Movies That Everyone Should See: “The Thing”

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Fuchs: There’s something wrong with Blair. He’s locked himself in his room and he won’t answer the door to me or anyone. So I took one of his notebooks from the lab.
MacReady: Yeah… and?
Fuchs: Listen: “It could have imitated a million life forms on a million planets. It could change into any one of them at any time. Now, it wants life forms on Earth.”
MacReady: It’s getting cold in here Fuchs, and I haven’t slept for two days.
Fuchs: Wait, there’s more… “It needs to be alone and in close proximity to a life form in order for it to be absorbed. The chameleon strikes in the dark.”
MacReady: So is Blair cracking up or what?
Fuchs: Damn it, MacReady! Listen! “There is still cellular activity in these burned remains. They’re not dead yet!”

In 1978, John Carpenter put himself on the map with “Halloween”, a low-budget horror film that went on to become a major financial hit and a bona-fide horror classic. After doing two projects for television (including “Elvis”, which would star future frequent collaborator Kurt Russell), he returned to the big screen with 1980’s “The Fog”. “The Fog” was another hit for Carpenter. It grossed more than $21,000,000 domestically on a budget of just $1,000,000. He followed that with yet another hit, “Escape From New York”. With a $6 million dollar budget, “Escape” saw a $25 million return.

“Halloween”, “The Fog”, and “Escape From New York” had each been made independent of the Hollywood studio system. But in 1981, he would go to work for Universal Studios, directing “The Thing”.

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who goes there 2Several years earlier, Turman-Foster Productions had proposed the project to Universal. The intent was always to make a film more faithful to the original story (John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella “Who Goes There?”), as opposed to remaking the 1951 Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby film “The Thing from Another World”. Out of caution, however, the studio acquired the rights to both the story and the original film. They also lobbied to keep “The Thing” involved in the title for publicity purposes.

Producer Stuart Coen had gone to USC with John Carpenter, and wanted to involve him on the movie right from the start. Both were fans of the ’51 film and the original story, and had spent a good deal of time at school discussing them together. They had both seen the movie when they were young, and it had made quite an impression on them. Seeking out “Who Goes There?” later, though, they were each impressed with the atmosphere of paranoia involved in the story as opposed to the Frankenstein’s monster quality of the film.

This was prior to “Halloween”, however, and Universal didn’t want to go with an unknown. Instead they pushed the producers to choose someone they had under contract. “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” director Tobe Hooper wound up with the job. However, after a couple of attempts. Hooper and writing partner Kim Henkel failed to submit a satisfactory script.

AlienIn fact, even after Hooper left the project, producers had difficulty getting a satisfactory script. Writers didn’t seem interested in dealing with the mystery and suspicion… the treatments they kept receiving focused on the more overt monster movie elements. Without a script and without a director, the project fell dormant for a couple of years… until 20th Century Fox scored a hit with “Alien” in 1979.

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By the time “Alien”‘s success spurred Universal to resurrect “The Thing”, Carpenter had made a name for himself, and was offered the helm. He didn’t want to write the screenplay, though, so the search for a screenwriter continued.

The producers turned to Bill Lancaster (son of Burt), who had written the script to “The Bad News Bears”. Lancaster wasn’t initially thrilled with “Who Goes There”, but eventually latched on to the heart of the material. He decided to emphasize the paranoia aspect to an extreme degree. He wanted to push the fear and paranoia to the point where the mistrust made it immaterial whether the monster was alive, or where it was, or if anyone was actually the monster at all, the men would be the biggest threat to themselves.

This was what the producers had been wanting to hear all along. Production could finally begin.

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A number of actors were considered for the lead role of MacReady. Initially Carpenter was reluctant to work with Russell as his lead again, and as friends, Russell actually consulted with Carpenter as to who he thought might be good in the role. Inquiries were made regarding Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken, Nick Nolte, Kris Kristofferson and Sam Shepard, but all either had scheduling conflicts or turned the project down. Producers met with Tom Berenger, Fred Ward, Ed Harris, and Scott Glenn without filling the role. Australian actor Jack Thompson (“Breaker Morant”) was flown in to read for Carpenter.

John-Carpenter-e1350485979491The part finally went to Russell, however. It would mark the third time in Carpenter’s last four projects that Russell would be the lead (and they would collaborate twice more for a total of five films made together).

