Recently I watched, yet again, one of my favourite films, John Carpenter’s The Thing. In 1982, John Carpenter teamed up for the second time with actor Kurt Russell to make this brilliant sci-fi/horror film. Their previous collaboration was the dystopian Escape From New York just the year before in 1981. While I love all three films in the Carpenter/Russell trifecta, The Thing is without a doubt the best of the three.
The Thing, based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella (published under the pen name Don A. Stuart) Who Goes There?, which was already adapted as The Thing From Another World in 1951, takes place in Antarctica at Outpost #31, an American installation. The film opens with a Norwegian helicopter chasing what looks like an ordinary Husky dog, trying desperately to kill it. The dog runs, either by accident or design, towards the American outpost.
Needless to say, the Norwegians fail to kill the dog and end up dying themselves. The dog is taken in by the unsuspecting Americans who now have a mystery to solve as to why the Norwegians were so set on killing a dog.
The rest of the film centres primarily around Russell’s character R. J. MacReady as he and the other eleven men of Outpost #31 at first try to solve the mystery of the dog and then, when the truth is revealed, try to survive. At the end of the film only MacReady and Childs, played by Keith David, are left alive in the burning remains of the outpost as the Antarctic night sets in.
The ending leaves us to wonder if one or the other or both men are now copies created by The Thing. It’s an eerily creepy ending that leave you unsettled as to what the future of humanity will be.
I, for one, have always chosen the optimistic view that both MacReady and Childs were still human and somehow managed to get rescued from the now destroyed outpost. If this is actually the case, now would be a great time to make a sequel to this magnificent film.
What is it that makes The Thing such a great film? There are so many reasons. First you have the setting. Antarctica is a harsh and lonely place that enhances the feeling of isolation. We are meant to feel the men’s loneliness and the fear it induces before we even meet the creature.
Also there are the effects. In this pre-CGI era all the effects are practical, including the Thing itself. The horrifying creature and its actions are incredibly realistic and are still some of the most graphically scary scenes I have ever seen. When Norris (Charles Hallahan) goes into cardiac arrest, the chaos that ensues must be one of the most memorable moments in horror film history. It certainly is for me.
Then the score. It’s almost not there, and when it is the music registers mainly in the bass with very few tones that seem to, but not quite, mimic our own heartbeats. Some scores are meant to be actively heard during the screen action. Not here. You hear a few notes and it gets out of the way of what’s going on on screen. It works to increase our suspense as we wonder who the Thing has taken over.
And there is cast. Carpenter assembled a cast that was completely in step with the script. Each character was fully realized with no one completely overshadowing the other. A very difficult thing to do considering the confines of the area and the relatively large cast involved. These and many other subtleties work their magic to make The Thing such an incredible film to this day.
Before we can talk about sequels we have to mention the prequel. In 2011, a prequel film was made that focuses on the Norwegian discovery story. While it’s an interesting film it lacks the strength of the original. The creature is all CGI and is never really as scary as Carpenter and company managed to make theirs. This isn’t the sort of film we need. What we need is to get the band back together.
If John Carpenter, Kurt Russell, and Keith David could be persuaded to revisit the story I can imagine a sequel worthy of their first effort. This is how I would imagine a sequel to The Thing today.
The story would open in the Arctic. R. J. MacReady has turned his back on the world for the most part and is living a solitary existence on the edge of civilization. However, with global warming he’s becoming increasingly agitated with the few people he does come in contact with. His sleep is disturbed by nightmares and memories of nearly forty years ago.
Enter Childs. Childs hasn’t been hiding like MacReady. He’s been actively searching for possible infestations and trying to get science to believe that there is a very real possibility of infestation. After some convincing MacReady agrees to join Childs in a return expedition to Antarctica.
Once in Antarctica, MacReady flies Childs and a scientist back to the site of the crash only to find nothing. The ship has been completely removed, but by whom?
MacReady finds some litter and among it a single sheet of paper with the name of a company on it. After returning to their ship they learn that the company in question is located in Brazil. In Brazil, the company owner admits to salvaging the ship and takes them to a giant freezer facility. The ship is in the process of being rebuilt and any technology extracted.
When confronted about The Thing infestation the owner claims no knowledge of it but MacReady and Childs are suspicious. Back at the hotel MacReady and Childs agree there is only one course of action. They have to burn the facility to the ground.
There are many possibilities that could extend and expand from this point but the main thing is that we need a sequel and we need it now. John Carpenter is 71, Kurt Russell is 68, and Keith David a youthful 63. I have no doubt that Carpenter could still make a killer film, and Russell and David are both young enough to still make their characters believable as semi-action figures.
That being the case, I wouldn’t suggest making a sequel to The Thing in the way James Cameron made Aliens. We don’t need a war/action film with some scary bits. We need a taut and elemental thriller that crushes our hearts with fear and paranoia. We don’t need a relentless series of CGI explosions and combat scenes but something that eats away at our minds with creeping suspicions and uncertainty.
I know what I’m proposing is extremely unlikely to happen but in this day of reboots, restarts, reimaginings, and retreads why not give us a sequel that doesn’t go over the same old ground but takes what was made and expands it further than we expected? I know I’m not the only one who would run to see a film like that.
So Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Russell, and Mr. David, if you ever happen to see this, are you ready for the challenge? I know many of us would love to see the results if you were.