John Carpenter once recalled a conversation he’d had with Stephen King: “[King said], ‘Look, the cliches in Hollywood is that you keep every monster in the dark… that you never see their face of the devil, don’t ever show it… However, if you can come up with something that’s so astonishing-looking on screen, you’ll hit a home run out of the ballpark. They’ll never forget it.’ So being stupid, I said ‘Let’s try that.’”
And so began production for The Thing, the eighth film by John Carpenter, his first with a major movie company and, in my opinion, one of the greatest horror movies ever made. It has something for everyone: a great whodunit mystery thriller, a disgusting gore-fest, the work of an effects genius, and a chance for Kurt Russell’s amazing beard to shine. So much care and effort went into this film that it’s hard not to talk about how awesome it is on a daily basis.
So let’s talk about how awesome it is.
Early drafts for the film were written by Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel, known for their work in co-creating The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; the screenplay would be completed by Bill Lancaster, the son of Burt Lancaster. This would be Bill Lancaster’s third and final screenplay, the previous two being, in contrast, the first two original Bad News Bears movies (cause sometimes, you just gotta do a complete 180 to make something cool, right?). In the end, John Carpenter was approached with the screenplay by Universal, and it would become his first major production feature.
Now, when anyone mentions The Thing, the first thing (sorry) that’s going to pop out (not sorry about that one) in conversation is the effects. The monsters. The pure insanity of the vision that John Carpenter brings to the screen. The film was made in 1982 when a lot of the technology to make real puppetry was being invented; as such, it still stands today as one of the benchmarks in the field of special effects.
John Carpenter was always a fan of practical effects: from his early films such as Darkstar and The Fog, he had always relied on handmade models and props to achieve his vision. For The Thing, his plan was to create a monster that could change appearance and shape at will, adapting to its surroundings; for this task, he hired veteran effects creator Rob Bottin, whose work is featured as well in The Fog, RoboCop, and the original Total Recall, among others (it should be noted here that Bottin was only 22 when he signed on to The Thing. What did you do when you were 22?). Carpenter also added on future James Cameron collaborator Stan Winston, who would go on to work on the Terminator and Jurassic Park films.
With this effects team in place, they set out to create some of the most bizarre, original, and downright disgusting creations that had ever been seen on film. A dog growing tentacles? Stan Winston created a special rig with which he and an assistant could writhe and thrash the tentacles from off-screen (he would later decline credit for his work, not wanting to detract from Rob Bottin). The autopsy-gone-wrong scene? Those were actual guts used on the set; apparently Wilford Brimley (Blair) and Carpenter himself were the only ones not grossed out by their use. And these were only the smaller details; all of the creatures seen on-screen were either models or real, life-sized goddamn puppets. T-Rexes ain’t got nothin’ on giant, slimy dog monsters!
Carpenter’s visuals, while one of the best parts of The Thing, aren’t the only notable elements here: there was also an important audio element at play, namely the horrific roar that the Thing produces. To create the sound effect, a number of different sounds were used – pig grunts, goat bleats, human voices, the voices of the actors in the film. This was meant to convey the sound that a creature would make after it had assimilated a number of different types of hosts – a fact that becomes way creeper the more you listen to it.
For the lead role of MacReady, John Carpenter sought out Kurt Russell, who had worked with Carpenter in Escape From New York; The Thing would lead to many more successful collaborations including Big Trouble In Little China and Escape From L.A. Other than Kurt Russell, however, The Thing stars largely no-name actors (it is to be noted that, other than the voice of a computer (portrayed by Carpenter’s then-wife Adrienne Barbeau), there are no female roles in the film); the other two notables are Keith David (who would go on to star in Crash, The Chronicles of Riddick, etc) and Wilford Brimley (who would later go on to an illustrious career with having diabe-tus, poor guy).
So now for the big question:
how could someone not like this movie?! how did The Thing do when it was unleashed upon the public? Surprisingly, not well. Not well at all. The visuals, while lauded for being fantastic, were actually too much for critics to handle, many labeling it as excessive. Notable film critic Vincent Canby would call it a “foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is fun as neither one thing or the other. Sometimes it looks as if it aspired to be the quintessential moron movie of the 80s.” Even the original’s creator, Christian Nyby, denounced the movie, famously saying of it, “If you want blood, go to the slaughterhouse. All in all, it’s a terrific commercial for J&B Scotch.” Ouch, dude!
Thankfully, as the movie circulated and was given a little bit of time for everyone to wipe their collective brains off the floor (and pull their collective heads out of their asses), The Thing would become one of the most respected horror films of all time, making many lists of must-see horror. It now holds an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes; it made Bravo’s 100 Scariest Moments list; Edgar Wright and John Sayles named it as the scariest movie they’d ever seen; and it created quite the legacy, spawning a graphic novel series, a video-game sequel, and a film prequel with Ramona Flowers, who admittedly was one of the best parts of it.
All of this appreciation is earned with good reason: this is a horror film unlike any other. John Carpenter has made many, many fantastic horror films – he was the one that brought us Halloween, Christine, and They Live!, after all – but The Thing remains one of his most complex, both story-wise and effects-wise. If you’re wondering why the hell I haven’t talked about the plot yet, it’s because I’m not going to. I don’t want to spoil any of the surprise, or fun, of seeing it for the first time. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, I’m not going to chastise you – I’m going to tell you that you need to see it, right now. Maybe after reading this article. It’s almost over, so if you got up I wouldn’t judge. Because John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of my favorite movies of all time, and it may just be yours, too. It certainly is Antarctica’s.