Written By: Daniel Kinsley
For a period of about a dozen years, writer/director John Carpenter went on a run that signaled a high water mark that remains unmatched in genre filmmaking. After meshing Howard Hawks and George Romero in 1976 with Assault on Precinct 13, the filmmaker went on to define the slasher picture in many ways with Halloween (1978) and rounded off a run that included The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981) and Big Trouble In Little China (1986) with the Reaganomics inspired They Live (1988). While many of these films were less than commercially successful at the time (or in some cases, straight up bombs), much of the horror maestro’s filmography has since been re-evaluated and given its proper due. Perhaps no other film exemplifies this better than the inimitable (and all time favorite of this writer) The Thing (1982).
In 1951, director Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks (Carpenter’s matinee filmmaking idol) loosely adapted a John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?” into a film that fused science fiction with terror called The Thing From Another World. While it was modestly well received at the time, it would later go on to be recognized as one of the great science fiction films of the era. Some twenty years later, producers David Foster and Lawrence Turman pitched a more faithful adaptation of Campbell’s story to Universal, who soon purchased the rights from screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins.
Co-producer Stuart Cohen approached Carpenter about the film as early as 1976; at the time, the auteur remained largely an independent filmmaker, and the studio opted to hire Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) director Tobe Hooper (who was already under contract). Ultimately, the producers were unhappy with Hooper’s take on the material, and the project was eventually shelved after several failed attempts to bring on filmmakers, including writer William F. Nolan (Logan’s Run ) and director John Landis. Interest was revitalized thanks largely to the success of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) which led Cohen to back to where he began. Carpenter, hot off the success of Halloween (1978) came onboard, making it his first time working for a major studio. *
Though reboots of existing IP are all the rage in 2018 (along with prequels, re-imaginings, and sidequels), it was a relatively fresh concept in 2018. Despite often being cited as one of the greatest remakes of all time, Carpenter and co. went out of their way to establish their film as an adaption of the original short story, rather than the 1951 film: “I would be an idiot to try and do a remake,” Carpenter told Starlog Magazine. “The Thing I’ve made is not The Thing Hawks made. That doesn’t mean it’s better or worse, only different.” Carpenter would include several homages to the original film, including the flying saucer buried in the ice, however, he was also quick to point out that he was simply paying his respects. “I’m not so presumptuous as to think I’m going to imitate Hawks in any way. I wouldn’t dare, because I admire him so much (as a director).”
The film begins in media res; in the middle of Antarctica, a helicopter carrying two Norwegian men is in pursuit of a sled dog that is racing across the vast expanse. The passenger begins taking shots with a high-powered rifle as the dog heads inexorably toward an American research outpost, attracting the alarmed attention of the men stationed there. As the dog reaches the station, the helicopter lands nearby, as both men continue their pursuit. Moments later, the pilot loses control of an explosive, blowing up the helicopter and himself. The second Norwegian remains undeterred and continues firing at the dog, yelling wildly. ** After one of the Americans is wounded by a wild shot, the remaining Norwegian is killed by the baffled station commander, Garry (Donald Moffat).
In the aftermath, the dog is taken in by the Americans. Unable to make contact with anyone outside of the station, a small group, led by pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) goes off to investigate the remains of the Norwegian base. The men find that it is almost entirely destroyed, and return with the charred remains of a body with a split face, as if it were in the midst of a transformation. An autopsy performed by biologist Blair (Wilford Brimley) is inconclusive, though it reveals the body was filled with ordinary human internal organs.
As night falls, the escaped husky is kenneled along with the station dogs by Clark, their handler (Richard Masur). As soon as the new dog steps foot into the kennel, it is clear that something is wrong. The station dogs stir, agitated, before becoming outright hostile. Within a few moments, the dog that escaped the Norwegian literally splits itself open, morphing into something bloody and with many tentacles. The barking gets the attention of MacReady, who rallies the remaining men by pulling a fire alarm. Upon revealing the hideous creature in the kennel, several of the men take aim as the thing morphs into a horrifying multi-headed mass, resembling a nightmarish Cerberus, but it is immune to the gunfire, only finally being destroyed after Childs (Keith David) turns the kennel into a furnace with the help of a flamethrower. The ensuing autopsy of the remains reveal that the Thing was an alien, capable of absorbing and perfectly imitating any other life form. Utilizing data from the prior recon mission, MacReady and several others venture out to a cavernous excavation site in the ice, where they discover a partially unearthed alien craft, from which the Thing awakened after being frozen for thousands of years.
