In today's post we'll be digging a little deeper into John Carpenter's The Thing and taking a look at some of the ways it has been continued in other media. There is no single, official sequel, but, like the creature itself, Carpenter's story has spawned a variety of off-shoots, taking disparate forms, reaching out in multiple directions to probe unexplored possibilities.
If you missed the original part of this article, we talked about the short story that inspired The Thing, John W. Campbell's 1938 classic novella Who Goes There? and Frozen Hell, the original manuscript upon which that short story was based. We also looked at the two other major movies, The Thing From Another World (1951) and the prequel, also titled The Thing (2011).
Before we delve into the assorted takes on what happens after the end of Carpenter's movie, let's just quickly recap where it left off. We're about to discuss the film's finale, and the various ways other stories have picked up on that, so obviously this will include spoilers. In fact, from here on in, pretty much everything is a spoiler.
At the end of the film only two characters are left alive: R. J. MacReady, played by Kurt Russell; and Childs, played by Keith David. Both men are stranded in the freezing Antarctic night, among the ruins of their camp, Outpost 31. Neither man has reason to trust the other, and the audience is given very little indication as to whether one of them is actually the alien shapeshifter. The movie draws to a close with MacReady offering Childs a swig of whisky and suggesting that the two of them just wait 'for a little while... see what happens'.*
The ambiguous nature of this conclusion left some fans clamouring for more, prompting them to scrutinise the movie for any possible clues, and generally have a right old time coming up with theories to explain exactly what had happened. Over the next couple of decades four of these ideas gained traction among the wider fan base.
Molotov whisky theory
It has been suggested that in the final scenes Mac had swapped his whisky for gasoline, hoping to catch out the alien and its unsensitised taste buds. When Childs doesn't react to the drink, it is taken as a sign that he has been infected. The theory is essentially based on two facts. First, in order to wipe out any trace of the creature, MacReady spends much of the third act running around carrying molotov cocktails, made from old whisky bottles. He doesn't appear to be carrying any real whisky, and, second, when he does eventually claim to have real whisky we never see him sip any of it before passing it on to Childs. While this may indeed be an ingenious ploy by Russell's character, and an even more ingenious bit of filmmaking by Carpenter, it is, of course, just as likely to be down to economical storytelling, with the audience not being shown every minor detail of every inconsequential move.
My belief is that we know the alien makes excellent copies of its victims and receives all its host's memories upon assimilation, so if Childs could tell the difference between palatable alcohol and utterly repugnant petrol, then most likely the alien could too.
Amateur filmmaker, Rob Ager, explains the whole thing in fascinating detail in one of his videos, here.
Eye gleam theory
This idea came about after one of the crew divulged that during the filming of the scene where Palmer is revealed to be a creature, the lighting had been arranged to keep any reflections out of the character's eyes. Some fans therefore decided that all imposters could be detected at any point in the film, simply by looking at their eyes. This is simply not the case, and on inspection the idea is easily debunked, as shown in another of Rob Ager's detailed videos here.
Clothing continuity theory
Does Childs change his jacket between being confirmed human and showing up in the final scene of the film? If so, does that imply his first coat was ripped during a violent assimilation by a marauding alien shapeshifter? Rob Ager's take is here.
No breath theory
At the end of the film, with the two characters outside in the snow, MacReady's breath is clearly visible every time he speaks or exhales. This is obviously due to the sub-zero Antarctic conditions, but when Childs speaks no such vapour can be seen. Some people have taken this to mean the creature has no need to breathe or that its breath is somehow different, and therefore Childs has been assimilated. The theory is lent some weight by Keith David himself, who confessed in an interview that it looks conspicuous.
But again, I don't support the idea, as I believe it just comes down to the way the scene is lit, and the actors' relative proximity to a source of heat, but, again, you can watch another of Rob Ager's videos here, detailing both sides of the argument, and make up your own mind.
Most of these theories point to Childs having been infected by the end of the film, but the various sequels didn't all agree. Let's take a look and see how they interpreted his and MacReady's fate.
Most of these theories point to Childs having been infected by the end of the film, but the various sequels didn't all agree. Let's take a look and see how they interpreted his and MacReady's fate.
The Thing From Another World (1991)
I'm going out on a hastily extruded, chitinous limb, to say that this comic, first published by Dark Horse** in December 1991, is still considered by many to be the genuine sequel to John Carpenter's film, even after the other takes on the story have shown up and confused the canonicity.
