John Carpenter's remake of "The Thing," opening today at area theaters, is a wretched excess.
It's not that originals are too sacred to be reinterpreted. They're period pieces that would have to be tinkered with to appear contemporary. They've simply been unlucky with their tinkerers, who haven't spruced up the pretexts without laying waste to the accompanying human interest, wit and thematic suggestiveness.
"The Thing," for instance, is a showcase for the extravagant horror brainstorms of the young makeup designer Rob Bottin, who worked on "The Fog" but made his reputation on the spectacular werewolf transmutations in "The Howling."
A real, if oddly specialized and shocking, virtuoso, Bottin seizes the opportunity to startle the audience with a squeamish, hideous, shape-shifting monster who bursts out of concealment from the innards of hosts, canine and human.
This chameleon-like form of menace restores a feature from the 1938 pulp story "Who Goes There?" that had been changed in the 1952 version of "The Thing." It's not necessarily a restoration for the better in a melodramatic sense, because the shape-shifter appears to hide within host bodies in an arbitrary fashion that suits the convenience of the filmmakers but fails to reveal a suspenseful pattern. The finite hulk impersonated by James Arness 30 years ago wasn't nearly as slimy or versatile as Bottin's mechanical abomination, but he was an easier threat to keep in focus.
However, the return to the shape-shifter was no doubt inevitable considering Bottin's specialty and the success of "Alien," which upped the ante on horrific spectacle.
The settings are similar--a secluded scientific outpost in polar regions. The North Pole in the Hawks-Lederer adaptation, it becomes the South Pole in the Carpenter revision, written by Bill Lancaster. One of the wittier touches in the remake is the pretense that the monster invades another base after eluding the sort of traps that snared him in the original. Rather like Dracula in his bat form, the monster infiltrates the new base while concealed in an animal's body and then proceeds to threaten every living creature with biological devastation and transformation.
Kurt Russell stars as the toughest holdout, a helicopter pilot named MacReady. A dozen men are isolated at the base, obliged to differentiate the remaining humans in their midst from the mere fac,ades taken over by the insatiable monster. The number of free souls has dwindled down to a precious few by the time Carpenter draws to an apocalyptic fade-out.
Naturally, the endangered dozen portrayed by Carpenter are freakier and more hostile than the group of rather urbane airmen and scientific staffers imagined by Hawks and Lederer. The resident freaks are played by Tom Waites and David Clennon and the camaraderie that paid off for the characters in Hawks' version is virtually useless now, since the men must constantly suspect each other. There's also no occasion for romantic byplay, since the outcasts have become all-male.
These alterations reduce interest almost exclusively to the sensations supplied by Bottin and his crew. Their most sustained burst of appalling creativity is designed to go the "Alien" highlights several strokes ghastlier. It begins with a resounding variation on the chest-exploding bit and climaxes with a madly macabre variation on the severed-head bit.
You may not feel like cheering, but it's impossible to deny that Bottin is a precocious master of the macabre.