The Thing (1982)

This movie failed at the box office and nearly ruined the career of John Carpenter. Think of that as you watch it. But did it really fail? It made nearly $20 million on a $15 million budget, but audiences must have expected more. Studios certainly did.

Was it because E.T. came out at the same time, as well as so many other science fiction and fantasy films? Did the recession make people not want to watch something so nihilistic? Did the sheer level of gore turn people off? Were people upset that he remade a film some considered a classic*?

After one market research screening, Carpenter asked the audience what they thought. One answered, “Well what happened in the very end? Which one was the Thing…?” When Carpenter said that the answer was up to their imagination, the response was, “Oh, God. I hate that.”

How could audiences respond to a movie that did not spoon feed them any of the story beats? That doesn’t have a single character to root for or get behind? That is influenced by Lovecraft — as our the other Apocalypse Trilogy installments Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness — in that ordinary people face off with supernatural horror that they are doomed to be destroyed by, which isn’t really what mainstream America wants from a popcorn film?

Yeah, it could be all of those things. Or perhaps, the world was not ready for it. But watching the end of this film, as everyone sits around wondering who has a disease that they can barely understand and know will eventually impact them, yeah. I think the world of 2020 is ready for it.

I wonder what it’s like to watch this movie when it screens every year at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station. I bet it feels pretty real there, too.

In an interview with the AV Club, Carpenter said, “If The Thing had been a hit, my career would have been different. I wouldn’t have had to make the choices that I made. But I needed a job. I’m not saying I hate the movies I did. I loved making Christine and Starman and Big Trouble in Little China, all those films. But my career would have been different.”

As it was, Carpenter was reluctant to make the film** and nearly quit before it ever started filming. A lifelong fan of Howard Hawks***, he felt that his version of the story — both are based on Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. — was unbeatable. But as he re-read the original story — spurred on by co-producer Stuart Cohen — he saw how he could make a movie with a vision for his time, just as Hawks had thirty years ago.

Beyond Carpenter, so many talents make this film work. Of course, there are the actors on screen, like Kurt Russell, Keith David, T.K. Carter, Wilfred Brimley, David Clennon and Richard Dysart. But there’s also the astounding production design and storyboards from Man-Thing artist Mike Ploog and Mentor Huebner, which were so detailed that several of the shots from this look like carbon copies of their sketches. There’s Dean Cundy working to make every shot look amazing — this is his first major studio movie with Carpenter. Want it to get even better? Sure, Carpenter could have done the score, but he got Ennio Morricone****. And finally, the Rob Bottin-lef effects team were pushed to the brink of exhaustion — Bottin was only 21 years old and ended up going to the hospital for  exhaustion, double pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer after working for an entire year on the film, sleeping on set — but the work they created will never be duplicated and puts any CGI efforts to remake this film to shame. Carpenter thought that having someone in a suit — like Alien — cheapened the film. He wanted something more. Well, he got it. In the last battle with the Thing, fifty different artists are operating the monster.

We’re lucky that this movie exists. I saw it at the drive-in this year and it felt like it could have been made today. It was too imaginative, too nihilistic and too good for most people, even nearly forty years later.

*One of the reviews that upset Carpenter the most came from the co-director of the original, Christian Nyby, said, “If you want blood, go to the slaughterhouse. All in all, it’s a terrific commercial for J&B Scotch.”

**Originally, Universal was going with Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel as the team for this movie, but were unhappy with their take. John Landis was also considered, but the film was really greenlit when Alien was such a big deal in 1979.

***How big of a fan is Carpenter? You can see scenes of The Thing from Another World during Halloween.

****Morricone’s score for this film was nominated for a Razzie, while his score for The Hateful Eight — which has some unused music from this film in it — won him his only Best Original Score Oscar.

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