Remaking John Carpenter’s The Thing. An Impossible Task.

Last week it was brought to my attention via Screenrant that Universal Pictures has approved a remake of The Thing by Blumhouse Productions. I expect this will turn out to be an absolute disaster of film making.

I recently wrote about how I felt the time was right for John Carpenter to set his sights on giving us a sequel to 1982’s classic suspense/horror/science fiction film The Thing. It is without question one of the greatest films he made and deserves all the praises continually heaped upon it. That film was based on John W. Campbell, Jr.’s novella Who Goes There? and follows it more closely than the 1951 adaptation The Thing From Another World. This new film will not.

This new version of The Thing will not be adapting Campbell’s novella but rather an expanded manuscript found in a box of papers Campbell sent to Harvard University. That manuscript was titled Frozen Hell and a Kickstarter campaign was initiated to publish Frozen Hell in limited form. While there are a limited number of physical copies available the new story is readily available in ebook format.

Cover of Frozen Hell by John W. Campbell Jr. © 2019
Cover of Frozen Hell by John W. Campbell Jr. © 2019

I have not yet read the extended version Campbell wrote but I will be addressing this in the near future. The real question isn’t whether Frozen Hell is better or different than Who Goes There? but rather, why would anyone bother to remake such a great film?

Hollywood seems to be creatively bankrupt at the moment. Studios are unwilling to risk money on new ventures. They want guaranteed success and massive returns. That is why we are being subjected to a continuous stream of reboots, remakes, reimagining, and retreads. And that is nothing to say of the countless sequels and prequels that studios churn out every year. This lack of originality stifles not only film makers but the audiences as well.

There are exceptions to this, of course. John Carpenter’s The Thing could be said to be a remake but it is sufficiently different as to have no real relation to the first adaptation. This year we can expect to see Denis Villeneuve’s first part of his Dune adaptation. This is a labour of love by Villeneuve and I expect more put into it than David Lynch’s 1984 version of Dune which was underfunded by today’s standards. A new version of The Thing, however, I expect to fly like a well polish brick.

If 2011’s The Thing showed us anything it’s that any attempt to recreate or approach John Carpenter’s film will fail miserably if not given the treatment needed to coexist along Carpenter’s film. And that is all it could possibly do, coexist. Any new film could never supplant Carpenter’s work and attempting to do so is folly.

Looking over the list of Blumhouse Production’s previous works does not fill me with any sense of hope. Rather the opposite. What little of their work I have seen has left me feeling hollow and disappointed. There is none of the paranoia or tension that is required for a film like The Thing to be a success. Trying to fit The Thing into a studio mould will be a fruitless exercise. There is only one way that I can see any new version of The Thing having any lasting impact and that is by following the same model and methods that John Carpenter used originally.

First, they must forget any use of CGI effects. They are cartoonish and will fall short. They must return to practical effects in all cases. I defy anyone to not cringe when Norris’s chest opens up to bite the arms off Dr. Copper. Or when Norris’ head pulls away and sprouts legs. Or… you get the idea. The 2011 film The Thing used CGI and the results were spectacularly poor.

Norris-Thing attacks Dr. Copper in The Thing © 1982 Universal Pictures
Norris-Thing attacks Dr. Copper in The Thing © 1982 Universal Pictures

Second, is casting. John Carpenter put together a cast that, while recognizable, was not overflowing with A-list celebrities. These were journeymen actors that worked hard and this ‘working class’ acting felt perfect for the setting. Given Carpenter’s The Thing’s reappraisal since its initial release, I can see an overlarge cast of ‘name’ actors filling the roles. There are not many films with casts of that sort that are worth watching. When egos get in the way of the film then you’ve lost before you start. The cast will have to be subtly balanced and weighed against each other for the best outcome of the film.

Lastly, there are the changes that will inevitably be made to the story. While I understand the need to change things to suit a modern audience they cannot simply create a checklist and tick each item off to suit what they think an audience will want to see. Make the changes, certainly, but only if those changes enhance the film. If changing something lessens the paranoia or tension required then omit it. A film like The Thing needs every part to be taken seriously. If one element is seen as unnecessary then the entire film is a failure.

While I don’t see the need to remake The Thing and I don’t see a good outcome for this project I don’t wish the film makers any particular ill will. I love The Thing for what it is and while I can wish for more, we’ve already seen that trying to cash in on a proven entity with inferior storytelling and production does nothing to enhance either.

It may be best to watch John Carpenter’s The Thing and enjoy it for what it is and stop trying to create a magic formula that will allow studios to try and make more money out of low effort projects. Instead put your efforts into new and interesting projects that might not give you the return you initially hoped for but may yet become something held in high regard. As has happened with the very film they’re trying to emulate.

Universal Studios and Blumhouse Productions have my best wishes for luck in their endeavour to remake The Thing. They’re going to need it.

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