Wednesday, 31 October 2018

The thing about The Thing, part one

Something terrifying, long lost and forgotten, has been unearthed and revived, and is preparing to sow fear throughout the population of this planet.

For fans of John Carpenter's 1982 sci-fi horror film The Thing, that may sound like a bad attempt to prĂ©cis the beginning of its plot. But for those same fans this is actually a piece of astonishingly good news about the discovery of an old book.

John Carpenter's intense and disturbing film was based on a short story by John W. Campbell* from 1938 called Who Goes There?, first published in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction**.

But it has recently been discovered that in order to create the short story, Campbell abridged one of his earlier works: a full-length manuscript called Frozen Hell. This longer story was presumed lost or destroyed until the writer and biographer Alec Nevala-Lee managed to track it down to Harvard University's Houghton Library. Nevala-Lee passed the manuscript to Campbell's literary estate, and they in turn took it to the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter.
 At the time of writing, Frozen Hell has already shattered its Kickstarter funding goal and is preparing to commence its inaugural print run. If you're quick, you can be among the first to read the full-length book by backing it here.

In most versions of the story the alien creature is able to copy itself, absorbing and assimilating its hosts' memories, and combining them with its own, to create hybrid, not-quite-exact-duplicates of itself and its victims. 
This is similar to the way ideas take hold and propagate themselves through the minds of those that carry them, often mutating slightly as they spread. And that is exactly what has happened with Campbell's story. The concepts in the book, and especially in John Carpenter's film, have propelled themselves through a slew of new material, spawning prequels, sequels, copies and spin-offs in a variety of different formats.

So to celebrate the discovery of the new manuscript, over the next few posts I'll be listing some of the books, comics, TV shows, films and games that form the essential further reading, viewing and playing for fans of The Thing.

This week we'll start with the basics.

Who Goes There?

This is the book that started it all. John W. Campbell's original tale of an alien shapeshifter found frozen in the Antarctic ice and thawed out by a team of researchers in a remote U.S. outpost. The scientists suspect the creature is able to assimilate individuals in order to hide in plain sight, and this gives rise to a creeping paranoia, that eventually proves well-founded as gruesome violence flares up in the camp.

Although this eighty year old story is instantly recognisable from John Carpenter's 1982 movie The Thing, it still feels fresh today. This is probably partly due to its credible-sounding scientific content, and partly down to it containing a fair amount of material that didn't make it into the film, including the occasional, unexpected plot twist that differs from what fans of The Thing may have thought they knew

Like its subject matter, the novella has taken many guises over the years

Frozen Hell 
Although the above Who Goes There? is the story upon which all the others are based, we now know that Frozen Hell is the story upon which Who Goes There? is based. I haven't read this yet – very few people have – but Alec Nevala-Lee, who discovered the manuscript, says that some of the scientific aspects, including descriptions of the alien spacecraft, are greatly expanded in this version, along with an entirely different opening sequence.

According to website The Verge, Nevala-Lee had this to say about it:

'There are some interesting details in the restored draft, but the really fascinating thing is how it alters the structure of the entire story, which changes halfway through from a science fiction adventure into horror. I love that kind of unexpected shift in tone, and while I can see why Campbell decided to edit it down to focus on the psychological side, there’s something very modern – and effective – in the way that it switches abruptly from one genre to another.'

A more accurate strap-line would be 'The book that inspired the book that inspired The Thing'

The Thing From Another World (1951)
Although based on Campbell's short story, this film is only superficially similar to the book. Apart from its faithful depiction of the investigation of the crashed spacecraft, most of the story has undergone considerable adaptation. It is set near the North Pole, not in Antarctica, and the alien ship has only recently crashed in the ice, not been buried there for thousands of years. But it is the nature of the creature that is most notably different: a lumbering, plant-based, humanoid monster, with thorns for fingers, able to reproduce asexually by shedding seed pods from its body, and only really glimpsed in a handful of scenes towards the end.

With the film having been released a few years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, another subtle, yet notable difference is the inclusion of more nuclear science. Gone are simple magnetic readings and in their place are Geiger counters, often used to build tension as the frequency of their clicking tracks the creature's movement around the camp. As a cinematic device it became well-known to sci-fi fans after James Cameron repeated it to great effect in his 1986 film Aliens, by arming the squad of colonial marines with advanced, yet indistinct motion trackers.

The invention of devastating atomic weaponry also left a deeper legacy imprinted on The Thing From Another World. It was in the ideological conflict between the story's lofty scientists and the more practical Air Force servicemen tasked with helping them. The scientists are blinded by their need for progress, wanting to study and communicate with the monster, without thoroughly appreciating the potential negative consequences, 
ready to take unnecessary risks in the pursuit of knowledge; while the servicemen, more representative of the general American populace at the time, are quicker to see the severity of the threat, and realise the creature must be stopped at all costs.

The movie opened to mixed reviews in 1951, but it was still the most successful science fiction film at the US and Canadian box office that year, beating the releases of both the sci-fi classics The Day The Earth Stood Still and When Worlds Collide. These days history looks favourably upon it, as Time magazine describes it as the greatest sci-fi film of the 1950s – no mean feat in a decade often hailed as a golden age of big screen science fiction.

