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”.
Several 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.
In 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.
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.
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.
The 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
They 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.
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.
It’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.
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.
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“.