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John Carpenter's

 

The Thing: Unappreciated Terror

by Tim Metz

"Antarctica, Winter 1982," a title card reads.  A pulsing beat can be heard as a helicopter flies over a snowcapped cliff and down into an endless and bleak white valley.  We see two men in the chopper, one flying the aircraft, the other scanning the landscape through a pair of binoculars.  Soon it is apparent what the men are pursuing: a sled dog, running quickly across the ice.  The man in the passenger's side of the helicopter puts down the binoculars, and leans out the side, a large rifle in his hands.  He begins squeezing off rounds madly at the sprinting husky, like a crazed Ahab after the great white whale.

This hectically confusing scene is the opening of John Carpenter's 1982 film, "The Thing," a chilling story about a research team at an Antarctic outpost, who suddenly find themselves at the mercy of a malevolent shape-shifting, body-absorbing alien.  The Thing was a landmark science-fiction film that has inspired countless other movies and TV shows, and yet was totally unappreciated in its time, and has since yet to be given the proper respect it deserves.

The origins of "The Thing's" story date back over 60 years, back at the dawn of what has become modern-day science-fiction.  Originally published as a novella by John W. Campbell in 1938 in an issue of Astounding Science Fiction, as "Who Goes There?," the story was along the very-heroic, pulp fiction lines, subtly capturing the anti-Communist hysteria of the time.  Campbell's novella was also one of the first stories to deal with the idea of a creature that could shape-shift or body-snatch.  It became a landmark tale that inspired several other writers and filmmakers to do such paranoia tales as "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "Them!," and "It Came From Outer Space," which found colossal success in the 50's during the McCarthy era.

Thirteen years later, Howard Hawks produced the first film incarnation of Campbell's story as "The Thing From Another World."  Hawks took a different approach, abandoning the idea of a shape-shifting alien (which was probably too complicated to pull off in 1951) for a kind of Frankenstein-monster, vegetable creature, which could reproduce itself in mass hordes.  Instead of causing paranoia and distrust among the men, it leads them to band together against this menace, and defeat it.  The film was a perfect example of the 1950's notions of camaraderie (ironically also a communist ideal), and was again a subtle attack on the idea of communist oppression.

Hawks' film also inspired a whole new lot of filmmakers in the science-fiction genre, and its mark is clearly evident in films such as "Alien," "Predator," and countless other monster flicks.  One of the young future filmmakers it inspired (and terrified) in its time was a young boy by the name of John Carpenter.  Reminiscing, Carpenter said "it was one of those films as you watched it, it was so frightening that my popcorn flew out of my hands....[in one scene] when they went up to the doorway, and they had this Geiger counter, and they open the door and [the Thing's] right there, I went nuts, I went crazy" (The Thing: Terror Takes Shape).  At the time, no one knew, including Carpenter, that almost thirty years later, he would start on making his own version of Campbell's classic tale.

Work began on "The Thing" in 1981, when Carpenter was finally a firmly established filmmaker. Then a young director, he had already enjoyed much success off of his several box-office hits, like "The Fog," "Escape From New York," and the legendary horror masterpiece, "Halloween."  Universal was looking to remake Hawks' masterpiece, and Carpenter, being a huge fan of the original, jumped at the chance.

Carpenter immediately hired Bill Lancaster (a successful filmmaker himself with his last movie, "The Bad News Bears," to write the screenplay.  Lancaster returned to Campbell's original novella for inspiration.  The screenwriter described his attraction to the piece as being "the ambiance and the characters involved, the mood of it, the enclosure, and the elements of the paranoia.  The short story was a stepping stone to take advantage of all those kinds of elements" (The Thing: Terror Takes Shape).  He added a darker edge to the story, shrank the number of outpost occupants from thirty-something to twelve, and added a bleaker ending.  Lancaster also kept also kept many of the McCarthy-era fears of communism in the story, while at the same time adding on a 1980's twist.

