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You gotta be f–king kidding – The Thing from Another World

September 29, 2014

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I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS F–KING COUCH!

John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of those modern classics that bombed upon initial release but developed a gradually augmenting reputation over the years, so that it’s now regarded not only as a classic of its genre, but a standard of the medium. Overwhelmed as its grotesque science-fiction/horror was by the cute, cuddly — and great in its own right — E.T., it fell like the proverbial lead balloon during its 1982 run. But subsequent airings on TV, Carpenter’s early track record of success warranting second looks, and an ensemble cast knocking it out of the park was enough to change the critical opinion in the ensuing decades. Now it’s often mentioned right alongside Alien, the standard-bearer of hunted-one-by-one-by-a-creature-from-beyond-the-stars specialty, as a go-to armrest-gripper.

I’m a huge fan. The Thing long ago leapfrogged over other treasured films in my internal rankings, and now trails only Close Encounters of the Third Kind on the all-time list. Yes, a lot of that has to do with the obvious merits of the film. The Antarctic (actually Arctic) setting. The spare, eerie music. Kurt Russell, Keith David and Wilford Brimley(!) owning every line they utter. The tremendous sculpting and design. The dots of humor, providing needed breaks in the macabre. Beyond all that, though, there’s something so refreshingly atypical about it, qualities that cut against the modern formulaic film-making grain. There’s no romantic subplot to muddle the narrative, indeed not a single female character from beginning to end — unless of course you count the “cheatin’ bitch” computer chess game. There’s no happy ending, no moment of relaxation where the audience can exhale, sit back in their seat and reflect that, well, at least it all worked out in the end. (The only recent comparable with these qualities that I can think of is the Liam Neeson-infused The Grey, which was similarly male, similarly cold, and similarly bleak.) Instead we close with two characters sitting out in the elements, warmed momentarily by the flames from their destroyed compound, waiting to freeze in the polar night. And we don’t know whether one of them is the Thing, the all-consuming, identity-assuming monster that’s brought them to this dead end. The Thing after all wants to freeze again, and wait for another unsuspecting person to thaw it out.

And really, doesn’t the thumping bass heartbeat of the score, which reprises at the end after being heard at the beginning of the film, bookending it, suggest that the cycle of horrific death is about to begin anew?

Thankfully, Hollywood hasn’t gotten around to messing this masterpiece up with a sequel, a Blue Brothers 2000 to completely ruin the damn thing, a continuation that once seen cannot be unseen. Yes, there was an identically titled prequel in 2011, which chronicled the Norwegian expedition that first awoke the beast and substituted soulless CGI for the original’s smoke and mirrors creature work. That didn’t trample on the ambiguous ending of MacReady and Childs waiting for their sub-zero death, though. It could be compartmentalized, off to the side. A sidequel, as it were.

But then there’s comics. There’s always comics.

Dark Horse, purveyors of endless licensed continuations of varying quality (and the occasional gloriously silly mash-up), first dove into the world of the Thing back in 1991. The Thing from Another World, named as such both as an homage to the 1951 film originator and to differentiate it from Ben Grimm, was a two-issue direct follow-up to the 1982 doings. Surprise, surprise: it’s not offensive. Written by Chuck Pfarrer with art by John Higgins, it opens with Childs and MacReady being discovered by a whaling vessel, upon which our shaggy protagonist thaws out, still with his mind on one thing — literally:

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On the DVD commentary track (one of the better ones I’ve ever listened to, actually insightful and funny) Carpenter and Russel mused on whether someone infected by the Thing, or absorbed and reborn as a Thing-proxy — would even be aware of its status on a conscious level. Or would the Thing side activate only when its survival was threatened, like some alien Manchurian Candidate? The comic, while not answering this definitively, does play around with it a bit. MacReady returns to the destroyed compound, where he bounces the rubble, as Winston Churchill would call it — blowing up the charred remains of the Thing (and the corpse of poor Nauls, who disappeared in the movie’s last reel). There he’s set upon by a Navy SEAL team, sent to investigate just what the hell is going on. MacReady’s explanations of, “yeah, I blew the place up but all these people were infected by an outer space monster” doesn’t go over well — and an understandable misunderstanding turns armageddonish after some of the SEALs handle the remains:

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Yes, we’re back to square one, with the Thing once more on the loose. And the comic brings the dreaded escalation to the fore, with a larger research installation infiltrated, and the Thing actually making a break for it to reach the wider world. The blood test — which resulted in perhaps the best sequence in the film — once again comes into play, Childs and MacReady form another alliance to save the world, and there’s another ambiguous ending, with Mac more adrift (literally) than he was before.

A film sequel to The Thing is something to be shunned, but comics can get away with things that a Hollywood product couldn’t. Something on screen would be canon, or at least feel like it, while a comic book can be categorized as the musings — albeit published — of another fan. There isn’t the risk of pissing off the audience with a flop. The comic here isn’t great, but it’s not horribly insulting, either. There are problems: A submarine crew submits a bit too easily to the command of the shaggy helicopter pilot who just came aboard, and the reason seems to be simply that the creative staff ran out of pages. The writing as a whole feels somewhat rushed, pro forma in places. The art is different, a diffuse watercolor tableau that doesn’t quite mesh with typical comics fare. But it’s enjoyable apocrypha, aimed squarely at people, like this reader, who hold the Carpenter movie in such high regard. It’s very much a What If?, the best kind of disposable sequel.

There were two follow-ups to this comic, sequels to the sequel, which built further on the Thing getting out into the wider world, becoming the Ebola virus from hell, and thus playing out the string of Blair’s computer simulation in the movie. I’ll probably get to them at some point, because it’s hard to resist dissecting them like Wilford Brimley tearing into a charred, mutated corpse. But let this post stand as a reminder that there is a continuation to the beloved 1982 classic out there, one that you can read without fear of trampling what you’ve come to know and love. To this I can personally attest.

Keep watching the skies!

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 29, 2014 2:07 pm

    I have literally lost count of how many times I have watched John Carpenter’s The Thing. All these years later, it is still a fantastic, genuinely scary (yet also darkly humorous) movie. When I finally got a DVD player in 2001, The Thing was the very first movie I purchased on DVD. This is actually one of the only movies that ever caused me to have a nightmare when I was a kid.

    • September 30, 2014 2:15 am

      It’s always good to know that there’s more Thing love out there in the world. I can’t say it was one of the first DVDs I ever bought, but when I did buy it, I wondered what took me so long.

  2. September 29, 2014 7:56 pm

    I still remember watching The Thing when I was young. This is one movie I’m happy the way it is and won’t need a sequel.

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