[This piece was written as part of John Carpenter Week over at Radiator Heaven. Go there for a comprehensive listing of other Carpenter-related writing.]
Together, The Thing from Another World (1951) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) comprise one of my favorite original/remake couplings. They’re both chilly and paranoid, using the narrow corridors of polar research stations to elicit maximum terror. The 1951 version is a mix of high adventure and Cold War sci-fi, told with Howard Hawks’ consummate classicism (although the direction is credited to Christian Nyby); Carpenter’s, meanwhile, amps up the mistrust and the gore, the latter courtesy of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston’s special effects.
My point is that these are both top-notch sci-fi/horror movies that I love. During the summer, I read H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness and, what do you know, I caught some strong parallels with both Thing movies! Of course, there’s the basic plot – intrepid scientists uncover a long-buried eldritch horror in the icy wastes – but even beyond that, we’ve got similarities galore. This is probably not a coincidence, as Mountains was published in Astounding Stories in 1936, with John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”, on which both Thing movies were based (and which I have not read), appearing in the same periodical just two years later.
But hey, pointing out parallels like this is fun. Thus, I’m going to reveal them in the most dramatic form possible: through quotes and screenshots! Everybody loves those, right?
“I hope I have said enough already to let me glide briefly over the rest; the rest, that is, of the horror at the camp. I have told of the wind-ravaged terrain, the damaged shelters, the disarranged machinery, the varied uneasiness of our dogs, the missing sledges and other items, the deaths of men and dogs…” (Chapter 4)
Exhibit A: In The Thing, the Norwegian camp operates with basically the same significance as Lake’s camp in Mountains. Except Lake and his men didn’t leave behind anything so informative as a twisted mutant corpse; all that remained was those weird alien snow-tombs.
“At first all that Lake found was dry, but as the heated tent produced its thawing effect, organic moisture of pungent and offensive odor was encountered toward the thing’s uninjured side.” (Chapter 2)
Whoops! Better not let that ancient ice block defrost! After all, it might contain ghastly creatures beyond man’s reckoning. Never mind; it’s too late. That’s what you get for introducing heat to the damn polar regions. (Fun fact: Mountains and The Thing ’82 take place in the Antarctic; The Thing ’51 is set in the Arctic.)
“Having trouble with dogs. They can’t endure the new specimen, and would probably tear it to pieces if we didn’t keep it at a distance from them.”
Note for future polar explorers: listen to your dogs. They are smart. They have that special dog sense, the one that helped Balto transport all that diphtheria vaccine. They can discern when eons-old beings with little regard for humanity have sneaked into your midst. And when earthquakes about to strike. Man, dogs are useful.
“A good-sized blast had laid open the subterrene secret; and now, through a jagged aperture perhaps five feet across and three feet thick, there yawned before the avid searchers a section of shallow limestone hollowing worn more than fifty million years ago…” (Chapter 2)
Guys, what’s the lesson you’re trying to give us? Don’t go digging in the earth? I guess Lovecraft would say that geology is just another branch of science, and all scientific/mathematical endeavors inevitably lead to failure or madness. As for Hawks’s men, Andrew Sarris said they were driven by “professionalism.” And not digging up a potentially groundbreaking discovery would probably be a breach of their code. In Carpenter’s case, it’s not even the Americans’ fault. They’re just pitifully following in the Norwegians’ footsteps.
“They had done the same thing on other planets, having manufactured not only necessary foods, but certain multicellular protoplasmic masses capable of molding their tissues into all sorts of temporary organs…” (Chapter 7)
“Must dissect when we get back to camp. Can’t decide whether vegetable or animal.” (Chapter 2)
The greatest difference between the two Things is their monsters: Hawks has James Arness in pretty scary alien makeup; Carpenter has a series of icky, protean critters that turn into other critters. Here’s my proposal: the ’82 monster resembles Lovecraft’s “Shoggoths,” which also imitate other life forms. When the protagonist encounters one, he describes it as “a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light.” These same threateningly amorphous qualities are present in Carpenter’s thing.
Hawks’s thing, on the other hand, is more like Lovecraft’s Old Ones. Not so much in appearance (they have starfish-shaped heads), but in the vegetable/animal ambiguity that Dr. Carrington raves about. In any case, the thing’s extraction from the ground, its thawing, and its escape match what happens with the corpses of the Old Ones, practically scene for scene. Let the inquiring minds over at Miskatonic ponder that one for a while.
So what’s the point of this exercise? Well, it’s threefold: 1) it’s cool, 2) it shows how supplemental reading material can give new insight into this pair of films, and 3) it’s another example of Lovecraft’s ongoing influence on horror fiction. Plus, At the Mountains of Madness is not going away any time soon. Here, for your reading pleasure, are some reassuring quotes from Guillermo del Toro about his upcoming film adaptation of Mountains. (Also, not as reassuringly, there’s prequel to The Thing in the works.) So there you have it: Lovecraft is alive and well and living in Arkham!