Who Goes There and/or The Thing

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Friday, December 14, 2012

Who Goes There and/or The Thing

That court mandated “quiet time” I referenced a few days ago gave me the opportunity to acquaint myself with a majority of the work of Lovecraft, his influences and his contemporaries and although I realize not everyone will share my views I believe his writings have influenced far more authors and directors than most people realize.  So let’s deconstruct John Wood Campbell’s “Who Goes There” and the three major films it has inspired.  As a side note ITunes seems to be shuffling the greatest hits of 70’s, 80’s and 90’s dance music so this may get surreal at some point.

Who Goes There? is a science fiction novella by John W. Campbell, Jr. originally under the pen name Don A. Stuart, published August 1938 in Astounding Stories. In 1973, the story was voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the finest science fiction novellas ever written, and published with the other top vote-getters in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two.

A group of scientific researchers, isolated in Antarctica, discover an alien spaceship buried in the ice. They try to thaw the inside of the spacecraft with a thermite charge, but end up accidentally destroying it when the ship's magnesium hull is ignited by the charge. However they do recover the alien pilot, which the researchers believe was searching for heat when it froze. Thawing the alien revives the being, which can assume the shape, memories, and personality of any living thing it devours. It immediately becomes the crew's physicist, a man named Connant, and with some 90 pounds of its matter left it tries to become a sled dog. They kill the alien as it becomes the dead dog.

The researchers try to figure out who may have been replaced by the alien, simply referred to as the Thing, and to then destroy the surrogates before they can escape and take over the world. Ultimately, they realize that even small pieces of the aliens will behave as independent organisms, and use this weakness to test which men have been "converted" by taking blood samples from everyone on the base and dipping a hot wire in the vial of blood. Each man's blood is tested, one at a time, and the donor is immediately killed if his blood recoils from the wire. The original Thing had (unbeknownst to the researchers) taken control of a man named Blair, who'd had a nervous breakdown when they discovered the creature's abilities and had accordingly been isolated to a small cabin. With the monsters inside the base destroyed, the surviving humans enter the cabin to find and kill the creature which had once been Blair, just as it finishes building an anti-gravity harness that would have allowed it to escape.

I find it interesting that pieces of the original plot would find their way into the 1951 and 1982 movies, destroyed spaceship by thermite charge in the 1951 version and the hot wire to find the alien in the 1982 version but these seem to be exclusive to their respective movies.  One of the things I really like about the novella is the snippets of internal dialogue of the one infected.  Campbell did a good job of using the “host’s” words and cadence while communicating the thoughts of the alien.

The story is of an Air Force crew & scientists at a remote Arctic research outpost forced to defend themselves from a malevolent plant-based alien being. It stars Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, Robert Cornthwaite and Douglas Spencer. James Arness played The Thing, but he is difficult to recognize in costume and makeup, because of both the lighting and the other effects used to obscure his features.

No actors are named during the film's dramatic opening credits; the cast credits appear at the end of the film. The movie was partly filmed in Glacier National Park and interior sets built at a Los Angeles ice storage plant. In 2001, the film was deemed to be a "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant motion picture by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

This is one of the classic movies that I can and have watched every time I have come across it on the cable guide.  For a film from the 50’s it actually has a few scenes that would have been controversial at the time for example but not limited to the green house scene where the doctor is feeding The Thing’s seedlings bottles of human blood.  I can hear the gasps from the audience now.  The scene when the humans set fire to the alien and the barracks had to be a one take shot and I’m not sure how they kept from burning down the set let alone how no one got third degree burns.  Did I mention it’s a seven foot carnivorous carrot.  This is of course the film that the two following will be judged by most people but I will be examining all three as separate unrelated films and instead compare them to the original novella.

Before I start talking about the 1982 film we need a quick refresher on At The Mountains of Madness. 

At the Mountains of Madness is a novella by horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, written in February/March 1931 and rejected that year by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright on the grounds of its length.  It was originally serialized in the February, March and April 1936 issues of Astounding Stories. It has been reproduced in numerous collections.

The story has inadvertently popularized the concept of ancient astronauts, as well as Antarctica's place in the "ancient astronaut mythology".

Miskatonic University of Arkham, Massachusetts, sends a scientific expedition to explore the snowy wastes of Antarctica. Once there the team uses experimental drilling equipment to search for fossils from the days when Antarctica was a steaming, prehistoric jungle. In an icy cavern members of the expedition discover perfectly preserved specimens of a winged, column-like creature and bring them back to camp for study.

