Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The New 'Thing' Thing: Next Big Thing?

As I write this, and as predicted here, Universal is beginning shooting on a remake of John Carpenter's The Thing, the 1982 horror film that scared the crap out of everyone. I'm referring to the very first time I saw it, in a midnight "Check Screening." We had these on Thursday nights, ostensibly to verify the quality of the print and splices-- but really it was an excuse for all the employees of the Santa Cruz UA Theatres to gather, drink Bartles & Jaymes and have bragging rights. As the film unfolded, Joe Louis, the manager of the Del Mar 4, screamed his head off at the terrifying parts (and there were lots). Mr. Louis was by no means a stalwart, just an average guy-- but that night, John Carpenter's filmmaking had him shrieking like a 13-year-old girl.

This is a great, great film, under-appreciated in it's time. For those of you who still read things on paper, The BFI put out a extremely well-written monograph on The Thing a few years back, written by Anne Billson. Highly recommended.

As far as I've read, the new Thing is going to be a prequel, covering the events that lead up to the beginning of the John Carpenter movie. Just what was going on in that Norwegian camp? This folds nearly into the thread of this blog: It's the Tron Legacy approach, making a sequel or prequel rather than a reboot, keeping the original intact and reworking the premise.

Of course, it would be the acme of foolishness to point out that the events before the beginning of the 1982 movie do not really need to be spun out into a film. It was not a mystery, after all: it was set-up, indirect information that advanced the plot. I would say the new Thing a slightly less silly move than, say, making a unique Star Wars movie based on the text crawl in the beginning of a Star Wars movie. Oh, but I forgot-- Lucas did that with his "Clone Wars" deal. So never mind.

Although there is nothing in print that indicates this, I am willing to bet that the Director of Photography on The Thing is bungee-cording a second camera right next to the first one. I will be darn surprised if they don't go 3D in a big hurry. Honestly, looking at the last two weeks box office, I have never seen a gulf that consistent and wide between first and second place.

Will the inevitably computer-generated, morphing, shape-shifting alien have as much visceral impact as the makeup-and practical effects-based one did in the original? Objectively, I'd say not: I'm thinking of Will Smith being menaced by digital zombies and digital zombie dogs and digital lions in I Am Legend. Not scary. Even a mildly sophisticated moviegoer can pick out a digital monster from a real one, and I think the subconscious pre-processes CGI beasties as "not real: therefore, not scary." Really, it all lies with the power of the director. They've got Matthijs Van Heijningen Jr., a dutch commercial director, for the remake. First feature film: anything can happen.

And finally, my personal attachment to John Carpenter's The Thing: I got a chance to see some of the sets when I gate-crashed the Universal lot back in 1981. Daniel's friend Bill told me exactly which gate to go through so I wouldn't be challenged. I was a fearless, dopey kid back then-- had lunch in the commissary and everything. I got to walk through the sets (which were completely empty and unguarded) for the Norwegian camp and the tunnel under the shack where the alien was constructing a miniature flying saucer. They were covered with fake plastic icicles and plastic snow, convincingly arctic-looking despite the 95° heat. There were even little newspaper clippings tacked on the posts, all in Norwegian. I was tempted to snap an icicle off a set for a souvenir, but the call sheets on the door told me the crew was scheduled to shoot in them later that week.

And no, this is not an endorsement to go gate-crashing. In these celebrity-obsessed, post-9/11 days I think the guards wouldn't just politely escort you back out the gate if they caught you.


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  2. I hate to admit this, but I have never been emotionally engaged by a John Carpenter movie, including The Thing. I sat through that screening and when other people were screaming I was thinking "how surreal!" Just me, maybe. The one exception is STARMAN, which I did get into though it's about an emotionally disconnected alien.

    Hmmmm, I wonder if my new insurance covers therapy?

  3. You're dead inside. Oh yes, your headshots LOOK warm and soulful. but...

    STARMAN was Carpenter's apology for scaring everyone with THE THING. And Did you ever see PRINCE OF DARKNESS? It's a bit more cerebral than THE THING, but it has a chill and a hopelessness about it that lingers in the mind.

  4. I'm with you on Prince of Darkness - not scary, but clearly chilling.