Written by Chuck Pfarrer and drawn by John Higgins, the story opens with MacReady waking up aboard a whaling-ship, after having been dragged by Childs on to an ice floe. Uncertain as to whether Childs was infected or not, Mac steals the ship's helicopter and goes to look for him. He lands at the remains of Outpost 31 and sets about burning any remaining biomass, but is caught in the act by a U.S. Navy SEAL team, led by Commander Erskine. Erskine and his men have been sent to investigate the earlier destruction of the base and accuse Mac of having killed all its occupants. Some of the SEAL team become infected, and a battle ensues, destroying their transport, and leaving only a handful of survivors. Erskine insists Mac help him take his injured men to an Argentine camp in the next valley, where they eventually find Childs, whose humanity is proven in a blood test. Erskine arranges rendezvous with a U.S. submarine, but turns out to be infected himself. MacReady and Childs reach the submarine just before it submerges, but Erskine transforms into a hideous creature and causes the sub to crash into an underwater ledge. In a final effort to destroy the thing, Mac blows the sub's hatches and fills the interior with near-freezing sea water. Mac appears to be the only survivor to reach the surface, and once again finds himself stranded on the Antarctic ice.
You can see a motion comic of it, made by fan collective, The Slow Mutants, here.
The Thing From Another World: Climate Of Fear (1992)
This story, written by John Arcudi, and drawn by Jim Somerville, Brian Garvey and Robert Jones, picks up directly where the previous one left off. MacReady is rescued from the ice by a group of Argentinians, who, deciding he is too weak to recover in such a cold climate, move him to an outpost in the jungles of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. Unfortunately Mac's life gets crazy again when it becomes clear that one of the rescue party was assimilated back near the crashed sub. In the warmer climate the organism is able to spread at greater speed and the entire camp is forced into lock-down, not knowing who to trust. The situation worsens when Childs turns up with a U.S. Navy combat team, only to be revealed as a creature himself. In the climactic sequence, Navy jet fighters napalm the entire site leaving only MacReady, and a couple of others alive.
You can see another of those motion comics by the Slow Mutants, here.
The Thing From Another World: Eternal Vows (1993)
This further continuation takes the story in a surprisingly fresh direction as the action moves to a small town on Stewart Island in New Zealand. A serial killer turns out to be one of the creatures, using the cells of its victims to replenish the rapidly dying ones in its own body. Written by David de Vries and drawn by Paul Gulacy and Dan Davis, the comic shows us the monster's thoughts, revealing that its host's consciousness is not entirely lost after assimilation, but begins to fade out over time.
Here's the motion comic.
The Thing From Another World: Questionable Research (1993)
In this final instalment from the original run by Dark Horse, the action takes us back to the ruins of Outpost 31. Scripted by Edward Martin III and illustrated by Ted Naifeh and Alex Niño, the story follows a group of scientists who collect samples of the dormant, but not dead creature, and chopper them back to their research vessel to conduct a series a tests. Once aboard the ship they confirm that, as shown in the earlier stories, assimilation is quicker in a more temperate climate, and a victim's brain is the last part to be subsumed by the alien consciousness – meaning a victim may not, at least for a while, even be aware they are infected. Sadly for the scientists, this understanding offers little practical aid in their attempt to defeat the creature once it inevitably escapes confinement.
See the motion comic here.
The Thing (2002 video game)
Although this third-person shooter video game was a new take on what happened after John Carpenter's story, it starts in a similar manner to the above comics by having a team of U.S. soldiers sent to investigate the events of the film. The player controls Captain Blake as he takes his Special Forces team to examine the ruins of Outpost 31, while another team search the Norwegian camp, all under the overall command of Colonel Whitley, via radio contact.
The game used an innovative fear/trust system whereby paranoia could be rendered a playable feature by sowing distrust and panic throughout the characters. Among other things, the player would have to give up weapons, submit to blood tests and avoid hitting team mates during firefights in order to maintain trust.
Only a little into the game, Blake and his men find the frozen body of Childs, who most likely wasn't infected and has died of hypothermia. The soldiers destroy the remains of the American outpost, and Blake sets out to join the other team at the Norwegian camp. Once there he discovers the other squad has been attacked and are not in good shape. Their captain, Pierce, shoots himself after becoming infected.
