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John Carpenter's

 

The Thing From Another World versus The Thing How Classical Hollywood Filmmaking
Produced Meaning and Message
in a Horror Landmark

By Joachim Ghirotti

        One of the most important classics of science fiction cinema is Howard Hawks’s only science fiction film, The Thing from Another World. Originally it was regarded as being directed by an editor frequently used by Hawks, Christian Nyby. However it is frequently argued that Hawks worked on this as much more than a producer. It is also not generally appreciated that Hawks worked on the screenplay, together with the prolific writer Ben Hech, who was responsible for several famous films such as The man with the golden arm (1955) and  Spellbound (1945) . He had worked with Hawks before in His Girl Friday (1940) and was a writer very comfortable with the traditional Hollywood narrative form. The Thing, released in 1951, follows classical thriller/horror and clearly science fiction standards and is a fine example of Hawksian cinema.  The narrative is explored in a very expositional way through the main character, Captain Patrick Hendry, played with fluent masculine elegance by actor Kenneth Tobey. His figure is a flawless Hawksian hero, determined, not subject to emotional influences – a stereotypical male role model when facing problems. He begins the movie playing a game of cards, and when he wins over a colleague, another man on the table sets the character: “You should know better than to try to fool our captain, only dames can do that!” Later indeed we will learn that his weakness is for the ladies.

In the first five minutes we are introduced to the situation: Captain Hendry is called to supervise the discovery of Dr. Arthur Carrington: a spaceship buried in ice has been found and demands immediate military attention. Soon, we have a man with a mission, a recognizable goal and a mysterious object at stake - a question mark, that can change the destiny of men perhaps? As soon as he arrives at the polar station he is thrown into a comic scene with Nikky (Margaret Sheridan), his immediate love interest. We learn that they have already flirted in the past, and Hendry wants to “Start over”. He is a traditional Hollywood male character, a man with a strong purpose and very little moral (or physical) flaws (if any at all). His character is revealed very swiftly through actions; the comedy relief moment with Nikky, the determination and seriousness in the meeting with the general that sets him on the mission. This set piece confirms Bordwell’s general idea that classical narration in a way drags us to exposition[1], fitting the audience comfortably into the characters’ universes. Curiously, Leigh Brackett, who worked with Hawks, notes that he as a producer gave writers a lot of freedom[2] and concentrated in giving writers a general view of what he wanted, outlining the details, and then concentrating on adjusting things during filming. It was this approach that he used when using Christian Nyby as a director for this production, overseeing everything but giving Nyby the final on-screen credit.

Hawks’ main character is different from the characters in the story the movie is based on and there is no one like Captain Hendry in The Thing’s remake. The female presence in the movie shows another aspect of classical Hollywood. The only two female characters have very little screen time and don’t really move the story forward. The sole function of Nikky is to give a female counterpoint to the character of Captain Hendry, and enable his character to have a love interest and a couple of kissing scenes. According to Maltby[3], as much as 85% of Hollywood movies feature heterosexual romance as a recurring plot device. The fact that Captain Hendry has got Nikky here, a character also nonexistent in the original story on which the movie is based, is proof that this was a deliberate creation to conform the plot to classical Hollywood standards. The John Carpenter remake of The Thing has not got the shadow of a romance in it, since no women are in the film.

The film has two scenes with a bit of flirtation and low, casual romantic music enabling couples in the audience to root for the pair and wish them to be together. In one of the scenes, completely detached from the rest of the story, Nikky gets Captain Hendry drunk and ties him up, and they kiss. The only reason for this scene to exist is to give us a romantic interlude, something that was almost mandatory in classical Hollywood films. In the 1982 remake, John Carpenter had only a team of men. There is not a single female soul in any frame of the film. This enhanced the tension between the already very aggressive characters and was an interesting element in the film, exploiting the situation of confrontation even further; the men had no dames to defend, only themselves, in a competitive and hostile atmosphere. It is noticeable, also, that in the original film it is the character of Nikky who, in a brainstorming session, brings forth the idea of how they should defeat the alien creature. The men are asking themselves “what does one do with a vegetable?” since according to this version the creature’s cellular structure is vegetable, not animal. While entering the room and overhearing this conversation she says “Boil it, cook it, fry it!” and this gets the heroes to move towards the way they will kill the invader.

