Thing One and Thing Two
I first watched Howard Hawk’s The Thing from Another World (AKA Thing One) in the mid-eighties. I was eleven at the time and staying with my newly married sister and her husband. The film from 1951 carried a creepy enough vibe, and at the time it was enough. Hawk’s rendition of John Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” (the novella on which both his film and John Carpenter’s The Thing are based), is shot in black and white with snappy acting and a stiff, Frankenstein’s Monster portrayal of the Thing by James Arness. In his film, Carpenter went back to the original story, in some aspects a closer adaptation to Campbell’s work.
At the core of both movies is the discovery of an alien being who has been buried in the ice for millennia. The U.S. military men and international band of scientists at the heart of Thing One actually make the discovery, fly out to the ice sheet, and accidentally destroy the traveler’s ship. The Thing alone survives, frozen in a block of ice. Thing Two announces its presence more subtly, first as part of the research contingent explores a destroyed Norwegian research base and finds the block of ice from which the Thing had been cut, and then when they trace the Norwegian’s steps to the site of the craft’s crash. In both films the visitor is not friendly, and our heroes find themselves trapped with an aggressive invader. Perhaps they are mankind’s only line of defense against interstellar threat.
Both films rely on isolation to amplify the dread and fear. Thing One finds our intrepid crew isolated in an Arctic wasteland. They have fairly consistent radio contact with the outside world, but the outside world—a commanding general in particular—causes confusion and communication breakdown when he can’t decide what he wants them to do with their find. Thing Two takes us to Antarctica, and wins this round with bleak cinematography and spotty radio contact. It is not only cold in these films; it is deadly cold, at least for the human occupants of the isolated bases.
One of the main differences between the films involves the amount of screen time dedicated to the monster. Thing One, a sort of sentient carrot who reportedly lives on human blood, rarely show’s its angry face—a break from many “man in a rubber suit” monster films of its day. But less is more here, as it often can be. The crew only catches fleeting glimpses of the creature, but those glimpses are timed well, adding to a growing sense of doom until the final conflict. Carpenter’s Thing Two, however, is fueled by creature effects veterans Stan Winston and Rob Bottin. Ironically, it’s Carpenter’s Thing which camouflages itself, creating a clone of a host body or hiding within, affording—at least in theory—less reason to show the monster. But with Winston and Bottin at the special effects helm, Thing Two leaves a trail of nightmare creatures and gore in its bloody wake.
Thing One is a great piece of filmmaking and nostalgia, a toss back to a time when a walking carrot could stir nightmares. The dialogue comes sharp and quick, the characters are just human enough to root for, or against in the case of Robert Cornthwaite’s Dr. Carrington. Thing Two is a desperate exercise in trying to stop an enemy when the enemy could be any living thing; it ends with one of the most bleak and sinister endings in horror cinema—and that’s indeed what The Thing is in both films: a piece of horror dressed in science fiction clothing. I can still watch 1951’s The Thing from Another World and find it entertaining, but the eleven-year-old who lay awake with thoughts of vampiric vegetables from space on his mind is long gone, replaced by an adult who recognizes the terrible beauty between the special effects in John Carpenter’s grim vision.