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With the script and star in place, it was time to focus on production. A camp for the exterior shots was built in Stewart, British Columbia, close to the Alaskan border, in order to guarantee snow. The temperature ranged between 0 F and -15 F during shooting. The indoor shots would be shot on refrigerated stages in Los Angeles. Ironically, LA was in the midst of a heat wave during the three months of shooting, creating some awkward changes in temperature for the parka clad cast as they made their way to and from the sets in 90 degree heat.

It was the special effects, however, that would provide the biggest hurdles. In the days of practical effects, Pre CGI, just how they would accomplish the desired shots was a challenge. Rob Bottin was in charge of special effects, fresh off of his first lead role on a special effects team on “The Howling”. Prior to that he had worked with famed special effects guru Rick Baker on “King Kong”, and was part of the crew for Carpenter’s “The Fog”.

He was 22 years old.

At the end of production, he would require hospitalization for exhaustion.

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Bottin worked with the storyboard artists (notably comic book artist Mike Ploog) in order to create the ghastly incarnations that the creature (who supposedly could turn into a multitude of forms) would turn into. Bottin’s team of illustrators, sculptors. painters, and mechanical effects technicians grew to over 40 members.

Over the course of that year, he and his team utilized every conceivable technique available at the time in order to achieve the creature effects. Hand puppets, marionettes, radio controls, wires, hydraulics, and pull cables were used to achieve motion. The gore came from heated bubble gum, strawberry jam, mayonnaise, cream corn, gelatin, and food thickener. Creatures were made of metal, urethane, fiberglass, foam latex, rubber and KY Jelly. Cameras were over-cranked, under-cranked, shot upside down, and in reverse, trying anything they could in order to make the monsters look strange.

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The special-up effects budget for The Thing was initially $750,000, but that number would double to $1.5 million as the production went on. Bottin would work on “The Thing” for over a year – from April, 1981 to late May, 1982. He was working round the clock and sleeping on the Universal lot. Reportedly he was living on a vending machine diet, as well. Upon the project’s completion he checked himself into a hospital and stayed for two weeks in order to recover from the stress and fatigue.

At the end, the special effects’ successes and failures helped shape the film itself. Certain effects which could not be achieved forced scenes to be dropped or rewritten, while some of the outrageous ideas the team came up with were worked into the film, such as the severed head which sprouts spider’s legs.

But as bizarre and disgusting as the special effects turned out to be, it was the way the monster effected the people in the film that turned the movie into such a classic.

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A dog is chased into an Antarctic research camp by a helicopter, and shot at by the ‘copters apparently unstable pilot. The research team is forced to kill the man, as he seems to be firing indiscriminately. After, however, they fly back to the Norwegian base he hails from in order to investigate and or inform people there of what happened, and there they find the base in shambles, with a victim of apparent suicide and a charred carcass of something strange outside.

screenshot-lrg-01They soon discover its nature. Not far from the Norwegian base, they find a downed UFO. Soon after returning to their base, they encounter something foreign attacking their dogs. They realize that they’re dealing with an entity from another planet, who crashed here countless ages ago, and was unearthed by the Norwegian team. Now, the creature can assimilate lifeforms that it touches, and then imitate them after they’ve been consumed.

The team also realizes that any one of them could have already been killed, and replaced by this creature.

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What unfolds is a tale of paranoia, suspicion, and mistrust. Once the team realizes that some of them may not be who they appear to be, doubt, fear and anger creep in. People lose it. Members of the team who wander off alone or were thought to be in contact with the creature are questioned. Threatened. Imprisoned and bound. Drugged. At one point, killed.

The cast, which also featured Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Donald Moffat, and Richard Masur, do a fantastic job of portraying unraveling men. Fraying sanities.

screenshot-lrg-28It’s the ultimate case of “how do I know you’re who you say you are?” as the team tries to figure out a method for determining who’s human and who’s not. Some way to be sure… to force anyone who’s actually the monster out in to the open. By the time they devise a blood test to isolate those who have been replaced, it’s practically too late. Their numbers have already dwindled to less than a handful.

Slowly, the situation turns hopeless as the losses mount. The weather outside is inhospitable, their vehicles have been disabled. They have no means of communication. And the creature is still after them one by one. It all draws to one of them coolest, bleakest endings in film as the team’s priority shifts from staying alive to making sure the Thing dies.

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Sadly though, “The Thing” was not received well.

It opened June 25th, 1982 (the same day as “Blade Runner” and two weeks after “E.T.“) and went on to gross a mere $3.1 million its opening weekend. Its total domestic take was $19,629,760, which barely eclipsed its budget of $15 million.