As soon as the team reaches the buried ship they are organized and ready to meet whatever is necessary to be done. It is interesting to note that all characters are determined to fulfill their jobs as best possible. This is exemplified both by the Captain’s approach to the mission when it is assigned to him as well as by the way the scientist shows complete emotional distance from the subject and a need to investigate. The military organization demands men who are driven and committed to their tasks. This is very different from the characterization of the men in Carpenter’s version. The leader in the 1982 version, McCready, is constantly drinking whiskey and playing chess with his computer to kill time, clearly very unhappy to be in Antarctica. He wears a “sombrero”, a Mexican hat, in disdain and contempt for the weather he hates, in a physical metaphor for his attitudes. He has posters for tropical countries in his room, and after losing one hand of chess against his computer, destroys it, pouring whiskey down the machine’s workings. Two other members of the team, Childs and Palmer, are hopeless pot smokers, completely bored with their jobs, in there just for the money, addicted to watching recorded American TV shows and smoking pot from their secret garden.

The original version ends with the expected return to stability that classical Hollywood expects and delivers. The creature is destroyed and the crew is saved. This confirms Bordwell’s affirmation, that the movie ends as soon as the protagonist has achieved his desires[4], in this case, destroying the alien creature and bringing back peace and order to the arctic station. The status quo is reestablished and all conflicts are solved. More than that, the audience is lead to feel that to a certain degree the characters’ lives have also been solved, and a period of permanent stability will follow. Ironically, director John Carpenter opted for a darker ending in his version of The Thing, in which most of the characters are killed by the monster and the remaining two men, although probably able to kill the creature, are left to freeze and die in the cold. Resolution would bring a sense of certainty and assure the viewer that the story he has witnessed is closed. However as our main characters are left to die in the cold in Carpenter’s The Thing, there is very little reassurance even that the creature is finally dead.

André Bazin describes the classical film as a photographed play that has an objective story merely witnessed by a camera that focuses on the more pertinent elements[5]. It is widely known that Hawks was a devoted believer in that philosophy. He is famous for having said that a good director is "someone who doesn't annoy you."[6] The direction in the The Thing from Another World is transparent, economic and smooth. We are allowed to concentrate on the action and how a new action set piece will be used to try to destroy the Thing. The mise-en-scène benefits from the location chosen for the story. As it all takes place in an Antarctic station, the relationship between the characters and the Thing’s attacks benefit from the claustrophobic constrained space and setting the story has. The men can’t leave the barracks they live in. Beyond the limited warm space of the barracks, all there is around them is ice and snow. The same thing is true of The Thing’s 1982 remake, only in the latter version the claustrophobia and loneliness is much more apparent and clear. Due to bad weather Windows, the radio operator, is unable to contact land – ever. They are completely alone and stuck in the remote Arctic. Actually the promotional trailer of the film featured a voice saying over and over again in a radio transmission:

"Mayday, mayday.  Can anyone hear me?  Over.  This is U.S. Station 31.  Do you read me? We found something in the ice.  We need some help down here.  Can anybody hear me? We found something ... we found something ... we found something ..."

This is repeated over and over again until it fades into the dark atmospheric music of the soundtrack, composed by horror veteran Ennio Morricone. This creates a great sense of emptiness and melancholy. Such isolation is never hinted at in the 1951 version of the film, in which the characters are always there for “each other”, contact with the mainland is always there and a sense of companionship and community is much more present.

The first version of the film was made just after the Second World War. At this time, the idea that a combined, decided joint effort was necessary to conquer a given objective was very clear in the mind of the American people. In 1982, after the disillusionment following McCarthism and the Vietnam war and at the beginning of the conservative Reagan years and another chapter in the cold war, reality seemed grimmer and less I Love Lucy-like.  In Carpenter’s version, men can’t trust one another. Terror and despair find home in their hearts. The one next to you is probably your enemy, the one that will kill you; no one, and nobody is safe. It is also interesting to note that in 1982 the first cases of Aids were also making headlines in international media. A new, deadly disease, bound to change the sexual habits of an entire generation had emerged. This echoes the original story device of the doppelganger. There is no way of telling who is infected and who is not.

The characters of the scientists are also very interesting – and different - in both versions of the story. In Carpenter’s version, Dr. Blair is the first one to realize the immense power of the Thing. After performing an autopsy on one of the bodies, he finds pieces of dogs, humans, insects, tentacles, inside the corpse. He proceeds to make a computer simulation of how animal blood cells are copied by the Thing’s cells, at what speed this would happen, in a geometric progression, and what would be the results. All of this is shown to the viewer without a single word, it is only through images that  the narrative achieves its meaning. Blair quickly comes to the conclusion that the Thing will want to go out into the world and infect, breed in humankind. Terrified by this idea, he tries to destroy their laboratory, their means of transportation and their blood supply, knowing that once the Thing is out of the remote arctic there is no turning back. He goes as far as actually shooting at his colleagues and having to be put in a locked room.

