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Is This The Most Hated Film of All Time?

May 14th, 2009 · 13 Comments

The Thing (1982)
Screenplay by Bill Lancaster, based on the short story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr.
Directed by John Carpenter
Produced by Turman-Foster Company/ David Foster Productions/ Universal Pictures
Running time: 109 minutes

The Thing, 1982, poster The Thing, DVD

What the *&#! Is This About?
In Antarctica, a Siberian Husky races across a field of ice. In the sky above, a helicopter appears, with a man on board shooting at the dog. The animal makes it to a United States research station manned by 12 men. These include a burnt out pilot named MacReady (Kurt Russell), who rather than let a computer beat him at chess, pours a bottle of Jim Beam into the wiring. The circling helicopter gets the attention of the men and when it lands, a man steps out babbling in Norwegian. He opens fire on the dog and when he hits one of the Americans, is shot and killed by the base commander (Donald Moffat). Fearing the Norwegian camp might be in serious trouble, physician Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) has MacReady fly him there to investigate.

MacReady and Copper discover the camp gutted by fire and most of its inhabitants dead. They also uncover a block of ice that appears to have been thawed out, while outside in a burn pile, they find the remains of something that looks like it might have been human. The men take the specimen and stacks of videotape back for study. The men don’t know exactly what happened to the Norwegians, but are getting the drift that it was bad. After wandering the station all day, the Siberian Husky is placed in a kennel with the other dogs. There, it transforms into a hideous creature, part crab, part spider, part dog. By the time the men get there, the Thing has attacked and partially absorbed two of the dogs. The ill-tempered Childs (Keith David) blasts it with a flamethrower, but the Thing escapes into the ceiling.

The Thing, 1982, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, Kurt Russell

The station biologist Blair (Wilford Brimley) theorizes what they’re dealing with is an organism that imitates other life forms, absorbing its prey and producing a perfect imitation. Studying the Norwegian tapes, MacReady flies to a dig site, where he finds a massive spacecraft buried in the ice. By the time the station realizes that the alien remains may not be dead, at least one of the men is partially absorbed by the Thing. Calculating that if it were to reach a populated area, the organism could infect all life on Earth within 27,000 hours, Blair smashes the radio. Isolated and unsure who they can trust, the men look to MacReady, who comes up with a test he believes will prove who’s who.

Who Should Be Held Responsible?
Who Goes There? was a short story by John W. Campbell Jr., published under the pen name “Don A. Stuart” in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1938. The story concerned scientists in Antarctica who discover a spacecraft buried in the ice. They thaw out an occupant, only to find the alien has the ability to assume the shape and memories of anything it devours. The men are unsure who among them has been taken over by an alien. Campbell’s story became the inspiration for a Howard Hawks production released in 1951 as The Thing From Another World. The film version presented the Thing as a lumbering monster played by James Arness. The picture was a great commercial success and along with The Day The Earth Stood Still, ushered in an era of science fiction – sometimes provocative, almost always cheaply produced – in Hollywood.

The Thing, 1982

25 years later, producer Stuart Cohen optioned the screen rights to Campbell’s original story. He brought in producers Lawrence Turman and David Foster, securing a development deal with Universal Pictures. Kim Henkel & Tobe Hooper worked on the project, but Cohen wasn’t impressed with the script they delivered. A classmate of Cohen’s from USC Film School named John Carpenter had been a fan of The Thing most of his life, particularly after reading the short story that inspired the movie while he was in high school. Having directed one low budget hit after another – Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York – Carpenter was offered the job of updating The Thing for Universal. The director recalled, “The John W. Campbell story Who Goes There? was basically an Agatha Christie, kind of Ten Little Indians: This creature is in your midst and he’s imitating either one or all of us. Who’s human and who isn’t? And that kind of an idea really fascinated me. So we went in that sense back to that idea, with Bill Lancaster and his screenplay.”

Bill Lancaster recalled, “Well the short story itself was, I wouldn’t say it’s a really great, although it’s a very admired one in the science fiction realm. Back in the late ‘30s and I think it was the first story to deal with this shape shifting, body snatcher type element and all that stuff. Seriously, that’s not what 100% attracted me to the piece, it was more the ambiance and this, all the characters involved and the mood of it, and the enclosure, and elements of the paranoia. And the short story was a stepping stone to take advantage of all those elements. From the story and the film, I loved the idea of being trapped in Antarctica, these people working up there for whatever reasons, horrible winter, freezing conditions, cold, and there’s a monster lurking.”