Critics were harsh on it as well, calling it out for its excessive use of gore.

screenshot-lrg-38It was not nominated for any Academy Awards.

It has, however, turned into a cult classic. It’s widely praised by horror aficionados as a classic of the genre, and embraced by pop culture as a great film. It’s found its way onto the IMDb Top 250 (#145). It was given a prequel/remake in 2011, but fans readily cite the 1982 version – made 20 years prior – as superior.

It’s a film that, due to its fantastic script and great cast still stands the test of time, in spite of effects which to today’s eyes may occasionally come across as dated. Those moments will be easily overlooked. What will stand out is the fear, the paranoia and the suspense.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.

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TTHUU

Daniel Fogarty

71 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “The Thing”

  1. I’m not really a horror fan, so it was Kurt Russel that got me to watch this movie. I loved it. My sister and I would watch this and Aliens 2 any chance we got. So, I think casting Kurt Russel might have been a good move cause it grabbed the attention of non-horror movie goers. To bad it came out at the same time as ET and Bladerunner, thought I’ll be honest and say that I’d rather watch The Thing. :-) Thanks for a great write up!

    • Kurt Russell. Bringin’ in the ladies…. LOL :D

      You’re welcome, as always, the thanks go to you for reading and commenting!

      That’s a tough tough call between those three movies. I prefer Blade Runner myself. But all three are great. I’ve already written them all up in this series, so… it shows I think theyre all fantastic.

      Meanwhile though, what a month for movies, huh? Can you imagine? Shit, if this June is 1/2 as good, I’ll be happy as Hell. Of course, it wont be, but, I guess I can dream. :D

      • lol! Oh Kurt Russel.
        I don’t know that we often got months like that anymore. I can’t even imagine three movies of that caliber at one time. But dream about it! It would be awesome!

  2. Its funny to think how much of a challenge these effects were back then. But it usually pays off. I find myself struggling with my ideas of the film, mostly because the effects disgust me so much, but the story is so fantastic.

    Once again, thanks for the history lesson. Its interesting to see all the pieces that had to be in place for certain films to be made.

    • Yeah, no problem man. I love putting them together because I learn so much along the way, too.

      The days of practical effects were so much more interesting… I mean, I understand why they use CGI instead, but its so much more dull. LOL. Can you picture if I MTESSed the prequel? What would I say? The computer tchnicians worked round the clock rendering the effects. Getting the light levels and refraction just right LOL. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

  3. AWESOME!! Yes, true classic.

    I watch this every year and enjoy each time. It has some of the best tension filled scenes–ever! (The blood test scene gets me EVERY time!) This came out the year that most influenced me as a film lover–and shaped my cinema taste, forever. This, Blade Runner, ET, Conan, etc. etc…yeah, it was a good year.

    LOVE IT! Great post!

    • Cool Nedi, glad you enjoyed it! :D

      That blood test scene is freaking awesome isnt it? It builds the tension, then with a sudden jump scare moment, things explode and go batshit! Everyone’s yelling, the creature is eating people… :D Insanity.

      It was a crazy year! Seriously. I only wish this year would be half that good. :( I dunno. Somehow… I doubt it.

  4. This is a movie that often flirts with my personal top ten. I can’t give a good reason as to why it’s not on there right now, and I won’t take the piss trying to cobble one together as I write this. Instead I’ll just target this as a film classic.

    I think when horror movies become a part of popular conversation, critics often make the “genre transcendence” blunder. This is true of a lot of genres– note the dingbats who argued, upon seeing the full restored cut of Metropolis, that it’s a great film and not merely a great science fiction film– but being as I’m a lover of all things horror, I tend to bristle much more when horror receives that misguided distinction. (Of course, I also love sci-fi, but I digress.) In reality, critics have it backwards; they should be saying that X movie is great cinema that happens to belong to Y genre, and not the other way around. (Though really I think that great cinema is great cinema, genre be damned, so bringing up this sort of distinction at all is kind of a mistake.)

