John Carpenter’s The Thing is one hell of a monster movie. Filled with fantastic special effects, it was a film that Carpenter himself was very proud of (“I love the movie a great deal. It’s my favorite film of my own”). Unfortunately, it also had the misfortune of opening two weeks after Steven Spielberg’s box-office juggernaut, E.T., a movie with a message that was essentially the polar opposite of The Thing’s. As a result, Carpenter and company failed to make a splash at the U.S. box office, a reality which would greatly impact the director’s career from that point forward. For the first time ever, studio chiefs began to equate John Carpenter with box office poison.
More a re-telling of John W. Campbell’s short story, “Who Goes There”, than a remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks-produced film, The Thing is set in the Antarctic, where twelve guys manning an American Research Station are preparing for the hard winter ahead. Their preparations are temporarily interrupted by the arrival of a stray dog, one that, as it turns out, is actually an alien creature in the “shape” of a dog. Helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) destroys the alien with a flamethrower, but as the men soon realize, this isn’t the end of their problems. The creature, which is able to assume the appearance of any living being it comes in contact with, may have ‘infected’ members of the crew as well, meaning that some of the twelve may not be who they appear to be. With such a possibility hanging over their heads, tensions rise and suspicions mount. In order to survive the ordeal, however, these men have no choice but to band together to locate the traitor (or traitors) amongst them. Failure to do so will result not only in their destruction, but the possible end of mankind as well.
Yes, The Thing is a very tense film, and perhaps one of its most interesting aspects is that this tension seems to have existed well before the alien ever made its way to the camp. Carpenter gives shape to his characters right from the get-go, and we in the audience are given the distinct impression that we’re watching twelve guys ready to jump down each other’s throats at a moment’s notice. When we’re first introduced to MacReady, he’s playing a video chess game against the computer, a game he eventually loses. Far from taking his defeat gracefully, MacReady reacts by pouring his drink into the computer’s monitor. Discipline among the men has also broken down by the time the danger arrives; Nauls (T.K. Carter) plays his music way too loud, and Garry (Donald Moffat) smokes his pot right out in the open. The combination of harsh weather and isolation has already taken its toll on these men. Throwing an alien into the mix only intensifies the situation. Add the fact that any one of them could also be that alien, and you have a time bomb set to blow at any minute.
The alien creature itself, in all its manifestations, was superbly crafted, and is easily the film’s strongest point. In its first appearance as the dog, where it transforms into a bloody mess of goo right before our eyes, we’re given a taste of just how creepy this intruder can be. Yet it’s only the beginning. Once the alien starts assuming the shape of the crew, it becomes all the more terrifying. So ground-breaking were the make-up and special effects in The Thing that they received special mention in the book, Defining Moments in Movies (published in 2007 by Cassell Illustrated), which states ”Requiring the services of 34 special makeup effects staffers, among them luminaries like Rob Bottin and Stan Winston, The Thing towers above all other entries in the field of bubbling flesh”.
Yet despite the film’s innovative special effects, coupled with the fact they were presented within a story that effectively creeps the hell out of us, The Thing was ultimately a box-office failure. “I thought at the time”, Carpenter says, “and I still think now, that I had made a very powerful, very scary, very strong monster movie”. Unfortunately, as he would also come to realize, this wasn’t enough to guarantee success. “One of the things I learned when I got to be a professional”, he continues, “is that, no matter how much you put into it and no matter how great you think it is, you are going to be competing with the other movies that are released at exactly the same time. E.T. came out ahead of us and was this huge, sensational hit, and its message was the exact opposite of The Thing”. As a result, Carpenter’s now-heralded Sci-Fi / Horror classic was received with indifference by the movie-going public of 1982.
Carpenter was deeply troubled by the failure of The Thing, yet feels he also took something away from the whole experience. “I don’t think I ever made a more savage film or as bleak a movie as The Thing since. And I think I probably won’t because I don’t think the audience, especially the audience out there now, wants to see that”. He became painfully aware of just how audiences react during a test screening of The Thing that he himself attended. While talking with the audience afterwards, Carpenter was questioned by a teenage girl, who was confused by the film’s ending. Carpenter replied that the climax was left purposefully ambiguous because he wanted the audience to use their imagination. “Oh God, I hate that”, was the girl’s reply.
It was at that moment, Carpenter said, that he knew he was doomed.