“You gotta be f***ing kidding!” is arguably the most recognizable line in John Carpenter’s horror classic, The Thing. Oddly, it’s one of the scant moments of levity in the film, which is intentionally bereft of levity. Whether it scares you because of its musical score or with its creature, which was festooned with enough K-Y jelly to fill a swimming pool, The Thing’s sole function is just that: to scare.
The first film in Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” (it was followed by 1987’s Prince of Darkness and 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness), The Thing is gory and violent, portends the end of the world, and, ultimately, flies in the face of hope—and it’s one of Carpenter’s personal favorite movies. Here are 13 things you might not know about the 1982 cult classic, which was released 35 years ago today.
1. IT WAS A FLOP WITH AUDIENCES AND IT WAS PARTLY E.T.’S FAULT.
What The Thing lacks in comedy it makes up for tenfold in claustrophobia, paranoia, loneliness, and some of the most incredibly frightening practical effects in film history. Yet audiences were none too receptive to the film, at least at first, as The Thing earned just shy of $20 million at the domestic box office.
“The movie tanked when it came out,” Carpenter admitted in a post-screening Q&A at the CapeTown Film Festival in 2013. “It was hated, hated by fans. I lost a job, people hated me, they thought I was … horrible, violent—and I was. But now here we are 31 years later, and here you are filling the theater.”
Part of the problem was that The Thing opened two weeks after E.T. And while E.T. featured a benevolent alien and a happy ending, The Thing starred a violent, evil alien and had an ending that left audiences scratching their heads a bit.
“I’d made a really grueling, dark film and I just don’t think audiences in 1982 wanted to see that,” said Carpenter. “They wanted to see E.T. and The Thing was the opposite.”
2. CRITICS HATED IT, TOO.
Critics looked on the film just as unfavorably as fans when it was released in June of 1982. Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote:
“John Carpenter’s The Thing is a foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is fun as neither one thing or the other. Sometimes it looks as if it aspired to be the quintessential moron movie of the ’80s—a virtually storyless feature composed of lots of laboratory-concocted special effects, with the actors used merely as props to be hacked, slashed, disemboweled and decapitated, finally to be eaten and then regurgitated as—guess what?—more laboratory-concocted special effects.”
Roger Ebert was only slightly kinder with his two-and-a-half-star review in the Chicago Sun-Times, writing:
“The Thing is a great barf-bag movie, all right, but is it any good? I found it disappointing, for two reasons: the superficial characterizations and the implausible behavior of the scientists on that icy outpost. Characters have never been Carpenter's strong point; he says he likes his movies to create emotions in his audiences, and I guess he'd rather see us jump six inches than get involved in the personalities of his characters … The Thing is basically, then, just a geek show, a gross-out movie in which teenagers can dare one another to watch the screen. There's nothing wrong with that; I like being scared and I was scared by many scenes in The Thing. But it seems clear that Carpenter made his choice early on to concentrate on the special effects and the technology and to allow the story and people to become secondary. Because this material has been done before, and better, especially in the original The Thing and in Alien, there's no need to see this version unless you are interested in what the Thing might look like while starting from anonymous greasy organs extruding giant crab legs and transmuting itself into a dog. Amazingly, I'll bet that thousands, if not millions, of moviegoers are interested in seeing just that.”
3. IT’S NOT A REMAKE.
Though it’s often cited as a remake of the 1951 film The Thing from Another World, it’s really not. Though the two films do share the same source material—John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 story, “Who Goes There?”—Carpenter was clear that he “didn’t want to compete with the old film, which was greatly beloved by me. So I went back the novella [on] which both films were based.” Unlike the 1951 film, Carpenter’s movie features a creature that can perfectly imitate its victims.
Carpenter does, however, pay homage to the earlier film, most notably in the scene where he shows the alien’s icy tomb that has been removed from the snow and in the main title sequence.
4. A DOUBLE AMPUTEE WAS USED TO CREATE THE FILM’S QUINTESSENTIAL SPECIAL EFFECT.
One of the most memorable scenes in the movie (often referred to as the “chest chomp”) occurs when Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) attempts to revive Norris (Charles Hallahan) with a defibrillator. As he presses the paddles to his patient’s skin, Norris’ chest opens up and Copper’s forearms disappear into the cavity, where they are severed below the elbow by a set of jaws inside Norris’ chest.
