Dr. Halvorson, the lead scientist, is prepared to study the alien’s body. But—surprise—it breaks free of the ice and bears no resemblance to James Arness. Instead, it looks exactly like The Thing in the 1982 version—spidery, buggy, crab-like, with tentacles and nasty teeth. It starts killing people immediately, and worse, it takes over people’s bodies. Naturally the scientists want to study it—all but Kate, who seems to be the only one there with a brain. These Things, plural, are now all over the place, and they constitute a threat to humankind. They need to be destroyed.
Unlike Thing 1, but pretty much like Thing 3, the driving plot point of Thing 2 is paranoia in an isolated, claustrophobic setting. With The Thing(s) replicating people, no one knows who’s who, and for good reason. As Kate and the unaffected people begin wasting the creatures, a pair of them meld into a two-headed monstrosity before their respective takeovers are completed. Kate fries this one with a flame thrower.
Spoiler alert: Ultimately, Kate takes out what appears to be the last of the creatures near the space ship, and since the research station is destroyed, she makes ready to drive a snow cat to a Russian station. She’s the only survivor, right? Wrong. As the credits start to roll we see a helicopter landing at the station. The pilot confronts Lars, a mechanic and dog handler at the station who had disappeared earlier. As they talk, an Alaskan malamute bursts out a window and races through the snow. This is—or was—Lars’s dog, but now he’s firing at it with a rifle. You can guess why. He forces the pilot to take him up, and he continues to fire at the dog from the air. End of story.
JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING (1982)
You’re right: the end of the 2011 film is the seamless opening scene in Thing 3. The helicopter follows the dog to an American research station, with Lars still shooting. It lands, and Lars, who speaks no English, keeps firing at the dog but hits one of the Americans. They kill him in self-defense, and the helicopter, along with its pilot, get fried when Lars drops a grenade that he was going to throw. The Americans take the dog in, and a whole lot of OH CRAP!! moments ensue.
Kurt Russell plays Mac, a hard-drinking helicopter pilot. Knowing that a Norwegian station is not far off, the station head sends Mac and a doctor to check it out. At the still-smoldering station they see a lot of the earlier carnage, scenes that we’re familiar with from Thing 2. This includes the two-headed monstrosity, which they take back for study. The “dog,” meanwhile, is put in with other dogs, and it soon transforms into the spidery, buggy monster and kills some of the other dogs. The men (there are no women in this version) fry it with a flame thrower. It’s dead—or so they think.
After visiting the (familiar-looking) crash site they begin putting two and two together and realize what they’re up against—especially when organisms begin taking over some of the men. The theme of paranoia in an isolated, claustrophobic setting is played out to the max, beginning with the head scientist, Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) who not only trusts no one but also posits that if the organism reaches civilization, life on Earth as we know it will be no more. He goes off the deep end, even sabotaging the helicopter and the snow cats, and they lock him in a shed.
Meanwhile, as the paranoia appears justified and Mac keeps taking out infected guys, a storm hits the station. Power is lost, as well as any hope of survival. Mac looks for Blair, who is now a Thing himself and has begun constructing a space ship to escape. Using dynamite, Mac destroys Blair and the ship—and just about everything else in and around the station. He then sits down with the only other apparent survivor—who may or may not be infected—to await his fate. End of story.
As a big fan of the old 1950s science fiction and horror movies, I enjoyed revisiting The Thing from Another World. I also got a hoot out of watching Thing 1, Thing 2, and Thing 3 in the aforementioned order. Give it a try. And who knows? Maybe Thing 4 is on the horizon. I just don’t think that I have three more decades to wait.