The season of ghouls, monsters, and masked killers seems like the time to look back on John Carpenter’s The Thing. 37 years later is no milestone unlike a 50 year anniversary, but as networks play it for marathons of old school scary movies, it does stir up thoughts about how it went from a disaster at launch to becoming a classic today.
The seed started from a 1938 story by Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell. The popular 1951 film The Thing From Another World was the inspiration behind Carpenter’s version. Rarely does a remake or sequel or spiritual successor rise above its predecessor, but it is hard to find anyone who will even say one word about the original source material or the Christian Nyby’s movie that started it all.
Production began in the 70’s and it was stuck in hell. Shifting from writer to writer and director to director, it was hard to find anyone to faithfully create this film. It finally landed on the Halloween director’s lap and it eventually came out to the world in 1982.
Ask most aficionados and they will say this is a classic, but it did not come off that way in the 80’s. At release, it was an utter failure from a revenue and review standpoint. Fans and critics hated it. Off of a $15 million budget, it only made $19 million domestically, not even a release outside of the United States. It got panned for its visual effects, an ambiguous ending that left to no happy conclusion, and the R rating did not help against friendlier releases like the Spielberg hit E.T.
“The movie tanked when it came out,” Carpenter admitted in a post-screening Q&A at the CapeTown Film Festival in 2013. “It was hated, hated by fans. I lost a job [1984 film titled Firestarter], people hated me, they thought I was horrible, violent—and I was. But now here we are 31 years later, and here you are filling the theater.”
The New York Times wrote at the time, “The Thing, which opens today at the Rivoli and other theaters, is too phony looking to be disgusting. It qualifies only as instant junk.”
The ending was problematic for the studio and anyone who saw the film when it opened in theaters. Audiences often like happy endings that are neatly wrapped up with a big bow. A bleak conclusion leaving people, even to today, wondering hopelessly which of the two survivors is not human was not what was desired in the 80’s. Universal pressured for a change, which Carpenter had filmed, but decided to stick to his guns, resulting in one of cinema’s most dramatic, and ambiguous finales.
Today, its pre-CGI effects look stunningly horrifying, making it confusing that people hated it nearly 40 years ago. Some technical limitations were present, but that did not stop Rob Bottin (Se7en, Total Recall, Robocop) and his team when creating the horrifying, shapeshifting alien. Ideas like the creature breaking through the ice to attack the struggling scientists from below was tossed around, but nobody could figure out how to accomplish that.
The design of the monster and its mechanical elements were ahead of its time. Similar to Jurassic Park, it used robotics to move around and come to life. Bottin was meticulous and careful about his creation.
“Rob [Bottin] was always very sensitive about his creatures,” recalled cinematographer Dean Cundey. “Whether there was too much light on them. We always sort of joked: If it was up to Rob he would build the creatures to be incredibly interesting and imaginative and then not put any light on them because he was afraid of showing them.”
In 2019, anything can be possible with either CGI or using practical effects. Bottin had to get creative with his craft. When Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) attempts to revive Norris (Charles Hallahan) with a defibrillator, and Norris’ chest turns into a mouth that devour’s the doctors arms, Bottin had to find a way to make this iconic scene work. After finding a man who had lost both of his arms in an industrial accident, Bottin got the man with two prosthetic forearms made out of wax bones, rubber veins, and Jell-O. In the wide-angle, he fit the man with a mask taken from a mold of Dysart’s face and placed the arms into the cavity, where a set of mechanical jaws chomped down on them.
The network television version was edited by Sidney Sheinberg. This scene altered the ending and other parts throughout. Carpenter dismisses this version as Sheinberg’s edition eliminated the director’s themes.
After a home video release and reevaluation from the audience and critics lead to a different conclusion about the film’s quality. Empire wrote, “In fact, The Thing is a peerless masterpiece of relentless suspense, retina-wrecking visual excess and outright, nihilistic terror, placing 12 men at an Antarctic station while a shapeshifter takes them over one by one.”
People were distracted by E.T. and some films are ahead of the times. Today violence on both TV and film is way more extreme, altering the view on blood and gore. A growing audience and home video is what took this from the trash and onto the mantel where the other beloved horror icons are placed.
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Images via Universal