The Thing: Remakes can be good!

These days, there are very few original ideas being made into movies. It’s easy to get angry and wonder why no one is trying anymore. It’s also easy to forget that sometimes remakes can be great. In 1982, John Carpenter got it right.

thingposterThese days, you’ll notice that there are very few original ideas being made into movies. This year alone we’ve had My Bloody Valentine, Friday the 13th, The Taking of Pelham 123, Last House on the Left, and many many more are on the way. With this flood of old ideas, it’s easy to get angry and wonder why no one is trying anymore. It’s also easy to forget that sometimes remakes can be great, and in 1982 John Carpenter got it right with his retelling of the 1951 classic The Thing from Another World.

After a brief glimpse of a crashing spacecraft, The Thing opens in Antarctica with a dog being shot at by Norwegian scientists. As far as unsentimental openings go, it’s hard to top the attempted murder of a dog. The dog makes its way to a US army base, where the language barrier creates confusion that leads to the deaths of the Norwegians at the hands of the US scientists. The Americans soon discover that they made a grave mistake, and that the dog is actually a shape shifting alien trying to take over everything in its path.

The set up might sound crazy, but by playing everything seriously, Carpenter and composer Ennio Morricone create a sense of dread that spans the entire film. Because the creature is a shape shifter, it could have taken over any one of the 12 scientists, and the breakdown in trust slowly leads to their undoing. The cast, led by Kurt Russell and his awesome hat*, includes Keith David, Wilford Brimley, Donald Moffat, all give great tense performances. The other star of this film is Rob Bottin, who at 22 led a team of effects artist to create some of film’s scariest and most unique monster effects. These effects hold up today and will still shock first time viewers.

For me, this is one of those perfect films that I discovered pretty late in my film nerd career (by “career” I mean, “spending money on DVDs”). It blends everything I love about Hitchcock with creative gore and amazing music. Like Felicia’s Journey it’s a horror film that is actually scary, and again, I can’t stress how rare that is in this genre. Can you imagine if this problem affected other genres? Action films without action? Historical dramas without historics? Again, I don’t want to give too much away, except to say that if you haven’t seen The Thing yet, you need to.

On the subject of remakes, I think Carpenter was able to find his own voice in this material, and was ultimately able to give much more than a simple retelling. His version is much darker, but not in the way that so many newer horror remakes are dark. This newer crop of remakes thrive on the gritty look and feel of the film, but miss the point by casting mostly bad actors who give mostly bad performances. There are always exceptions, notably the Last House on the Left remake which had great acting, but usually these films concentrate more on the kills, leaving that acting business alone. In The Thing everything works together: great acting, great music, great locations, and great effects. It’s the exception to the rule that rises above the schlock.

I’m a huge John Carpenter fan, and will definitely be focusing on more of his films in the future. Big Trouble in Little China was one of my favorite films growing up, and it’s been great as an adult going back and seeing all the Rated “R” Carpenter films I wasn’t allowed to watch. I’ve been constantly surprised at just how good his older films are. Halloween was so much better than I thought it’d be, and is also actually scary. For those that have yet to explore the world of John Carpenter, The Thing is a great place to start. Here are some others (that I’m sure I’ll discuss further in the future):

*For the life of me I COULD NOT find a picture of this hat. But I remember it, and it is awesome. If anyone finds a good image, leave a link in the comments.

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Scott Burton

Scott Burton is a tireless composer and guitarist in Richmond. He writes reviews about obscure movies for RVANews, and he writes music about obscure movies for the avant jazz group Glows in the Dark.

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