What soon follows is a descent into madness, terror, and paranoia, as the Thing continues to assimilate, and the implications of this creature’s capabilities are revealed. An enormous debt is owed to special make-up effects creator Rob Bottin (who had previously worked with Carpenter on The Fog ) the man largely responsible for designing some truly terrifying and awesome imagery, which even Carpenter initially regarded as “too weird.” While Carpenter envisioned the Thing as a single creature design, Bottin suggested that it be ever-changing, resulting in an endless stream of nightmarish possibilities, the most gruesome of which may be the decapitated head of one of the crew which grows spider-like legs (shudder).
While some of the characters have been criticized for being too archetypal, the fact is the film simply would not work as well as it does without the strength of its killer cast. Led by Kurt Russell (marking his third collaboration with Carpenter, at that time) as the stoic leader MacReady, Carpenter opted to hire the remaining parts outside of his regular stable, resulting in the likes of the great Wilford Brimley along with a bevy of “that guy!” character actors that know how to squeeze the most out of a role, however small. If some characterizations are stronger than others, then it can be chalked up to the nature of a horror film where by necessity, characters are killed off as a means of moving the story forward. With that being said, as in any horror picture, there are those that stand-out, either by design or performance, and while Russell is the star, there are several performances that elevate the material wonderfully.
As the men are felled by their own mistrust, as well as the machinations of the Thing, those that remain are led to the inevitable conclusion that it must not be allowed to escape, leading to a (literally) explosive finale that results in one of the all-time great ambiguous endings. Much has been made of the final scene, with a myriad of theories regarding which, if any, of the survivors have been assimilated. For his part, Carpenter has largely remained mum on the matter, and this writer prefers it that way, as the question remains not only a thematic blue ribbon, but also an incredibly satisfying point of debate no matter how many times you may have seen the film.
At the time of its release *** The Thing was a complete and total bomb, savaged by critics, and largely ignored by audiences, earning a total gross of just over $19 million (on a $15 million budget). Many reasons have been offered up in the time since its release as to why, including the enormous popularity of E.T. (1982) (which had offered a far less nihilistic view of alien life), the graphic nature of the special effects, or an over-saturation of science-fiction and fantasy films that year. Whatever the reason, The Thing failed to resonate, and at the time became a major blemish on Carpenter’s career, even resulting in his rejection at directing the Stephen King adaptation Firestarter (1984) for the studio.
While Carpenter has admitted that he takes all of his failures to heart, he lamented the effect his first major studio outing likely had on his career: “The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit…The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane. Even the original movie’s director, Christian Nyby, was dissing me.” If there is a silver lining, however, it is that The Thing has undergone a critical reevaluation. It is now (rightly) recognized as both a milestone in horror cinema, as well as a strong contender for Carpenter’s masterpiece. **** Many of the things which critics and audiences rejected it for are now recognized as part of what it makes so special, including the revolutionary special effects. The impact on pop culture is equally undeniable, as everything from Futurama to The X-Files have paid homage and a number of filmmakers ranging from Guillermo del Toro to Quentin Tarantino have cited its influence on their work.
For this writer, it is the greatest (or at least, the favorite) horror film there is, and has remained an essential part of Halloween viewing. While it may not be the most obvious choice, it remains (to this viewer) the most satisfying. Whether it is your first time, or your 500th, The Thing survives: peerless, terrifying, timeless.
* It was also the first time he directed a film that he did not also write.
** The Norwegian is attempting, in his native language, to warn them that the dog is in fact some sort of Thing.
*** Funnily enough, it was released on the same day as another famous science fiction film which was initially panned before going on to receive enormous praise as a cult classic: Blade Runner (1982).
**** It is.