Carpenter was quite pleased with Lancaster's script, and by the summer of 1981, pre-production for "The Thing" was well under way.  The director immediately assembled a cast of twelve men (most of them rather unknown to add to the realism of the piece).  For the lead, MacReady, he chose Kurt Russell (a long time friend of Carpenter's, who has starred in five of his films).  After the cast discussed character motivation for several weeks, "The Thing" began shooting on the Universal lot in several refrigerated sound stages.

After all interior shooting was completed, the cast and crew moved up to an already assembled research station set, out on a glacier in Stewart, British Columbia, on December 12, 1981.  Meanwhile, an entire separate stage had been built at Universal-Hartland, where Rob Bottin and his team of special effects artists were hard at work at creating the gruesome and ingenious monster effects for "The Thing," which were so revolutionary they changed the way monster effects were created from then on.

Bottin, already hot off of success with his dazzling new werewolf transformations in the 1981 film, "The Howling," gained the job of the head of makeup effects on "The Thing," much to his enthusiasm, unaware of what a huge impact he would have on future special effects or the sheer amount of work he had ahead of him.  The makeup artist won the job from Carpenter with his wild pitch about the creature to the director: "Look, the Thing can look like anything... it doesn't have one look, it has millions" (Salisbury and Hedgcock 55).  This wild concept intrigued the director, and Rob Bottin was immediately given the job.

An ecstatic Bottin gathered himself up a crew of forty and worked on a budget that ended up being a tenth of the film's final fifteen million-dollar budget, over a long sixth month period.  Carpenter had told Bottin ahead of time that one of his goals was to create a creature that was not just a guy in a suit that would be hiding away and barely glimpsed at the whole movie.  "I was told that the best way to scare an audience was through 'indirection.'  That is, 'keep the damn monster in the shadows and half-light so we don't get a good look at it.'  Baloney!  I remember what it was like to be four years old and think I just saw a monster from outer space come out of the shadows into the light.  One of the reasons I wanted to remake "The Thing From Another World" was to convince everyone over four that they were, in fact, seeing that hideous beast!" (Salisbury and Hedgcock 6)

This was a notable challenge for Rob Bottin during that time before computer animation in film.  "John actually did give me a great opportunity to say 'hey kid, go nuts, and use your imagination,' and he was so supportive during the whole process that it was just a really amazing thing to happen to a twenty-two year old" (The Thing: Terror Takes Shape).  Ironically, most of Bottin's ideas for the creature came from old cartoons and comic books, where character's heads and bodies would often stretch and warp.  In fact, Mike Ploog, a former comic book artist, was the original storyboard artist Bottin worked with on thrashing out ideas for the creature's multiple shapes.

Rob Bottin then totally committed himself to the project, working a full day, seven days a week, for a year and five weeks, even sleeping on the Universal lot.  The workload ended up being so heavy for him and his crew that at one point outside assistance had to be brought in.  So Bottin called upon a then fairly new makeup artist named Stan Winston (who later won three Oscars for "Aliens," "Terminator 2," and "Jurassic Park") to do the infamous "dog-thing" in the horrific kennel sequence.

The cast and crew were often immensely impressed with Bottin's work though.  Cast member Richard Masur commented on the fused Norwegian bodies being "an amazing piece of sculpture, just beautiful, I mean grotesque, horrible, but also very beautiful" (The Thing: Terror Takes Shape).  By the end of the film's shoot, Rob Bottin had worked himself to exhaustion.  "I ended up working so hard, you know I ended up in the hospital" (The Thing: Terror Takes Shape).  It was well worth it though, for his contribution became one of the most important to the film, as well as one of the key points of its critical attack.

"The Thing" was released in the summer of 1982, and it could not have come at a worse time.  Two weeks earlier, audiences were introduced to a very friendly alien in a film called E.T., which captured the imaginations of children and adults everywhere.  So inevitably, when the maliciously grotesque form of the Thing made it on to the big screen, it found itself being rejected by audiences who were more comfortable at the time with a sweet little alien.