The Thing, 1982

With Kurt Russell heading the ensemble cast and a $13.7 million budget, second unit shooting for The Thing commenced June 1981 on a glacier above Juneau, Alaska. Interiors began filming August 1981 on the Universal lot in Los Angeles before the production moved to Stewart, British Columbia in December for two weeks of shooting the ice camp exteriors. Carpenter felt his challenge was making the Thing seem as real as possible. “See, I grew up as a kid watching science fiction and monster movies and it was always a guy in a suit. Or sometimes it was kind of a bad puppet, like It Conquered The World comes to mind right now, Roger Corman’s movie, this kind of vegetable monster, kind of going like this woodenly, and my fear was, they’ll laugh at us, you know, they’ll laugh at it, it’ll be a joke. I mean, even as great as the movie was – and Alien was a terrific movie – it’s still in the very end, up stood this big guy in a suit. I don’t want a suit, I want something that’s alive.”

John Carpenter turned to makeup effects artist Rob Bottin, whose pioneering transformations for The Howling had been devised the year previous when Bottin was only 20 years old. The director remembered, “He came in with a wild concept, which is that the Thing can look like anything. It doesn’t look like one monster, it looks like anything, and out of this changing shape, this imitation, comes all the creatures throughout the universe that the Thing has ever imitated and it uses these various forms. And Rob was very daring in his approach. Let’s say even sometimes I was doubtful as to whether he’d pull it off.” Rob Bottin recalled, “The interesting thing about The Thing, right, and the fact that it was actually done a long time ago, you know, people actually think that the imaging and special effects and creature work or whatever hold up to this day. Even in light of the fact that there are computer graphics and things now. And I think part of the reason for that is you just can’t beat wild imagination, you know?”

The Thing, 1982

Director of photography Dean Cundey recalled, “One of the tricks of working with rubber – whether it’s a mask or a makeup appliance, or whether it’s a completely fabricated creature – is lighting it carefully so that it looks real, so that there’s a, so you don’t give away the tricks, the little seams and paint and wires and all the things that are necessary to make it work. And Rob was always very sensitive about his creatures, whether there was too much light on them. We always sort of joked that if it was up to Rob, he would build the creatures, you know, to be incredibly interesting and imaginative, and then not put any light on them, because he was afraid of showing them. So it was always a case of Rob wanting less light, less light. So we developed techniques of little tiny spots of light and shadows, and also that you never really looked blatantly at a rubber creature.”

When The Thing went before audiences for two test screenings, it became apparent that the film might have done its job too well. It was so unsettling, John Carpenter remembered a man running out of a screening to throw up. Kurt Russell stated, “A lot of the things though that bothered the audience – more than the monster – were the poking around the monster, you know, and poking around human beings that had been burnt.” Speaking in 1999, Carpenter put the film’s reception in historical perspective. “Two weeks before our movie comes out, they release this other movie called E.T. And there’s this burst of love all around this movie. I guess the country was going through a recession and there were tough times. Audiences wanted an up/cry and E.T. gave it to them. Two weeks later, out comes my movie. And my movie is exactly just the opposite of E.T. It is not an up/cry. It is a downer. It is the grimmest thing you have ever seen. Here I thought I had made this really great movie, right? “

The Thing, 1982, Kurt Russell

Arriving in theaters June 1982, the picture was reviled by critics. Vincent Canby, the New York Times: “John Carpenter’s The Thing is a foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is fun as neither one thing or the other … There may be a metaphor in all this, but I doubt it.” Pauline Kael, the New Yorker: “In its own putting-the-squeeze-on-the-audience terms, Alien was effective. This picture isn’t (except for an early episode with a husky trying to escape the hunters shooting at it from a plane). It appears to be a film of limited imagination with unlimited horror effects.” Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun Times:The Thing is a great barf-bag movie, all right, but is it any good? I found it disappointing, for two reasons: the superficial characterizations and the implausible behavior of the scientists on that icy outpost.”

John Carpenter added, “But even during the preview stage I knew something was wrong because I had this sixteen year old ask me what happened at the end – which one of them was the Thing? I told her she had to use her imagination. She told me she hated that. So I realized I was in deep trouble with that film. And I was right. The industry turned against me because they thought I had gone too far with the gore. I think it probably changed my career. I had made a deal during the filming of The Thing to make another film for Universal called Firestarter, a Stephen King novel. A friend of mine, Bill Phillips, had written a great screenplay and we already were scouting locations. Universal was so upset and so shocked by the reviews and the fact that The Thing had not made the kind of money they expected. I lost the directing job on Firestarter, even though they had to pay me my salary. I was in shock. I didn’t work for eight or nine months. I didn’t have anything. I thought my career was going to end.”

The Thing, 1982

Hit by the hostile reaction and the film’s dismal $13 million take at the box office in the U.S., Carpenter’s career never made a full recovery. Looking back 17 years later, the director recalled, “My reaction, I was pretty stunned by it at the time because I made a really grueling, dark film and I just don’t think audiences in 1982 wanted to see that. They wanted to see E.T. And The Thing was the opposite of that. The thing that disturbed me about it was that the fans turned out hating it so much. There was a famous magazine back then called Cinemafantastique which was loved and hated by various directors and they had a cover with a story that said ‘Is this the most hated film of all time?’ which didn’t do a lot to assuage my ego, but I’m very proud of the movie. I’ve always loved it.”

Joining Carpenter in 1995 to record an audio commentary for the film’s release on laserdisc, Kurt Russell remarked, “There are some movies that you do – I’ve done more I guess than my fair share of them – and I do think that, you know, maybe that I sort of have to look at that and realize something; that I have a tendency to like movies that perhaps aren’t going to be accepted at the time and – if they’re done well though – they will be accepted later on. And I think that with the advent of video, that’s a great, I’m very happy about that because ultimately you’re making movies for the enjoyment of as many people as possible. And I like that there’s video and that people can take it and make their judgment later on and perhaps without the politics of the time or without whatever’s in the air at the time to set a tone to get in the way of just the project and just the story itself.”

The Thing, 1982, Kurt Russell

Should I Care?
With Conan the Barbarian and Poltergeist both selling popcorn the same month The Thing was unleashed in theaters, only someone with selective memory would suggest that gore or visceral intensity were somehow responsible for its box office failure. But just as The Thing From Another World would still be a terrific movie without the monster, you could cut the violence out of John Carpenter’s remake and still find – with its unremittingly stark chords and pulsating doomsday pace – one dark fucking movie audiences just weren’t in the mood for at the time. It refuses to trump good over evil, clarity over ambiguity, and that becomes what is most troubling about it, as well as special. Now regarded as a masterpiece by many of the fans who rejected this dose of strong medicine on its original release, The Thing remains a masterwork of technical acuity, pioneering makeup effects and most of all story, which probes what it means to be human, and whether or not you’d even realize you were an imitation if the Thing took you over.

The apocalyptic vision of The Thing has grabbed hold of me and as the years pass, refuses to let go. The gothic lighting by cinematographer Dean Cundey, rich production design by John Lloyd and the ominous musical score by Ennio Morricone are all just perfect. The fact that the makeup effects still hold up as some of the most amazing ever captured on camera is a testament to Rob Bottin; without his imagination, the movie would not be nearly as nightmarish as it turned out to be. As for John Carpenter, this represents the director at the peak of his creative energy. While his career may have taken a different turn had the movie gone over well, The Thing has inspired directors Robert Rodriguez, Frank Darabont, Neil Marshall and others with its unmistakable tenor of doom and relentlessness. It’s still schooling the horror moviemakers of today.

© Joe Valdez

Where Are You Getting This *&#!?
The Thing – Collector’s Edition. Universal Home Video (1998)

The Directors: Take One. By Robert J. Emery. TV Books (1999)

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Based on short story · Beasts and monsters · Cult favorite · End of the world · Forensic evidence · Man vs. machine · Paranoia

13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Burbanked // Dec 17, 2008 at 6:41 am

    “Whatever it is, it’s weird and pissed off!”

    I was never that huge a Carpenter fan – I’ve never even seen the original HALLOWEEN all the way through – but this movie is one of the greatest of all time. The special effects are nothing short of revelatory, especially with their dependence on all-practical effects that give truth, weight and true horror to the scenes they’re in. I’m not sure Russell has ever been better.

  • 2 Daniel // Dec 17, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    Awesome. I haven’t even seen the whole movie from start to finish and I could still appreciate everything you’ve said about it. I remember the effects being horrifying but being unable to look away and be drawn into the story. Great review, Joe.

  • 3 Christian // Dec 18, 2008 at 7:26 pm

    I’m not so sure about that Cinefantastique slamming the movie as the issue I have featured Bottin and friend on the cover in a hugely detailed praising feature. Some of the CFQ reviewers weren’t thrilled, but I was opening weekend!

  • 4 Pat Evans // Dec 19, 2008 at 5:21 am

    A stunning and very rare example of a remake being far superior to the original — although I know some people think highly of the ‘cold war’ version.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Dec 19, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    Alan: I would disagree with you only in respect to being a big John Carpenter fan and also, I think when any actor but particularly Kurt Russell is called on to do comedy, he is at his best. The screwball dialogue of Big Trouble In Little China is as tough as it gets, but my man does pull it off. Thanks for commenting!

    Daniel: No further comment. You sum up my views perfectly. Thanks for your approbation of what is essentially just assembling what everyone has said of this movie into one article.

    Christian: I never even heard of that magazine, but it sounds like Carpenter may be referring to a piece that came later. The fact that The Thing was positively a whole other genre removed from Lucas or Spielberg, I can understand why fan boys threw popcorn at the screen at the time of its release. Some movies just need time to process, and The Thing is one of the all-time classic examples of that. Thanks for commenting.

    Patricia: I’m not a big fan of the Cold War version myself. Strangely, everything about it works for me except for the alien. If they had dropped that element and just made a movie about 50 people in the North Pole, I would have enjoyed it more. Perhaps for that reason, the remake does stand as an example of how you cannot dismiss other remakes out of hand as being bad.

  • 6 A.J. MacReady // May 14, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    Joe, I WAS a big reader of Cinefantastique, but a few years after this flick came out (I read, in order, Fangoria, Starlog, and then CF), so I don’t know that issue but I’m sure it’d be interesting reading. Speaking of the movie: my favorite horror movie of all time and my second fave flick ever (after Raiders). Your write up? 12 essential kinds of kickass. Thanks, man; good stuff indeed.

  • 7 Patrick // May 14, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    I have to put in a good word for the Hawks version – I think it’s quite good, it’s actually grown on me in the last 10 years or so. It moves along briskly, the dialog is snappy, and in fact there seems to be dialog in about 99 percent of the movie. And they set up a split in approach to handling the alien – the appeasement sort of guy who wanted to understand it, and the military guy who just wanted to kill it, as soon as it demonstrated it was hostile. Hawks pretty clearly came down on the side of the military guy.

    I liked the remake, but I think I would have liked it more if the special effects had been less gruesome, for me anyway they sort of overwhelm the rest of the movie

  • 8 Matthew L. // May 15, 2009 at 3:27 am

    What’s most intriguing about Carpenter’s version is that it works both ways: he let all of the gross out effects hang out, showing A LOT of the monster, and yet there’s still a great deal of horror and dread left to the imagination, amping up the paranoia. Most movies like this tend to either go one way or the other, showing far too much (Poltergeist), or showing very little like “Alien,” (itself an extension of Hawk’s original), keeping the monster in the shadows to great effect. Carpenter was able to take some of that and blend it with “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” rather than just trying to do an “Alien” knock-off, and keeping with such a well-defined setting, distinguishable characters, a chilling score, and an original, unbelievably designed creature(s). It’s too bad Carpenter was never this good again. Usually that’s what happens when directors limit themselves to genre films. Just ask M. Night Schlamalama-ding-dong.