In contrast, the scientist in the original version, Dr. Carrington, a “Nobel prize winner”, is obsessed with keeping the creature alive, saying it will unveil the most important secrets mankind could ever hope to know. He also is put in a locked room, but as we see for exactly opposite reasons. Carrington even risks his own life in the end, getting between the army men and the creature, trying to dialog with it, stopping the men, for a few seconds, from completely blowing it away. He goes as far as saying that only knowledge is important, not their lives. In Carpenter’s version, the scientist Blair has a bleak view of the situation, a doomed view and given the Thing’s biological abilities, a realistic view.

With economic camera moves and abounding close ups, the original film establishes well the scenario and environment: a North American arctic station, isolated, claustrophobic and closed.  The film is over fifty years old and the fast cutting, grandiose shots, expensive epic special effects and sophisticated, gravity-defying camera moves, which modern editing values, have definitely altered our perceptions towards narrative and the way the story unfolds. However The Thing from Another World still holds together in a fluid, classical way, with transparent editing embedded in its structure[7]. As noted by Cowie, genre is a part of the essential package of classical Hollywood[8]. And The Thing from Another World is definitely a genre movie. It is a calculated science fiction thriller, working within the premise that a killer creature is lurking in a defined geographical space. This again reinforces the claustrophobic atmosphere already noted, and these plot devices have been used in many films since. Blockbusters like Alien (1979) and Jaws (1975) also have a set space (a starship and a beach town, respectively) in which the characters have to deal with an intruding creature (an alien being and a shark). This premise and genre is firmly established within classical Hollywood. Curiously, the movie was made just before the beginning of McCarthism and anti communist North American paranoia, which swept the landscape of Hollywood like a tornado, leaving several dead and wounded. Nobody was to be trusted and everyone could be a communist enemy, lurking with perverse, subversive “anti freedom” ideas. One could make a comparison between the invasion of the stable Arctic American station by the monster and the “infection” of communist ideas in fifties Hollywood. However in that sense the remake of The Thing would be even more appropriate, since Carpenter’s version has the cloning element. No man is to be trusted, any of them can be the Thing, in the same way that anti-communist propaganda established paranoia in the hearts of the American people throughout the fifties. No one was to be trusted, and educational films were produced to denounce people with leftist ideas.

The very title sequence sets up the genre very well, with the word The Thing burning in incandescent black and white on the screen, a bizarre and horrific vision of glowing cuts perforating the black canvas of the titles. This sets the expectations of the audience. They are about to watch a horror film, a genre film, something Hawks, a veteran of genres, was well accustomed to doing in westerns, dramas and so forth. First impressions are remarkably important, as pointed out by both Bordwell and Sternberg[9], and the burning logo of The Thing made such an impression on John Carpenter that he actually reproduced it exactly in the 1982 remake, again with the burning white light against a black background.

The scientist, Doctor Carrington, provides a very interesting counterpoint to Captain Hendry. Carrington presents an analytical view of the happening, the finding of the Thing, and begs the men to try to “communicate with it”. He insists that the being is a “stranger in a strange land” and has been attacked by the humans. It is their victim, not the other way round. Naturally, his scientific view will be the door to doom, since the creature is vengeful, feeds on blood and wants to kill. According to Jacques Rivette by showing the group of “intellectuals” in The Thing, Hawks is concerned with “retracing the cosmic misfortunes of intelligence”[10], and he is also “solely preoccupied with the adventure of the intellect”. Rivette develops this idea stating that Hawks:

 

 “(…) sticks to the same story - the intrusion of the inhuman (…) into a highly civilized society. In The Thing the mask is finally off: in the confined space of the universe, some men of science are at grips with a creature worse than inhuman, a creature from another world; and their efforts are directed towards fitting it into the logical framework of human knowledge”[11] .  