As if this was not bad enough, critical reception of "The Thing" was almost unanimously negative.  Obviously, critics were looking to attack Carpenter after he had been successful for so long, and with "The Thing," they found their chance.  Alan Spencer of Starlog said that Carpenter would be more suited to directing "traffic accidents, train wrecks, and public floggings," (quoted in Muir 98) and Vincent Canby of the New York Times, (usually a supporter of Carpenter's films) called it "the quintessential moron movie of the '80's" (quoted in Boon 66).

Finally, the political climate of the time, with Reaganomics coming into play, didn't mesh well with Carpenter's dark view, and as a result most of the people that did go to see the film were frustrated and upset with it's terribly grim and ever puzzling narrative.  So, "The Thing" was quickly out of theaters, only three weeks after its initial release, and barely even made enough money to support its budget.  It was not until its release on video and television several years later, that the film even gained a remote interest with the public, and achieved cult status.

The Thing was obviously, like many other films, a victim of bad timing, but that does not make it a bad film.  For instance, almost all critical points against it can be argued, as Kevin Alexander Boon proved in his article in Creative Screenwriting titled: "In Defense of John Carpenter's The Thing."  One of the main points of attack by critics was the film's groundbreaking, but grotesque special effects.  Critics like Linda Gross of the L.A. Times refer to them as "visceral and vicious makeup effects," (quoted in Boon 66).  "A non-stop parade of slimy, repulsive special effects turns this into a freak show and drowns most of the suspense," said Leonard Maltin (quoted in Billson 11).

First off, it is simply absurd to knock a monster film for having special effects that are too hideous, for that's often the whole point of a monster movie: to create a grotesquely frightening creature that an audience believes they are actually seeing.  "The Thing" was a landmark in this department, if not a pinnacle film which others should be judged against.  Rob Bottin revolutionized special effects for this film at the time, for never before had a shape-shifting creature really been attempted (or at least successfully pulled off), and his makeup effects on the film almost even hold up to effects today.  The fact that these gory transformations only take place during about five percent of the film also makes it ridiculous to condemn the movie as a "non-stop parade" of them.

The second attack on the film was on the story and characters. "Lancaster's script is so low on characterization that even a first-rate cast of character actors... is unable to work up any team spirit," said David Ansen of Newsweek (quoted in Muir 98), and Rolling Stone describe it as unable to "hold a candle to Howard Hawks' trail-blazing classic, The Thing From Another World" (qtd. in Billson 9).

This is also preposterous, because Lancaster's screenplay does deliver a story, and an incredible one at that, and comparing it to Hawks' film, which follows an almost completely different narrative, is simply idiotic.  Hawks' version was about men bonding together, the strength of the group rather than that of the individual.  Carpenter's film is about identifying one's individuality and how important it is to keep it.  Lancaster's script worked splendidly with its character dynamics to avoid all the sci-fi clichés already established by films such as "Star Wars," and establishes individual characters and paranoia so well that we do find it impossible to determine who is real and who is now a malignant alien.  The fact that critics complained about its weak characters and praised the 1951 film is especially silly, because Hawks' version was filled with characters who were far more one-dimensional and uninteresting than the characters in Carpenter's film.

The final, and most ironic objection, was that "The Thing" was a far too bleak and dark film. "Instead of providing us with love, wonder, and delight, "The Thing" is bereft, despairing, and nihilistic," said Linda Gross (quoted in Boon 69) .  This is a most humorous objection, because who really goes into a monster movie expecting it to be filled with "wonder" and "delight?"  The fact that some of America's most classic films, and much of Shakespeare's work, is wrought with despair, depression, and darkness, just shows how this argument has no relevance at all.

No doubt after seeing "E.T.," audiences were looking for another science-fiction picture with a happy ending, but were unable to get it in "The Thing," and left the film rather upset.  If a happy ending had been forced on "The Thing," as it is with so many other big Hollywood films, it would contradict the whole movie and the entire plot structure would have no doubt crumbled as a result.  In today's modern film going world though, the film would easily be accepted, for stupendous special effects and downbeat dark narratives are a standard in most science-fiction, action, and thriller pictures, so The Thing was truly a movie ahead of its time (Boon 66-68).

