I was too young to see The Thing when it came it out cinemas, but I wasn’t too young to read about it in Starburst Magazine, and anything else I could get my hands on about genre films, and especially anything with makeup effects. I even paid homage to it in my short film Night of the Hell Hamster. s Even though it was a box office flop at the time – derided as nihilistic, misogynistic due to it’s completely male cast, and a downbeat and confusing ending, and not helped by being in direct competition with a slightly more feelgood film called ET, 30 years on it’s still considered one of the greatest monster/horror movies ever made, and deservedly so. While there may be some inconsistencies in the story wondering who or where the thing has taken over (and you have to wonder how much was lost in the editing room to bring it down to a manageable length), the simplicity of the story is its characters is it’s strength, coupled with an ensemble of fantastic actors, John Carpenters solid direction and Dean Cundey’s cinematography and John J. Lloyds wonderful production design.
But it’s Rob Bottin’s makeup that is the star of the show. 30 years on it’s still the pinnacle of special makeup effects, untouched by any film since, even in an age when we can imagine anything with CGI, and proof that foam latex and stage blood is still beats pixels when it comes to horror films.
By Scott Weinberg Jun 22, 2012
The Thing is something pretty special, and not just because this particular writer is a massive fan of horror films. So what is it that makes this movie so well-regarded NOW — it’s presently ranked #170 on IMDb’s Top 250 — when it was so quickly dissed and dismissed back in 1982? Here are ten logical reasons:
1. The Gore — Call it a rite of passage for any earnest horror fan, or call it a dare for your mega-squeamish boy/girlfriend, but the simple truth is that the special effects in The Thing are monumental. Created by 22-year-old latex prodigy Rob Bottin, with help from his team, a blessing from Rick Baker, and some magic from Stan Winston, the monsters and make-up found splattered across this film are nothing short of staggering. Once you see the movie three or four times, the overt “ickyness” of the stuff starts to fade (but not completely) and then you’re able to appreciate the dark, complicated, elaborate beauty of Bottin’s work. And this is not just surface-level slime, either: the disgusting and disturbing nature of the creature’s physiology is part of what makes the movie so shocking and suspenseful. Although obviously not for all tastes, the graphic nastiness of The Thing is essential to the movie as a whole. Would you make The Exorcist, Alien, or The Silence of the Lambs any less gruesome? Of course not. Let’s move on…
2. The Cast — In a career filled with bad-ass characters, Kurt Russell’s MacReady is one of the very badass-iest. Wilford Brimley, normally so docile and lovable, is entirely creepy here. Ditto the always-enjoyable Richard Masur, as the low-key guy who loves the dogs more than he does his colleagues. The ensemble offers realistic authority figures (Richard Dysart, Keith David, Donald Moffat) as well as familiar misfits like T.K. Carter and David Clennon. Plus Tom Waites, as Windows, was so cool that Microsoft named an entire operating system after him. (That may not be true.)
3. The Asexual Politics — Aside from a lovely computer voice (contributed by Adrienne Barbeau), there is not one small shred of femininity to be found in this film. Twelve men, several dogs, and one massive monster, but no ladies. It makes for a fascinating conversation: Is it because, realistically, at this point in time there were virtually no females in the field of Antarctic weather research? Is it simply a thematic choice, in that men may behave a bit differently (perhaps more cowardly or selfishly) when there are no women around? Or maybe it taps into what’s so darkly interesting about the creature itself: a vile glob of asexual “life” that represents an affront to normal human reproduction? Who knows? I doubt that anyone would call The Thing is misogynist film; it’s just another cool wrinkle to focus on.
4. The Setting — When you think of the horrific moments of The Thing, you probably remember the shock, the suspense, and the gore — but be sure to pay attention to the simple presentation of the dilapidated weather base. How Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey slide through empty rooms and deserted hallways that stretch down into shadowy corners. For a film originally dismissed as little more than a gorehound’s geek show, The Thing shows an admirable amount of mood and restraint in the early going, and the maze-like interior of the base slowly starts to feel like a mouse trap.