 

This brings us to the core of the film: it is a classical example of a recurring theme in Hollywoodian cinema: man versus the unknown, which is very much used after the impressive scientific discoveries of the XIX and XX centuries. One could cite Frankenstein, which had its very first cinematic version made by Edison in 1910 and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, another case of science failing and creating a monster, which had its first Hollywood version made in 1908 and then remade several times since, over seven until 1941. With the end of WWII and the dawn of Hiroshima in came the fear of the power of atomic energy, and the division of the world between the Soviet and North American blocks. This deeply affected American cinema. Films such as It Came from Outer Space (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) also feature menacing alien creatures. In both cases, the creatures actually substitute their victims for alien “copies” of themselves. This concept is not used in Hawks’ and Nyby’s The Thing. However, not surprisingly, it was a key element in the original short story Who goes there? by John W. Campbell Jr that was used as basis for the film. The cloning concept  was finally used in the 1982 remake of The Thing, becoming a key feature of the story, with John Carpenter actually increasing tension by making the audience unsure who is human and who is a clone. This establishes a whole new set of dynamics within the narrative and makes it possible for the screenwriter Bill Lancaster (son of actor Burt Lancaster) to exploit subplots and create very tense moments, even character revealing moments. In a key scene, the drunk, full of faults, very imperfect leader of the Antarctic expedition, McCready, is armed and actually threatening the other men in his group, with a weapon, and he says “I know I am human, I don’t know which one of you is, but I will find out”. No one can be trusted. In the original The Thing, Captain Hendry is a paradigm of well balanced behavior, morals, courage and bravery. We don’t doubt him or his intentions and actions for a second.

The Thing from Another World is such a strong genre film that it delivers always. There is not a scene that doesn’t accomplish what it is set up to do. The ending, with the journalist, Scotty saying that humanity has won and we should “watch the skies” (“the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”?) is what the audience wants, a safe untangling of the problem presented and the reassurance that mankind is the master of its own destiny. It is the master of all species and life forms, it cannot be threatened. We are engaged with the premise of an alien being trying to take over mankind and we are satisfied by the resolution, the fact that it cannot beat the human race, that the superiority of mankind is unchallenged.

John Carpenter’s The Thing gives us a more cynical point of view. We are not sure that The Thing was killed and the whole cast is wiped out in a bloody and violent fashion. The two “survivors” actually blow up the Antarctic camp to prevent the Thing from taking over, and are then left to die in just a few hours in the cold. It is a post Vietnam, post 60s, post the-death-of-John-Lennon film. The dream is over and the audience is greeted with nihilistic darkness. Humanity does not win, all the protagonists are dead, absolutely everyone you saw on screen is either dead or dying.  The only certainty one has is that nature will triumph over mankind and our arrogance won’t save us.

The view of Hollywood as merely the producer of standard type films, with classical formulas, subjects and forms, certainly describes a real part of the industry. Hollywood has indeed produced films in a quasi Fordian way: the films are packaged products with the repetition of genres, formulas and messages. However filmmakers are more and more experimenting with storytelling. American directors such as David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Darren Aronofsky certainly have produced films which have reached mainstream audiences, and certainly have made films which do not follow the classical narrative formulas of Hollywood filmmaking. Their attempts may not always have been successful, however some of their work has gained  critical and public recognition. Even earlier filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, Norman McLaren and Kenneth Anger were already producing work in the fifties which couldn’t be analysed in a satisfactory way through the lenses of a critical method that is primarily concerned with classical Hollywood structure. For better or worse, they do not fit classic Hollywood narrative. It could be argued that to an extent some of Stan Brakhage’s  or McLaren’s surreal and atmospheric films have no narrative, since they are not concerned with telling stories at all and their meanings can’t be captured completely through that kind of analysis. It is necessary to use other critical tools to observe films made by such filmmakers.

Richard Maltby notes that the idea of “classical” implies rules that set limits on innovation.[12] This is not, by any means, the way in which the above mentioned American film makers work. Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, Aronofsky’s PI or Lynch’s Eraserhead, to name just a few films, do not work according to set rules. They are “cult films” exactly because they are strange, alien films that disrupt genres and conventions. Now, even analyzing conventional films through a method that sees all Hollywoodian cinema as a homogeneous mass, can be counterproductive. Movies are made by the most varied people for a wide range of reasons. Trying to fit all of their characteristics, aims, intentions and meanings within what in the end amounts to a formulaic analytic tool can obscure their particularities. A work of art is not just the mechanical result of a repetition of formulas, even if it is the byproduct of an era and a system. One has to bear that in mind, particularly with films, which are the result of the work of several people. Elizabeth Cowie notes that Bordwell’s approach towards what he defines as classical Hollywood cinema “underrates and ignores” certain elements which are part of filmmaking[13]. A set of rules can cage one’s perceptions of a film and lead one to view it in prejudiced ways. Ways of seeing films within a Classical Hollywoodian formula can be helpful but as with all other film-viewing tools must be used with caution. It is all too easy to flatten films’ differences and particularities for the sake of fitting them within a classical analytical formula.