    The Thing happens to be one of those films. Is it a great horror movie? Sure. In fact, it’s an absolutely essential horror movie, one that you must see in order to identify yourself even as a newbie horror enthusiast. But if you take “horror” out of “great horror movie”, you’re just left with a great movie. There’s a reason that The Thing tops “best of” horror lists– the Boston Globe has it at the #1 spot on their “50 Scariest Movies Of All Time” tabulation– but Carpenter made a classic film when he made it. We’ll always remember it for its FX contributions, and rightfully so, but I think this belongs on any archive of great, important movies. I’d put Carpenter’s directing here at master levels; he’s meticulous, methodical, and very, very smart about his decisions regarding his mis-en-scene, to the point that the movie is as airtight as can be. When did Windows lose his keys? We never see it happen– but when he walks in on Bennings being absorbed, we hear them hit the floor. You’ll find little details like that scattered throughout the entire picture. Say what you like about horror as a genre, that’s outstanding filmmaking.

    Personally, I’ve always thought of the movie as a metaphor for the AIDS panic that started up in the early 80s, though I doubt that Carpenter actually had AIDS in mind when making The Thing– the timelines are too close. (The AIDS epidemic “officially” began on June 5th, 1981; The Thing hit theaters around a year later. It’s not impossible that the former directly inspired the latter, but it’s tight.)

    • I dont know if this one rises as far as my top ten, but its Top 50 material for sure. Its definitely an all time great.

      Carpenter was absolutely at the top of his game here, there’s no doubt about it Andy. He cranks up the tension til its almost unbearable, and he does it for the most part without actually SHOWING the monster. But he doesnt rob the people who want to see the creature, either. He perfectly balances out the monster content.

      That AIDS metaphor is a good one, but I think it’s too tight, like you said. In the early early 80s, people were still like, huh, what? If this movie had been made in the late 80s, I’d have been more inclined to agree that that was an inspiration. As is, it would fit nicely. Lots of parallels to work with, absolutely.

      I dont know what to say about the genre transcendance thing. I think horror gets that a lot because so much of the content there is low budget, or substandard compared to mainstream films. They kind of weigh down the entire classification.

  5. This movie is a classic. We watched it for years every New Year’s Eve as teens. Scared the hell out of me every time!!! Good one,Fogs.

  6. Watched it last night for the first time, filling an embarassing gap in my geek cred.

    That said, going to have to somewhat echo BrikHaus’s sentiments, “cheesy, campy, slow”. I’ll give the effects a break, they did the job well.

    My problems with the movie:
    1. You don’t know enough about the characters to get invested.
    2. This may be because the cast is too big. You could have cut three guys from the team and had a better movie.
    3. I assume that the crew were mostly scientists. I understand that they were in a survival situation, but they seemed pretty blase about the fact that they discovered extraterrestrial life .
    4. Too much monster, not enough paranoia. Fogs nailed it in the review, the paranoia is the reason you watch this movie, and that didn’t really get the proper focus until after the movie was halfway done.
    5. I’m not usually one to whine about pacing, but it was way off on this. For a relatively short movie, it felt LONG. It clearly is trying to somewhat mimic what Alien did, and it copied it’s pacing without giving the audience as much payoff.

    I recognize it as a classic of the genre, but as a movie I don’t think it’s one that everyone should see.

    • I think they were all a little FREAKED OUT they discovered Alien life. Don’t forget, by the time they discovered it, there was already a massacre involved!

      Wow… too much Monster, not enough paranoia? There’s TONS of Paranoia here man, it’s smothering! You sure you didnt watch the 2011 remakequel by mistake? LOL :D

      • It could just be that the acting was kind of stilted and unengaged until about midway through the movie. I just wasn’t getting much from the cast.

        I guess the paranoia was done so well, and the rest so mediocre, that I want MOAR PARANOIA.

        Oh, forgot to mention one other things… even by 80’s horror movie standards, the soundtrack was crap. Not only just bad, but actively distracting.

        One thing I did like a lot… the ending. Loved it, loved it, loved it. I wish more movies had the guts to do a cold ending like that (no pun intended).

  7. Hi Fogs :) I just wanna say that I’m a huge fan.
    The Thing is, in my opinion, the greatest horror movie ever made. I loved the characters, the story, the effects, the music, everything about it! I’m just glad someone else can appreciate it as much as I did.

    • Well, Ben. That’s super nice of you to say, man, thank you! :D

      I DO appreciate “The Thing”. VERY much. Great flick, excellent, excellent movie.

      Greatest though? Uhhhhh… not quite in my book. I’m going Shining, or Exorcist or Halloween, first. In fact, there’s probably some others that are pure horror that I put before it. It’s top TEN though for me, for sure. And a top fifty all time flick for me. It really is a great, great flick.

      Thanks for stopping by and sounding off, join in the conversations on some other stuff, too. Love hearing what people have to say!!

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