  • 9 Joe Valdez // May 15, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    A.J.: Thanks for dropping by and leaving such a fantastic compliment. That Cinefantastique article may be a figment of John Carpenter’s imagination; I’m only printing what he said in the documentary on The Thing DVD. What no one can dispute is that a lot of sci-fi and horror geeks hated this movie when it came out. It’s fashionable now to say this film and Blade Runner are masterpieces and that people always loved them, but I don’t think that was the case at all.

    Patrick: You know, over the months, the Howard Hawks version of The Thing has grown on me. I don’t think it’s frightening and don’t really think the monster is interesting, but the cast, the rapid fire dialogue and the ambiance are spot-on. You brought up some good observations there.

    Matthew: Going to see Star Trek last weekend, it occurred to me that maybe the reason CGI moves so fast in some of these summer action movies is that it still looks pretty fake. As much as The Thing is John Carpenter’s masterpiece, Rob Bottin deserves a tremendous amount of credit for how great the movie turned out. I’m not only amazed by how well the makeup effects hold up, but that Bottin was 20 years old when he got the job.

  • 10 Matthew L. // May 16, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    Joe: I agree. I have no idea how he got the live movements of the creature to look so real, (I’ve only watched the special feature documentaries once, but I don’t really remember how they said it was done), and without computers! It’s done so well that you almost have to stop yourself and watch it unfold on-screen, especially the Spider-Head. He definetly pushed the limits of what could be done at the time. That being said, there is still a lot of recent films that have achieved some moments of photo-real CGI, like Dead Man’s Chest, Benjamin Button, and the upcoming Where The Wild Things Are. I guess that much comes down to the director and their standards for hiding the seams, (something Stephen Sommers has yet to master). When done that well, it makes it all worth it.

    Oh, and let’s not forget Ennio Morricone’s hair-raising score, which really turns ominous once MacReady and Doc take the helicopter to save the Norwegians. Much better than the thumping chords at the beginning, (the same sort of chords that Carpenter would attempt to recycle again and again in later films), which I’ve never cared for. But then again, I guess the thumping chords help to set the unease for things to come.

  • 11 Dan O'Bannon // May 23, 2009 at 7:38 am

    In my opinion one of the finest horror films ever made. A good story, great cast, excellent special effects, well directed and one of the scariest monsters ever ! (I can still here it scream !) Great review of a great film, Joe.

  • 12 Matt Simpson // Jul 21, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    It would be interesting to find out if this film made money in video rentals when VCRs first came out. My memory is seeing it on video at age 13 and being thrilled and amazed, not disgusted. Also if the Academy Awards voters had this movie in the back of their heads when they gave Bottin the Oscar for his work in Total Recall. Just like Willis O’Brian with Mighty Joe Young. I also think Roger Ebert should be cornered and asked why so many people in the business and out of it worship this film, and appreciate the fact that Bottin nearly killed himself making it. This film is one of the top ten monster movies ever.

  • 13 Topov // Jan 1, 2012 at 10:51 pm

    This was the film that made me never trust the verdicts of the critics ever again.

    Before the 1990s archaic distribution rules meant it took many months (sometimes over a year) for films to get released in the UK – and then they had still to play the West End before going local eg.( Star Wars did not get released beyond the opening 3 first-run theatres until July 1977). So it was nearly Xmas 1983 when I finally saw “The Thing” – though I still wasn’t quite old enough to legally do so, it being an 18 cert.

    I thought it was excellent. Hard to please even then and not much of a fan of horror movies, I was impressed by how it demanded such intensity, and concentration but never stooped to exploit that. The effects were like nothing I had ever seen and though they made me queasy (and I was the one eating hamburgers throughout “Jaws”) I understood their purpose. And I was especially taken with the claustrophobia and paranoia engendered by both the location and the horror of the disguised Thing still being somewhere in the midst. And the ending was perfect.

    It was the review in London’s “Time Out” magazine that really dismayed me and when I later read others, I just could not believe they were talking about the same film.
    The “not E.T.” reason does make sense (incidentally I hated ET then and still – a sickly, cloying, manipulative, polished-turd of a money-machine that I just could not believe was both adored and revered as if it were High Movie Art) .

    Over the years, I’ve noticed how The Thing has gradually picked up admiring retrospectives and re-reviews. But for one who saw it then and read what they said then, I cannot help but be cynical about such an about face.

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