Surprisingly, even though the film wasn't popular in its own time, it has a lot of relevance to politics and society during 1982, as well as people today.  One of the main themes of the film is the fear of disease, for the Thing infects its victims like a virus, and completely imitates them in every way, making them indistinguishable from the original person.  During this period, a new disease was starting to sweep the country called A.I.D.S, and it was very similar to this creature, for it was spreading from person to person and no one could figure out how it was going around.  Also, much like the film, people could only be found to be infected through a "blood test."

The other theme rampant throughout the movie is the lack of trust among the men, which carries on into society.  During the Reagan era this was especially apparent as people were willing to do whatever it took to make as much money as quickly as possible, and backstabbing among people was occurring left and right.  Even today, people do not trust each other as much as they used to.  No one leaves there front door's unlocked anymore, or trusts a kind stranger on the street.  We've become a highly defensive society, and "The Thing" is one of the few films that was aware of that even before most of society was.

Even though the film didn't do well among audiences and critics, it still reached enough people that an entire new generation of filmmakers followed its lead.  Its monstrous ideas can be found in all sorts of horror films and TV shows now, from "The X-Files" (which even used extra footage from the film in their episode of "Ice") to "From Dusk Till Dawn" and "The Faculty."  Even movies like "Terminator 2" (who's T-1000 character bears a strong resemblance to the Thing) and "Se7en" (where grisly murders resemble aftermath carnage found in Carpenter's movie) owe a lot to the film.  "The Thing" basically created an entire new genre of film that is still incredibly popular today, yet most people still remain unaware of its existence.

There is a small and loyal following to this great motion picture though, and as a result opinions on it have changed, and its influence is becoming more widespread.  Its audience grew as the years went by after its release, as more and more people saw it on cable TV and in video stores.  In the early nineties there was a two-part comic book miniseries put out by Dark Horse Comics, with two subsequent series that followed that.  The DVD of "The Thing," released in 1998, included a documentary about the film, entitled "The Thing: Terror Takes Shape," which talked with the cast and crew about their experiences on "The Thing," and how important they felt the movie was, so the people who viewed it could finally learn how misunderstood the film had become.  In the year 2000 there have even been two action figures released by McFarlane toys of the Thing's hideous forms.

Since the film's release, many science-fiction fans and critics alike, have even re-analyzed the film and realized how wrong they were in its judgment.  "The Thing" is a spectacular movie, maybe not one that will change the world, but definitely one that will make people think about society.  For it is one of the most horrifying exercises in terror ever committed to celluloid.  It covers all of man's basic fears: isolation, fear of disease, distrust among people, and of course, hideous and revolting abominations that evoke terror in people's hearts.

Carpenter held nothing back on "The Thing.  He made it the way he knew it should be made, even at the expense of its respect and success.  It's one of his most important films, and serves as a definite warning for society.  John Carpenter himself summed up what the film is about best. "This is an apocalyptic movie.  This is the end of the world; it doesn't come from bombs dropping, it comes from within... and of course the Thing is a metaphor for whatever you want to say; could be disease, could be A.I.D.S., whatever, but it comes from within you.  It's also basically the lack of trust that's in the world now, we see it all over; countries, people, we don't trust each other anymore, we don't know who to trust.  We're with someone who we may think they are our loved ones, and they attack us.  And that's what The Thing is, it has a lot of truth kind of dressed up as a monster movie" (The Thing: Terror Takes Shape).
 

Works Cited:

Billson, Anne. The Thing. London: BFI, 1997.

Boon, Kevin Alexander. "In Defense of John Carpenter's The Thing." Creative Screenwriting; Jan./Feb. 1999: 66-73.

Muir, John K. The Films of John Carpenter. Jefferson: McFarland, 2000.

Salisbury, Mark, and Alan Hedgcock. Behind the Mask: The Secrets of Hollywood's Monster Makers. London: Titan, 1994.

The Thing. Dir. John Carpenter. Perf. Kurt Russell. Universal, 1982.

The Thing: Terror Takes Shape. Dir. Michael Matessimo. Perf. John Carpenter, Kurt Russell, Richard Masur, Bill Lancaster, and Rob Bottin. Universal, 1998.

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