5. The Weather — Another aspect that just ups the ante in a simple but clever way. In most monster movies, you could just pick a direction and run away, in theory, but The Thing offers no easy escape for its poor victims. Fifteen minutes outside of shelter and you’d become a frozen rock of a corpse, and just like that: one clever storyteller has eliminated the whole logical question of “Why don’t they just run away?” Plus the blizzard adds a nice little soundtrack to the background of all the horror.
6. The Dog — People hate seeing dogs get killed in movies. I respect it, I understand it, and I love the way that The Thing ups the ante in that department. Right away we can tell that “the” dog is a little bit different: it’s calmer, quieter, and more inquisitive than the real Huskies are — and when the creature decides that it’s time to escape from his canine disguise, the audience is treated to an array of emotions that run from anger to shock to pity to deep, delicious horror. And that’s just the creature’s first scene!
7. The Mystery — The guy who loves dogs suddenly seems a little bit quieter. And, weird, that sweet old man is a lot angrier than he normally is. Even MacReady, arguably the toughest and most heroic guy in the film, seems worthy of serious suspicion in one or two moments. Mr. Carpenter and Mr. Lancaster give us some answers — it’s safe to say that Bennings was a beastie — but certainly not all the answers, and it’s this omnipresent air of mistrust and paranoia that makes the film so damn fascinating. Not only could you be swallowed alive by a disgusting beast … but it might pop right out of your friend’s chest.
8. The Gore — Sue me. It’s just that good. It gets two spots on the list.
9. The Impact — Based on a John W. Campbell novel called “Who Goes There?” and (to a lesser degree) a fine 1951 sci-fi film called The Thing (from Another World), the 1982 rendition of The Thing was not greeted with open arms when it opened on June 25th of 1982. One of the more popular theories among horror fans is that since E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial had just opened a few weeks earlier, movie audiences didn’t want “scary” aliens anymore. Or perhaps some early word got out that this movie was super gory, mega-violent, and most assuredly not for kids. My guess is a simple one: the summer of 1982 was jam-packed with movies worth seeing, and the harsh, ominous R-rated horror flick got left out in the cold. (Some pun intended.) One fascinating tidbit: Blade Runner opened on the same day as The Thing. And so did Megaforce!
But this is why we don’t judge movies by their box office haul. The Thing made less than $20 million in 1982 money, but it has gone on to become one of the most revisited horror movies of all time. (I know this by using math and science.) People who overlooked The Thing in 1982 have gone on to force their teenage kids to endure it. Young horror fans still approach it with excited caution and a big bowl of popcorn — or at least they ought to. It has inspired comic books, video games, and prequels — not that that is automatically a good thing, but it is indicative of a film that still has lots of excited supporters out there. Plus, and this is important, it’s always near the Top 20 when any film fan puts together a list of the finest sci-fi horror combinations. We remember that The Thing was a “bomb: only in relation to how damn good the movie is, and how it really deserved a nicer welcome back in 1982. At the end of the day, I’d take a powerful three-decade shelf-life over a swanky three-week run at the box office.
10. The Man — I wanted to include “The Score” (Ennio Morricone!) and “The Ending,” but both of these components (and a whole lot more) can be summed up in “John Carpenter.” Love his films or dismiss them out of hand if you like (you fool!), but there’s little denying that the man who directed Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing has a deep and serious love for the horror genre. Yes, he’s made other films, and some damn good ones too, but it’s those three that kicked me in the gut as a young movie-watcher and said “Hey. This Carpenter is a director who really likes horror movies. Remember him.” Halloween is an unquestionable classic, and many of the director’s films still find new fans today, but The Thing is his Frankenstein’s monster of a masterpiece: a film once dismissed as dead on arrival that has grown into a Top Ten classic to virtually every horror fan with good taste and a strong stomach.
I’ve seen this film at least eight times, and I cannot wait to (finally) see it on the big screen at the Drafthouse this weekend. Happy 30th Anniversary to this bleak, disturbing, and wonderful horror movie.
Long live the Summer of 1982!