Blake then locates a secret installation under the Norwegian base, the Pyron sub-facility, where he learns of a company called Gen-Inc, under the leadership of Dr. Sean Faraday (voiced by John Carpenter). Gen-Inc had been conducting biological experiments on the alien shapeshifters, but had lost control and unwittingly started a new infection. Colonel Whitley is also present and it soon becomes clear he has an agenda of his own.
The idea of military units being sent to investigate was most likely inspired by James Cameron's 1986 film, Aliens, and it's another theme from that franchise that recurs here when Whitley outlines his proposal to weaponise the creature for use in biological warfare.
As part of his plan, Whitley has injected himself with the creature's genes, and is attempting to control the infection. He kills Dr. Faraday when the scientist tries to intervene, and renders Blake unconscious for transport to another facility, called Strata. Blake awakens in the abandoned base and has to fight his way through a variety of foes, before eventually encountering Whitley at the site of the original crashed spaceship. In a final reveal, MacReady shows up to help Blake defeat the now monstrous Whitley.
You can see a trailer for the game here.
The Thing II (2003 cancelled video game)
Due to the success of the initial game a second one was planned that would have taken the story further, with enhanced creatures and transformation sequences. MacReady and Blake were to battle various horrific incarnations of the creature across several ice-bound locations, including a small refinery town and an offshore oil rig, before eventually boarding an infested aircraft carrier.
Sadly it was cancelled after the production company, Computer Artworks, went into receivership in late 2003.
You can see one of the unused creature transformations here and some more of the stunning concept art here.
Return Of The Thing (2005 cancelled TV mini-series)
This two-part, four-hour television mini-series, was set to be produced by Frank Darabont for the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy), but only got as far as a screenplay and some early concept work.
The story would have started six months after the events of the film, with a group of Soviets, lead by Dr. Lukanov, being the first to explore the remains of Outpost 31. They would have found the frozen bodies of Childs and MacReady (both still human), and started studying the remains of the creature and the spacecraft. However an accident claiming the life of Lukanov's wife would have shut down the Russian project, and mothballed all the samples.
Fast-forward twenty-three years and one of those samples has somehow found its way onto a commercial airliner heading for Los Angeles. Lukanov discovers what has happened and uses a cover story about weaponised small pox to warn the U.S. authorities. When jet fighters start to escort the plane, the creature on board panics and erupts into a monstrous form, causing the plane to crash near the town of Christmas in New Mexico.
A local man, John Little Bear, witnesses the plane crash and the subsequent assimilation of a coyote, and believes he's seen something that his people call a skinwalker. He tries to stop it, but it starts infecting other animals in the vicinity, and by the time Lukanov arrives to help with the containment procedures, the town of Christmas is missing 250 of its inhabitants...
You can read a fuller review of the screenplay here.
The Thing: Assimilation – Outpost 3113 (2007 theme park attraction)
In 2007, as part of Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights, an immersive walk-through experience was created in their Orlando theme park, based on Carpenter's film. Visitors were given access to U.S. Air Force Bio-Research Facility Outpost 3113, where the wreckage of Outpost 31 had been brought for analysis. Included among the remains were the bodies of Childs and MacReady, now kept frozen in cryogenic storage tanks. It was said that one of them was not of this world – though exactly which one was cunningly left unspecified. The military science team were investigating the organism's shapeshifting capabilities, and were being pressured from above to move forward with human trials. The event saw these go spectacularly wrong as fearsome creatures in a multitude of shapes and sizes ran rampant throughout the base.
Before we finish up, let's take a quick look at some of the less official sequels. Originally, I wasn't going to include fan made stories in this article***, but on closer inspection I realised that the lack of official endorsement does not necessarily mean a lack of quality – so where do you draw the line? And there are a few ideas that really stand out... perhaps precisely because their creators are such fans.
Unfinished Business (2015 short story)
This is an intriguing idea, written by John Alexander Hitchcock, that deliberately replaces the bleak tone of Carpenter's film with a more upbeat sense of hope and optimism. It sees Childs and MacReady saved by a team from the Russian base mentioned in the 2011 prequel movie. They meet up with that film's sole survivor, Kate Lloyd, and everyone tests negative to infection. This gives the combined group a chance to come up with a definitive strategy to defeat the creature once and for all.