For these reasons we need only look at the two versions of The Thing to see how Hollywood filmmaking can use the same story to produce two very distinct films with meanings and characters which are very unlike. If in one film we have clean cut American heroes, in the other we are presented with a group of strange men, working in isolation for money, drug users, selfish, wanting to save their own lives and nothing else. The men in Carpenter’s The Thing live in a sadder world, with no companionship. MacReady is a bitter anti hero who hates his job and he’s not specially brave or intelligent although he is made the “leader” of the expedition. He usurps leadership through force and by threatening his colleagues. In the face of danger men become hostile and violent with each other. By way of contrast, Hawks’s The Thing is constructed around the themes of friendship, organization and trust. Both films share their roots in the same short story, however they achieve very different meanings and develop very different situations and tensions between the characters. Hollywood is not always the same, even when dealing with the same material.

As will now be clear from the above discussion, the first version of the The Thing follows the classical Hollywood model as described by Bordwell, Cowie and Maltby much more closely and can therefore be more adequately analyzed in those terms. When it comes to the 1982 version, John Carpenter is using the Hollywood genre as a springboard; he moves beyond the classical model to achieve new effects and address new problems as befits a darker and more complicated age.

 

Filmography:

 Alien (USA, 1979, dir. Ridley Scott)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (USA 1956. dir. Don Siegel)

The Thing From Another World  (USA, 1951, dir. Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks)

The Thing (USA, 1982, dir. John Carpenter)

 

 

Bibliography:

 Bazin, Andre What is Cinema? (Berkley: University of California Press, 1967)

 

Bordwell, David. Staiger, Janet. Et al.  The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (Columbia University Press, 1985)

 

Cowie, Elizabeth ‘Storytelling: Classical Hollywood Cinema and classical Narrative’ in Neale & Smith (eds)

Contemporary Hollywood Cinema (Routledge, 1998)

 

Gomery, Douglas. The Hollywood Studio System (Macmillan/BFI, 1986)

 

Hawks, Howard, Hawks on Hawks (Faber and Faber, 1982)

 

Maltby, Richard Hollywood Cinema (Blackwell Publishing, 1995)

 

Rivette, Jacques, ‘The Genius of Howard Hawks’, Cachiers du Cinema, 23 May 1953.reprinted in Hillier, Jim (ed) Cahiers du Cinema, Volume 1: The 1950s (BFI/Routledhe & Kegan Payl, 1985)

 

Schatz, Thomas The Genius of the System: Hollywood filmmaking in the studio era (Pantheon Books, 1988)

 

Sternberg, Meir, Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction (John Hopkins University Press, 1978)

 

Wood, Robin Howard Hawks (BFI, 1981)


 

[1] Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (Columbia University Press, 1985) p. 28

 
[2] As quoted in Schatz, Thomas The Genius of the System: Hollywood filmmaking in the studio era (Pantheon Books, 1988)  p. 426
[3] Maltby, Richard Hollywood Cinema (Blackwell Publishing, 1995) p. 17
[4] . Bordwell notes that the audience should be satisfied, and that this is, according to Emerson and Loos, the an equivalent to “And they lived happily ever after” in Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (Columbia University Press, 1985) p. 36

 

[5] Bazin, Andre What is Cinema? (Berkley: University of California Press, 1967) p. 32

 

[6] As seen in the Howard Hawks biography from the Internet Movie Database.  http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001328/bio   23/12/2006

 

[7] As noted by David Bordwell, the transparent film editing is a mark of the classical Hollywood filmmaking. Bordwell, op.cit., p. 24

 

[8]  Cowie, Elizabeth ‘Storytelling: Classical Hollywood Cinema and classical Narrative’ in Neale & Smith (eds) Contemporary Hollywood Cinema (Routledge, 1998) p. 181

 

[9] Bordwell addresses the importance of first impressions in Bordwell op.cit., p. 37, while Sternberg notes that first appearances can be motifs in Sternberg, Meir, Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction (John Hopkins University Press, 1978) p. 94

 

[10] Rivette, Jacques, ‘The Genius of Howard Hawks’, Cahiers du Cinema, 23 May 1953.reprinted in Hillier, Jim (ed) Cahiers du Cinema, Volume 1: The 1950s (BFI/Routledhe & Kegan Payl, 1985) p. 127

 

[11] Ibid.
[12]  Maltby, Richard Hollywood Cinema (Blackwell Publishing, 1995) p.15

 
[13]  Cowie, Elizabeth Cowie, Elizabeth ‘Storytelling: Classical Hollywood Cinema and classical Narrative’ in Neale & Smith (eds) Contemporary Hollywood Cinema (Routledge, 1998) p. 179

 

 

 


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