John Carpenter may well be the master of horror filmmaking, but that’s not to say that someone else can’t tackle his esteemed previous work. In fact, Dutch filmmaker Matthijs van Heijningen Jr’s 2011 version of The Thing could be argued as a brave career choice, considering the 1982 film’s cult following. Not to be confused as a remake of the first, but a prequel – both based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, whichever way you look at it, van Heijningen Jr’s new film is certain to spark similar debate over its genetics ideas.

Just to confuse matters, this prequel is set in 1982, and sees American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) recruited by scientists Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) and assistant Adam Finch (Eric Christian Olsen) to join a Norwegian scientific team that has stumbled across a crashed extraterrestrial spaceship buried beneath the ice of Antarctica. Its passenger, an alien creature frozen in a block of ice, is taken back to their base, Thule Station, where Dr. Halvorson decides to drill into the ice to take a tissue sample, despite Kate’s protests. In turn, this frees the thing from the ice and triggers a frightening chain of events. The mystery parasite suddenly mimics everything it touches, spurning paranoia among Thule’s inhabitants as to who is infected in the struggle to survive.

The 2011 film certainly feels like a remake, down to the room that contains the frozen alien life form and the endless corridors and exits of Thule Station that could signal danger at any moment. However the suicide at the outpost and the fleeing Alaskan Malamute at the end and suggest otherwise, supposedly matching up events to the start of Carpenter’s film. The unforgiving Antarctic setting still brings the required chills and sense of complete isolation, which Carpenter’s film did so well to enhance the characters’ paranoia.

However, what is missing is the terrifying and unnerving feeling of anybody at the outpost being infected by the virus or a clone of themselves, after van Heijningen Jr makes Kate the ‘trusted’ protagonist in his film who is supposedly ‘clean’. In doing so, the paranoia felt this time around is naturally lessened, making it an altogether different film. Hence, it’s more like Kate’s personal witch-hunt to find the next victim/culprit and contain the thing, rather than the complete fear of the unknown and subsequent chaos of Carpenter’s film. As much as Winstead is compelling as the smart and courageous young paleontologist, it could be argued why does a Norwegian scientific team need an inexperienced American graduate to do the job, which is when new plot holes form.

The bemusing original concept of a virus that mimics a person is given some screen-time thought for fans – but it’s still not clear enough. In the first film we know the thing absorbs and imitates cells, but it still doesn’t answer just how a person becomes infected in the first place – short of the obvious one-on-one contact where the thing penetrates its victim. Is it airborne too: There seems to be a lack of consistency, considering who gets sick and who doesn’t. In van Heijningen Jr’s defence, he does flag the issue of how the inorganic material can’t be replicated, but how does this explain the clones being fully dressed or fully functional as the people they imitate? Is it a lazy way out to say, “Well, that’s the mystery of sci-fi”?

This film favours a mixture of CGI and old-fashioned effects to recreate the thing that don’t always marry in parts and seem a little effects-heavy in others. However, the design of the tentacled biomass with its ‘vaginal denata’, morphing into all kinds of body shapes is still fascinating to witness, if less scary than the original after exposure to many Alien-styled films. There are also obvious, strong references to the latter, even down to shots of Winstead peering around a corner – strikingly similar to Sigourney Weaver as Ripley.

Indeed, we get a look at the vast expanse of the buried alien spacecraft in this film that mirrors many other sci-fi films in design, and short of being the place where a brief battle takes, and to possibly trigger post-viewing debate about how the frozen alien suffered the same fate as the humans, detracts from Carpenter’s authentic claustrophobia and paranoia, plus adds very little to the mystery of the virus. It merely feels like a muse for van Heijningen Jr and writing team to pay homage to their sci-fi legends, rather than adding anything new to this prequel’s narrative to enhance our prior knowledge.

That said, and without necessarily having seen Carpenter’s 1982 version, van Heijningen Jr’s The Thing still works as a perfectly watchable contemporary sci-fi thriller on the surface by creating enough entertaining scares, and with its strong-willed protagonist at the helm trying to stop the bloody body count – even if it loses out on cult-classic status. Considering the success of other recent Scandanaivan horror films like TrollHunter (Trolljegeren), Rare Exports and Let The Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in), van Heijningen Jr could have angled for that distinct European, non-Hollywood edge by making a totally Norwegian-language film that ties in with the narrative of the sequel, and gives an even greater sense of entrapment by language barrier, as well as by the actual menace. If nothing else, such films suggest audiences are more than willing to invest in subtitled films to gain a real feeling of disorienting terror.