Nominally directed by Christian Nyby — although most of the cast members assert that Nyby only directed one scene before deferring to producer/director Howard Hawks; Nyby had been Hawks’ editor for many years, and was superbly gifted at this, but he seems to have been out of his depth as a director — the 1951 film The Thing from Another World is a dense, fast-moving thriller, an an iconic film of its time and place.
In any event, The Thing from Another World features all the hallmarks of a Hawksian universe; men and women banding together as a group, in adverse circumstances, to defeat an external threat that seeks to destroy them — it might as well be Hawks’ Rio Lobo, or El Dorado, or Carpenter’s homage to Hawks, Assault on Precinct 13. But the pervading spirit is one of hope; people will die, there’s a real struggle going on, but in the end, the group will triumph, and the film ends on a note of optimism.
In contrast, John W. Campbell’s source novella is a much more downbeat affair, from its first lines on: “The place stank. A queer, mingled stench that only the ice-buried cabins of an Antarctic camp know, compounded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber. An overtone of liniment combated the musty smell of sweat-and-snow-drenched furs. The acrid odor of burnt cooking fat, and the animal, not-unpleasant smell of dogs, diluted by time, hung in the air.” (You can read the entire text of the novella here.)
Bill Lancaster, Burt’s son, wrote a screenplay for the Carpenter film that hews much more closely to Campbell’s original text, simply because Hawks realized that The Thing’s ability to assimilate and imitate any life form at will was beyond the reach of 1950s special effects, except perhaps with stop motion animation, and Hawks wasn’t about to get involved with that.
John Carpenter, however, working with the young and ridiculously ambitious Rob Bottin at the start of his career (with a slight assist from the late Stan Winston on the scene with the dog morphing into a spider), created a vision of nihilistic hell, in which the members of the Antarctic base camp, instead of coming together, fall apart completely, becoming more and more paranoid as the The Thing successfully takes over one person after another.
In addition to the superb ensemble acting, Carpenter’s patient direction, and Dean Cundey’s moody scope cinematography, what makes the film so compelling is the tactile realism of Bottin’s special effects work. There’s only one shot in the final film that’s stop motion (a tentacle of The Thing pulls a dynamite plunger into a hole in the floor — there’s more stop motion in the outtakes, but Carpenter wisely decided not to use it), and there is, of course, no CGI, since this is 1982; all the film’s remarkable, still-unsurpassed special effects are done “on the floor,” prosthetically, and so they have a degree of verisimilitude that CGI can never attain.
Nor are there any women in Carpenter’s, Campbell’s and Lancaster’s bleak world — other than the synthetic female voice in a Chess Wizard machine — and when trouble strikes, the men revert to almost infantile behavior, putting themselves before the group with disastrous consequences, culminating in a narrative conclusion in which The Thing is (it seems) triumphant; it will freeze again in the Arctic cold, only to be resurrected another day.
Then, too, there’s an interesting touch; Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), the head research scientist in Hawks’ version, seeks to shield The Thing from those who would oppose it, even to the point of allowing other members of the expedition to be sacrificed; in Carpenter’s version, the lead scientist, Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) figures out rapidly that if allowed to escape, The Thing will infect the entire world, and destroys all means of getting out of the base camp.
Soon, however, Blair too has been subsumed by The Thing, leading to a final scene in which only two members of the “group” survive; the hot-tempered Childs (Keith David) and group leader R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), after destroying the camp — and thus ensuring their own deaths, as they’ll freeze to death in the cold — the two men share a bottle of scotch and engage in some final, hopeless banter.
Childs: Temperature’s up all over the camp. Won’t last long though.
MacReady: Neither will we.
Childs: How will we make it?
MacReady: Maybe we shouldn’t.
Childs: If you’re worried about me…
MacReady: If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think either one of us is in much shape to do anything about it.
Childs: What do we do now?
MacReady: Why don’t we just wait here for a little while… see what happens…
and thus the film ends. Carpenter’s film is every bit as good as Hawks’, and closer to the spirit of the original text, and both versions are clearly masterpieces; one of the few times in cinema history when the remake (or revision) of the original is as good as its predecessor. Hawks holds out for hope; Carpenter realizes that there is none. That’s why Carpenter’s version failed at the box office in 1982, but perhaps its unyielding fatalism is why it resonates so powerfully today.