You can read the full story here.
The Thing Inside (2013 treatment)
If you've already clicked on some of the earlier links to filmmaker Rob Ager's videos – where he discusses the veracity of many of the fan theories – you will probably have noticed they are deeply researched and well put together. And he has put that same attention to detail into his video treatment for a possible sequel to Carpenter's film. Although essentially just him talking about what a story could include, it contains plenty of interesting elements, including resolutions for some of the less developed lore encountered in the 1982 film, like the length of time it takes for an assimilation, and whether victims retain any of their consciousness.
The Thing 2 RPG (2015 video game)
This is another fan made project, but again this has been done so well it really deserves to be mentioned. At it's most basic level it serves as a sequel to the 2002 video game (ignoring the cancelled 2003 version), with the player taking control of a rescue team sent to find Captain Blake after his aircraft crashes on the journey back to base. But, despite the look of some of the early graphics, basic is something this isn't. The game is rich in narrative and not only moves the story on in multiple directions, depending upon which mode you chose and how you play, but also fills in some of the unseen events from the original game through side missions – like one where you discover how Captain Pierce became infected.
The game is continually being updated and improved by its developer Richard2410 (AKA RicnardQele), with talk of a major update to the character graphics slated for next year.
A promo for one of the missions can be found here and more information about some of the different playable stories here.
The Things: (From Another World) (2010 novella)
This book, by Dan F. Brereton****, isn't technically a follow-up to John Carpenter's The Thing. Instead it was written as a sequel to the 1951 movie, The Thing From Another World, telling the story of seeds from the film's plant-like monster making it back to mainland Europe and the carnage that follows.
They Live (1988)
We'll finish on this, as personally I find the idea quite fascinating. The thought that cult film They Live could be considered a sequel to The Thing was suggested by Keith David in the interview mentioned earlier in this article. He posits the idea that Carpenter himself may have written and directed it as an unofficial next chapter to his earlier film.
They Live tells the story of a drifter in Los Angeles who discovers a pair of sunglasses which, when worn, reveal some awful truths. The world is really run by a network of aliens, disguised as humans, who have replaced humanity's ruling class and are manipulating people to accept the status quo while they deplete the planet's resources. The film is based on a comic book version of a 1963 short story, Eight O'Clock in the Morning, by Ray Nelson.
Keith David, who also appears in this film (playing a different character), explains that the alien creature from The Thing would have managed to escape the Antarctic, and made it to human civilisation, whereupon it would have infiltrated the top ranks of our society. It may have mutated or evolved to a stable form, reflecting our own, and is now in charge of the destiny of the entire planet. It makes a certain level of sense, especially if you consider that the creature might gain little by assimilating an entire population, but may be better off leaving humanity in place as an abundant source of provision.
That's it for now. In the next part of this article we'll look at some of the other ways the story has been copied, modified and reproduced in its attempt to infiltrate new areas of the population and absorb new fans. In the meantime if there are any other sequels that may have escaped my attention, lurking surreptitiously to one side, that you'd like to shine a flame-thrower on, or you simply have some thoughts you want others to assimilate, please do so in the comments below.
*Later in the eighties an alternate (generally considered inferior) cut of the film was produced for the mass-market, American, television audience. As well as attempting to sanitise it by removing most of the swear words and many of the scenes showing the creature, it also tried to reduce some of the ambiguity by adding narration and changing the ending. In the final scene a dog is shown running off into the snow (reappropriated from the original opening scene), with a portentous voiceover explaining the need to watch others, because who knows what tomorrow, tonight will bring. You can see a list of most of the ways this cut diverges from Carpenter's original here, although it's worth noting this version itself has been edited in different ways for different markets.
**At the end of the eighties and early nineties Dark Horse Comics hit upon the idea of taking popular science fiction films and continuing their stories in comic book form. In just a few years they'd published many hundreds of pages of adventures set in the universes of Alien, Predator, Terminator, Robocop, Star Wars etc, not to mention coming up with the original Alien vs. Predator crossover stories, way before the first film of that name.
***Although if you really want to see a fan made movie sequel to The Thing, this one, by Erik Phairas, AKA MetalAlien, gets mentioned a lot where people mention this kind of stuff.
****Probably a pen name for San Fransisco based comic artist, and sometimes writer, Dan Alan Brereton.