The Thing (1982)
'A peerless masterpiece of relentless suspense, retina-wrecking visual excess and outright, nihilistic terror.' So said Empire magazine when it included The Thing in its list of the 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. And although, since the 1990s, The Thing has generally been regarded as one of the best horror films ever made, it wasn't always so.

Upon its original release (the same day as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and just two weeks after E.T. The Extra Terrestrial), John Carpenter's The Thing did not perform well at the box office. Nor was it well received critically. In fact it took quite a beating from critics, film buffs and fans of science fiction alike. So much so that John Carpenter felt it significantly lowered the trajectory of the rest of his career. A doubly barbed sting, as he himself thought it was one of his best films.

But fast forward nearly forty years and the world has caught up with him, leaving it almost impossible to see where all the negativity came from. The acting, story and setting, along with the sheer inventiveness of the practical effects combine to create a suspenseful tale of paranoia and distrust, wrapped up in a non-stop, action-packed adventure, that is now widely considered a masterpiece of science fiction cinema.

This film will drive much of what we talk about in the following articles, so we'll no doubt look at specific aspects of it in greater detail as we go on.

The Thing (2011)
Just as with the John Carpenter film before it, upon its release this prequel was considered both a critical and commercial failure. It scores badly on many review-aggregration websites, and hardly made a dent at the box office. 

The story is set at the Norwegian research base, Thule Station – the destroyed camp in John Carpenter's film, whose occupants originally dug the creature out of the ice. In this prequel we discover that Thule Station had Americans among its staff, and that nearly everyone spoke English (except the man destined to survive to the beginning of John Carpenter's tale). Complaints about the movie seem to be many and varied. Some don't like the way the action in the Norwegian base rehashed the previous film, while others felt it didn't stick closely enough to the established assimilation lore (like telling us the shapeshifter is unable to wear an earring, or never referencing the torn clothes cited in the earlier film). Others felt the story, and particularly the plotting, were clumsy and un-thought-through (asking, for example, why the alien didn't simply attack the lone heroine in the final scene). And it seems there's a general feeling that the ending in the spacecraft is an incongruous departure from what has gone before (although from what we now know about Frozen Hell, this thematic shift may have accidentally echoed a previously unknown feature of the very first version of the story).

And while I agree this film is not as tight as its predecessor, I strongly disagree that it's a write-off. It is almost unheard of for a second entry in a movie series to be as good as the first (you can probably count the times this has happened using just your fingers), especially when the original is among the ranks of the greatest films of all time. In my eyes not only is this an exciting action story, packed with all the hallmark paranoia and distrust of its forebears, but, apart from a few minor inconsistencies, it also stays miraculously true to John Carpenter's vision.

The film makers went to such great lengths to stay faithful to John Carpenter's film that they described the writing process as being like an autopsy of his movie, reverse engineering it to piece the new film together from their findings. It's an unusual method, and it leaves the reverence for the 1982 version palpable throughout, like a love letter inked in hideous, spidery, black handwriting.

And although The Thing (2011) treads new ground, it also (despite the protestations of many of its makers) simultaneously acts as a remake for an untried generation, using modern film making techniques to achieve its (usually, but not exclusively) impressive visual effects, finding fresh and intelligent ways to convey existing ideas, and then wringing them for every available drop of tension.

In the next few parts of this article we'll look at some of the less well-known spin-offs spawned by The Thing, starting with the various sequels, but in the meantime, if you are a fan of these types of stories, and enjoy reading more about them, then some of these other posts on science fiction, fantasy and horror movies may also be of interest.

And finally, seeing as today is Halloween, here is one last image: a pumpkin sculpted by Ray Villafane and the team at Villafane Studios. For fans of The Thing its influences should be clear.

*Who Goes There? was originally published in Astounding Science FictionAt the time, Campbell had recently become editor of the magazine, so he published his short story under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart, based on the maiden name of his then wife Dona Stewart.
**Astounding Science Fiction is now known as Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

A great big can of greenskin: the Forge World Ork mega dread

It's nearly the end of Orktober and I haven't yet posted a damn thing. That's partially down to the usual reason: I've been busy doing non-hobby stuff; but also because when I have had a free moment, instead of continuing with my Undead War Mammoths, I've used that time to bring some of my background projects a little further forward. It's arguable whether this is efficient time management, but I guess when inspiration strikes on a stalled project, you should make good use of it. Seize the moment. Never look that gift horse in the mouth*. Grab the ball by the horns and run with the bull. Or sumfin' like dat.

So, although a couple of old projects have progressed a notch or two, the upshot is that I have nothing new I'm willing to share right now. Thus I'm going to have to post another old model instead. 

But what a model! One of Forge World's finest. And only fitting that we take the Ork theme, and smash it face first into the walking heavy armour of that other famous hobby appropriation, Dreadtober.

I won't go on about it, except to say that the bike in among the junk on the base is an old model from Ramshackle Games; the target-headed skull logo painted on the shoulder guard is the unit badge of my Ork Dread Mob; and, if I remember correctly, the model itself was really tricky to build, but a joy to paint.

*Unless you are from Troy, of course.