Informed of the momentous find by radio, the unnamed expedition leader and a companion race to the scene. When they arrive they discover the camp destroyed, the men and sled dogs alike slaughtered and dissected. The mysterious specimens are missing along with some scientific equipment and one team member. Suspecting mutiny or perhaps insanity the team leader sets off into the mountains, following the tracks of a hastily constructed sledge and footprints that are decidedly inhuman. Almost willfully blind to the truth until too late, the scientists realize the alien specimens were only hibernating and now seek to return to the ancient pre-human city that is their home. What follows is a story told in hieroglyphs, recording the rise and fall of an alien empire that genetically engineered man as a buffoonish, ape-like jester to amuse their inhuman intellects. The explorers must try to escape not only the city, but also the mindless, protoplasmic slaves who built it for their slumbering creators.

In the midst of the Antarctica snowfield, the scientists and workers of a small American research base are shocked when a helicopter begins to circle their camp, chasing and shooting at a dog. When the helicopter is destroyed and the passengers are killed, the dog is let into the base and the American's begin to wonder what has actually happened. The helicopter has Norwegian markings, must be from the Norwegian base not too far from their own. A team of Americans are sent to the Norwegian base and find out what has happened. On arrival, they find that the place has been totally destroyed. They also discover a mangled body that looks as though it was once that of a person, which they bring back with them for further study. It is only then that the clues begin to add up; the dog morphs horribly into a strange creature that attacks the researchers. They manage to fight it off, but they come to a terrible conclusion: an alien with the power to transform and take the appearance of anybody else is amongst them. Who is infected already, and who can be trusted? Helicopter pilot J.R Macready sets out to find the answers to exactly that.

I once read in an interview with John Carpenter that he intentionally was trying to combine At The Mountains of Madness and The Thing, my opinion is it worked.  Desolate isolation, tentacle monsters and a heavy atmosphere of depression are items shared by both works.  Oddly, when I was younger I couldn’t stand his movie and it actually took me until I was in my 30’s before sitting through it from start to finish.  I have since changed my mind and believe this is a great film.  In addition to the Lovecraft imagery in the aliens it is also worth noting that is was not meant to be a remake of the 1951 film but a version closer to the novella.   If there is nothing else, watching Wilford Brimley be all creepy and torn apart by a monster is well worth the 109 minutes.

But even when I didn’t think much of this film the scene of the sled dog running with the helicopter chasing it piqued my curiosity.  I wanted to know that story as well so when I first heard of a prequel being made I of course was excited to finally find out what happened when the Norwegians encountered the alien…

Antarctica: an extraordinary continent of awesome beauty. It is also home to an isolated outpost where a discovery full of scientific possibility becomes a mission of survival when an alien is unearthed by a crew of international scientists. The shape-shifting creature, accidentally unleashed at this marooned colony, has the ability to turn itself into a perfect replica of any living being. It can look just like you or me, but inside, it remains inhuman. In the thriller The Thing, paranoia spreads like an epidemic among a group of researchers as they're infected, one by one, by a mystery from another planet. Paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has traveled to the desolate region for the expedition of her lifetime. Joining a Norwegian scientific team that has stumbled across an extraterrestrial ship buried in the ice, she discovers an organism that seems to have died in the crash eons ago. But it is about to wake up. When a simple experiment frees the alien from its frozen prison, Kate must join the crew's pilot, Carter (Joel Edgerton), to keep it from killing them off one at a time. And in this vast, intense land, a parasite that can mimic anything it touches will pit human against human as it tries to survive and flourish. The Thing serves as a prelude to John Carpenter's classic 1982 film of the same name.

Oh Boy, this movie sucks!  That scene I mentioned above with the sled dog, it’s weaved into the closing credits.  Like they forgot this was supposed to be a prequel and just threw it on at the end to have it connect with the 1982 film.  Still Antarctica and still a tentacle monster but now the special effects look like crap and the acting is stiff and looks like no one really wanted to be in this thing.  If you are interested in the opinion of someone I regard with awe and respect then please point your browser to Linkara at Atop The Forth Wall and watch his excellent video on the novella, two movies and the comic book incarnations of The Thing: Part 1 and Part 2.

Whoa, that took way longer to write than i expected.  Just made it Cthulhu CFriday.

Related Posts:

  1. Who Goes There? Home – A site dedicated to John W. Campbell’s Novella.
  2. Who Goes There? Wikipedia Page – But of course.
  3. The Thing (1951) Wikipedia Page – Better people have written before me.
  4. At the Mountains of Madness H.P. Lovecraft Book Review – Allreaders.com.
  5. At the Mountains of Madness Wikipedia Page – Yep, not a valid source of info.
  6. The Thing (1982) IMDB page – Plot summary page to be exact.
  7. The Thing (2011) IMDB page – Plot summary page again.
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