“You see, what we’re talkin’ about here is an organism that imitates other life-forms, and it imitates ’em perfectly. When this thing attacked our dogs it tried to digest them… absorb them, and in the process shape its own cells to imitate them. This for instance. That’s not dog. It’s imitation. We got to it before it had time to finish.”
What The Thing Means to Us
I was living with The Thing a long time before I actually saw John Carpenter’s masterpiece. First, there was the comic book (Starstream #1) when I was a kid. Then John W. Campbell’s original story, “Who Goes There?” in a sci-fi collection gifted by an uncle. Then there was the original film, The Thing from Another World, which I distinctly remember giving me a chill as the scientists formed a circle while trying to figure out the dimensions of the buried ship. THEN there was Fangoria, where Rob Bottin’s fleshy nightmare creations were featured heavily. By the time I actually first saw the film – hunched over a tiny black-and-white set in the main office of a hydroelectric plant, straining to listen to Blair’s warnings as the generators whirred – I felt like I knew that monster and those men. They were familiar friends and fiends. The film took everything in my head and made it real on the screen – the men, the paranoia, and most importantly, the monster. I’ve watched it dozens of times since, and The Thing remains one of the most perfect films – horror or otherwise – that I’ve ever seen. In fact, I think I might just go watch it again…
The first of John Carpenter’s ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’ and also happens to be his best film. The Thing was adapted from 1951’s The Thing From Another World, which was based on the novel Who Goes There? but far surpassed its predecessor. The feeling of paranoia and isolation is palpable with the alien entity having the ability to imitate anyone that plays on our inherent distrust. The fact the group is in freaking Antarctica really helps sell their helplessness. The whole movie is an exercise in mounting tension that has your heart racing from the beginning till the end. Macready’s blood test scene alone makes it feel as if your heart is going to burst through your chest. Carpenter makes a true classic. However, the special effects by Rob Bottin, the haunting score by Ennio Morricone, Dean Cundey’s gorgeous cinematography, and committed performances by each actor are all that help make this become an absolute masterpiece.
Even those with limited knowledge of the histories of certain films, know that The Thing is a remake of The Thing From Another World, which was based on the novel Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. Whether you’ve seen the 1951 film or read the 1938 novel (or the 1972 version called Horror Express) or not doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter if you’ve seen the John Carpenter version, there are just some factoids you know about the film and that’s one of them. The other and more famous bit of trivia is that this film was not only a box office failure but was ripped apart by critics. You can’t talk about this film without mentioning that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial fucking murdered it at the box office or that almost every critic at the time was wrong but it’s also impossible not to bring up the fact that it is one of, if not, the greatest remake of all time and is arguably the scariest film ever. Its failure and eventual success will forever be inexorably linked, which is probably why Carpenter himself hates talking about this film but (and to tie back to those factoids I mentioned earlier) did you know that Carpenter was not even supposed to direct this film in the first place? In fact, he was damn near the last person the producers approached.
Production of the film started in the late 70s when Wilbur Stark had purchased the remake rights to 23 RKO Pictures films, including The Thing from Another World, from three financiers who did not know what to do with them, so they exchanged them for a cut of the film’s profits. Once the ball guy rolling on The Thing from Another World remake, Universal jumped in and in turn, acquired the rights to remake the film from Stark and because of this, almost prevented Carpenter from getting the gig in the guest place. Due to him being an independent director, he was passed over in favor of Tobe Hooper and John Landis but since they and a handful of others, all turned it down, it was then finally offered to Carpenter, who jumped at the chance since he was a huge fan of the original and that of the director, Howard Hawks.
“It’s a rule in Hollywood that if you make a horror movie, you have to put the monster in the dark. I didn’t do that. I brought this baby right out in the light. That got people. Rob Bottin had a whole army of artists drawing. Rob said, “It can look like anything; it can be completely nuts.”
Rob Bottin: Wizard of Gore
The Thing is a magnificent stew made of only the best ingredients. The cast, consisting almost entirely of ‘that guy’ character actors, is wonderful in its diversity and believable in its realism. Each character feels unique and is instantly memorable even though most of them don’t do much. You just tend to remember them based on their distinct faces and how each of them deals with the situation. The score, created by legendary composer Ennio Morricone (in collaboration with Carpenter himself), is terrifying in its minimalism. It never draws attention to itself, instead opting for a more subtle approach. It feels like a thin layer of audible dread grafted on top of an already tense experience. It adds a level of unease to every scene and by the time you do notice it, it’s too late. He’s made some of the greatest scores in movie history (some of which are my personal favorites) and I think this one is the best. Or at least top five. It’s hard to pick the best, the man has a lot of great scores. But as good as his score is and as good as the cast and Carpenter’s direction are, the film wouldn’t work without Rob Bottin.
With a budget of $10 million, with $200,000 of that going to “creature effects” (which at the time was more than the studio had ever allocated to a monster film), the special effects budget quickly ballooned to 1.5 million and while that severely put the film behind schedule and cost the studio a mint, every cent of that money is on screen. Combining state of the art practical effects with a smidgen of stop motion and matte paintings, the SFX crew used every tool in their arsenal to craft a horror experience like none other. Bottin and his team of twentysomething wizards pulled off a mini-miracle with this film. They made things that CGI nowadays still couldn’t replicate. The defibrillator scene alone has more ingenious moments, than 99% of every film released today. They had to cast a double amputee for a shot that lasts less than two seconds. The character gets his arms bitten off by an exposed chest cavity filled with teeth, who then gets lit on fire and when everyone thinks it’s dead, its head rips off of its body, grows legs, and tries to scamper away. It’s an amazing scene that all other practical effects scenes should be judged against. It, along with many other scenes (the dog kennel and the blood testing especially), proved that Bottin was every bit as equal as the special effects masters that had come before him.
“I created monsters as a kid. I loved it. I watched monster movies as a kid. So eventually I wanted to make a monster film as an adult and it didn’t work. It bombed, it crashed, it exploded. People hated it. The fans hated it. The whole movie is dark and depressing and about the end of the world…..and I wouldn’t change a frame.”
The Apocalypse Trilogy
While the film bombed, neither its critical or commercial failure had stopped Carpenter. While it is true that he had lost both Firestarter and the remake The Creature from the Black Lagoon, it didn’t permanently hurt his career. He was still allowed to make the type of weird movies he always had been but now, at significantly lower budgets. Two of his best lower budget horror films just so happen to round out what is often referred to as “The Apocalypse Trilogy.” Consisting of The Thing, Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness, the triad has nothing in common outside of the fact that all of them end with the sinking feeling that the world is over five minutes after the credits roll. They’re not exactly fun films nor is their outlook on life particularly pleasant but for horror fans, nihilism plus blood and guts, equal a devilishly good time. I could mention the fact that The Thing is a perfect allegory for AIDS or that it works as a better metaphor for McCarthy era paranoia better than both the novel and the original adaptation but that’s just boring ol’ subtext that nobody gives a shit about. Because while it may make a film deeper, it certainly doesn’t make it any scarier and the scares are what’s important. Not what the critics said back in the day or what its box office gross was. The legacy of this film isn’t that everyone was wrong back then and that it outlasted the haters, it’s that the horror fans were always right. This is the greatest horror film of all time.
What are your feelings about The Thing? What do you think of the themes of the film?