All it means, really, is “object,” yet somewhere along the line in American pop culture the word “thing” came to mean something scary, a monster, a freak. Maybe it says something about humans that it’s what’s undefined, not consigned to a pigeonhole, which raises our collective gooseflesh.
There were Lovecraft stories like “The Thing on the Doorstep” from the ‘30s, and the disturbing ‘40s-era radio play “The Thing on the Fourble Board.”
There were movies like The Thing That Couldn’t Die in 1958 and Godzilla vs. the Thing in 1964 and The Thing With Two Heads in 1972. There was even “The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave” on Saturday Night Live in the ‘70s.
But the usage was probably truly popularized by the 1951 sci-fi classic The Thing From Another World, with James Arness as the title character. Based on John W. Campbell’s 1938 pulp tale “Who Goes There?,” the film was remade by director John Carpenter, simply as The Thing, in 1983, and now there’s a new version, in theaters this month.
Depending on your tastes, any or all of the three might suffice for your Halloween viewing needs.
The Thing in question in the 1951 version is a blood-drinking humanoid vegetable from outer space, discovered frozen in the ice near aU.S.military/scientific outpost in theArctic. Accidentally thawed out, he wreaks deadly havoc until he’s outdone by American ingenuity and cooperation.
Being played by Arness, who sadly died this past June, he’s alarmingly big and hulking and Frankenstein-ish, and because the film, produced by Howard Hawks, barely gives you a glimpse of him, except in silhouette, he’s pretty creepy.
The 1983 remake by John Carpenter sticks closer toCampbell’s novella. Discovered inAntarcticathis time, The Thing is the ultimate chameleon, an amorphous mass that can assume the shape of a human host.
But whenever its cover is blown, it suddenly unravels into a squealing, twisted, tentacled horror out of Hieronymus Bosch, and starts tearing apart everybody in the vicinity.
The film, with Kurt Russell leading a pack of top-notch character actors, is also pretty gripping. Rob Bottin’s shape-shifting special effects, then state-of-the-art, are hair-raising, and have a certain surreal poetry to them, and a tactility and gravity that most CGI effects can’t claim. But the movie’s tone is unpleasantly cynical compared to the original.
If there’s one, you know, thing that the movie world didn’t especially need right this minute, it was probably one more version of The Thing. But we’ve got one, directed by the impressively named Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr.
Despite the identical title, it’s not actually a remake, but rather a “prequel” to Carpenter’s film, set in Antarctica in 1982, among the Norwegian researchers who make the initial discovery, and soon aren’t sure who’s human and who’s a Thing.
The cast is full of manly types, but the resourceful heroine is a young American paleontologist, well-played by the incredibly adorable Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
This Thing takes an ill-advised excursion away from the outpost near the end which strains its convincing feel a bit, but up until then it’s a fairly tense, austere little thriller, with a soundtrack full of the unnerving pulses and thrums that used to make up Carpenter’s minimalist electronic scores.
Some pretty shocking special effects are deployed, too, but van Heijningen derives most of the film’s atmosphere from his teasing out of the suspense and paranoia. He keeps you wondering who the monsters are.