In order to pull this off, special makeup effects designer Rob Bottin (known for his work on Robocop, Total Recall, Se7en, and Fight Club) found a man who had lost both of his arms below the elbow in an industrial accident. Bottin fit the man with two prosthetic forearms consisting of wax bones, rubber veins, and Jell-O. Then, for the wide-angle shot, he fit the man with a skin-like mask taken from a mold of Dysart’s face (à la Hannibal Lecter) and placed the ersatz arms into the chest cavity, where a set of mechanical jaws clamped down on them. As the actor pulled his arms away, the Jell-O arms severed below the elbows. The rest is practical effects history.
5. MAKEUP EFFECTS ICON STAN WINSTON WORKED ON THE FILM, UNCREDITED.
The making of The Thing was, by all accounts, a physically grueling process, especially for Rob Bottin. By the end of the film, Bottin succumbed to exhaustion and had to be hospitalized (he also had double pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer). In order to finish the laundry list of creature effects the film needed, Bottin enlisted the help of Stan Winston to complete what turned out to be one of the film’s most stunning, and earliest seen, effects.
Winston, known for his work on movies like Aliens, Predator, Edward Scissorhands, and Jurassic Park, would not accept credit on the film, however, as he was adamant that it was “Rob’s film.” Winston was thanked in the final credits.
6. KURT RUSSELL ALMOST KILLED HIMSELF WITH A STICK OF DYNAMITE.
Russell threw an actual stick of dynamite during a scene toward the end of the film. He did not, however, anticipate it being so powerful. Russell was literally blown backwards after the device detonated; this take was left in the film.
7. LEGENDARY COMPOSER ENNIO MORRICONE PENNED THE SCORE.
John Carpenter famously writes the music for most of his movies. However, being that The Thing was his first studio film, and because he was short on time, he asked Ennio Morricone to do the honors. Morricone, a five-time Oscar nominee known for his work with Sergio Leone, obliged and crafted a synthesizer-laden score very reminiscent of Carpenter’s own composing style.
8. THE U.S. CAMP AND THE NORWEGIAN CAMP WERE ONE AND THE SAME.
John Carpenter comes from the school of low-budget filmmaking and, as such, knows how to stretch a dollar. Instead of building an entirely new set for the Norwegian base camp scenes that appear early on in the film, Carpenter simply filmed those scenes in the charred remnants of Outpost 31, after it was blown up for the movie’s climactic finale.
9. IT FEATURES AN ALL-MALE CAST.
The only females in the movie are the women appearing on a taped version of Let’s Make A Deal, Adrienne Barbeau’s (uncredited) voice as MacReady’s computer, and a blow-up doll that never made it into the final cut.
10. ROB BOTTIN WAS SENSITIVE ABOUT HIS CREATURES.
“Rob [Bottin] was always very sensitive about his creatures,” recalled cinematographer Dean Cundey. “Whether there was too much light on them. We always sort of joked: If it was up to Rob he would build the creatures to be incredibly interesting and imaginative and then not put any light on them because he was afraid of showing them.”
11. CARPENTER FEARED THAT AUDIENCES MIGHT LAUGH AT THE FILM.
Carpenter was very nervous about how the audience might react until he saw some of Bottin’s effects in person. “When I started seeing some of the effects that Rob created—it was one in particular, one particular sequence where Charlie [Hallahan’s] head comes off the table and the tongue shoots out and it pulls across and turns over and grows stalks and walks across the floor—when I saw that I realized a great sense of relief because what I didn’t want to end up with in this movie was a guy in a suit,” said Carpenter. “Even as great as [Alien] was, and Alien was a terrific movie … in the very end, up stood this big guy in a suit.”
12. A STOP-MOTION SEQUENCE WAS FILMED BUT NEVER MADE IT INTO THE FINAL CUT.
For a pivotal scene near the end of the film where MacReady battles the enormous “Blair-Thing," Bottin called upon stop-motion expert Randall Cook for help. Cook created an entire miniature model of the set and filmed the wide angle shots of the monster using stop-motion animation. Despite only taking up seconds of screen time, the sequence took countless hours to create. Ultimately, Carpenter decided not to use the footage as his own eye could detect the stop-motion animation.
13. AN ALTERNATE ENDING WAS FILMED, JUST IN CASE.
John Carpenter and editor Todd Ramsay shot and cut an alternate ending to the film that was never used. Ramsay was concerned that the bleak, ambiguous ending would not test well with audiences, so he suggested that Carpenter cover his bases and have a spare ending ready to go. They filmed an additional scene where lead character MacReady (Kurt Russell) is rescued and appears in a room where he is given a blood test to determine whether he has been assimilated, which he passes. Fortunately for fans of the film, this alternate finale was not needed as Carpenter stood firmly behind the movie he had made—ambiguous ending and all.
The Thing: Collector's Edition, Special Features
John Carpenter's The Thing: Terror Takes Shape