When John Carpenter’s arctic alien sci-fi shocker THE THING came out on June 25, 1982 (in direct competition with another classic, BLADE RUNNER) it ultimately bombed at the box office. Not only did it garner some incredibly vitriolic reviews but many of Carpenter’s loyal fanbase didn’t find themselves feeling quite so loyal any more. To add salt to the wounds, Ennio Morricone’s delightful droning orchestrations found themselves nominated for a Razzie for the Worst Original Score. Thankfully, and for good reason, the film went on to experience a massive resurgence in popularity when released on VHS and is considered by virtually every horror hound on the planet as one of THE ultimate fright flicks ever made.
Commenting of the initial release, Carpenter even went as far as describing THE THING as the failure he took most to heart during his entire career:
“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.”
Unleashed amidst a steady stream of successful slashers in the early ‘80s, THE THING was very much the black sheep of that family at the time as it went very much against the tried and tested slasher grain that audiences were lapping up around that time. Accordingly, the film suffered as much as it did when it first hit theaters but went on to age like a fine wine, as has been the case with many a movie of that era, as people began cottoning on as to just how ahead of its time it really was and I’ve lost count as to how many films have since played homage to now iconic scenes from the movie.
Set at Outpost 31 in the alienated, ice cold tundra (shot in British Columbia), THE THING found Carpenter working with Kurt Russell for a third time, with the latter playing a grizzled anti-hero pitted against something from another planet capable of imitating whoever or whatever it kills. Once the camp discovers just what this being/organism is capable of and its intentions, paranoia and chaos set in. For me, Carpenter instilled a very relatable and shuddersome tension by focusing on our innate fear of loss of identity and of ultimately turning into this thing that is scaring the camp out of their wits. Accordingly, rifts between the camp members and the arrival of this uninvited guest results in an every man for himself situation with people on the same team not even batting an eyelid when it comes to sacrificing others in favor of their own survival. Another film that certainly shared these sensibilities was the recently release SUMMER CAMP (Alberto Marini) which mixes in the additional dilemma of the organism/virus wearing off, making it all the more difficult for the protagonists to kill their friends who have turned – or so you might expect. Definitely catch that one if you can as it adds all kinds of new twists and turns to the slasher/virus realm, much like Carpenter did back in 1982.
THE THING’s Defibrillator Chest Chomp – Art of the Scene
There’s no denying that Rob Bottin et al.’s special effects are some of the best ever put to film but I don’t personally think that was the be all and end all of Carpenter’s masterpiece. And whilst $1.5 million went on the effects alone and Bottin ultimately had to check himself into hospital after the shoot to recover from serious stress and fatigue, it’s Dean Cundey’s cinematography that REALLY instills the fear of God in the viewer. So many of the slow burning moments scare the hell out of me, no matter how many times I watch them. I’m thinking particularly of the slow-but-terrifyingly tense blood testing scene. We all know someone is going to test positive and the longer and slower the whole scene plays out the closer we get to falling off the edge of our seats. It’s up there as one of my all time favourite movie moments (and I’m guessing it’s one of Lee Hardcastle’s too going by his spoof video below).
And then, of course, the actors carry the entire thing on their shoulders. They all really do look like they have been cooped up in this godforsaken place for the past month, battling a bad case of the cabin fevers. Despite the outrageous as hell effects, the lead ensemble cast do a sterling job of keeping the whole thing so grounded despite a myriad of WTF grotesque and OTT moments.
In short, Carpenter’s initially under-appreciated sci-fi showcase of seclusion, paranoia and self-preservation remains a masterpiece to this day and there’s no surprise so many films continue to pay homage to it. On that note, I thought the best way to end this piece would be with a list of a few films well worth searching out that unabashedly wear the film’s influences on their sleeves:
SPLINTER (Toby Wilkins, 2008)
BLOOD GLACIER (Marvin Kren, 2013)
SUMMER CAMP (Alberto Marini, 2015)
THE THING was one of the films that Tarantino actually screened for the cast before shooting THE HATEFUL EIGHT so there’s another for you to play spot the influences with.
HARBINGER DOWN (Alec Gillis, 2015)
The last on this list was a fun throwback to Carpenter’s THE THING and I had the pleasure of speaking to director Alec Gillis, along with actress/producer Camille Balsamo all about that. They gave me quite the impromptu tour of the Amalgamated Dynamics Effects studio where they showed me some of the models which were ultimately not used in the recent 2011 remake. We’ll leave you with that interview below for your viewing pleasure: