'The Thing' at 40: How John Carpenter's sci-fi masterpiece overcame the odds

'The Thing' at 40: How John Carpenter's sci-fi masterpiece overcame the odds

Creid é nó ná creid, there was a time when 'The Thing' was considered a flop. John Carpenter's classic was released on this week in 1982 to a dismal box office take and a savaging from critics.

The icy reception for the film that is now widely regarded as John Carpenter's magnum opus can stem from one thing: being released in the depths of summer.

The summer of 1982 was something of a miracle for American cinema, with the likes of 'ET', 'Tron', 'Rocky III' and 'Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan' dominating the box office, but it was John Carpenter's creature feature that ultimately won the hearts of audiences and critics.

For reasons unknown, 'The Thing' was released in June in the United States.

The film was released in November 1982 in Ireland, and one could hardly think of a better time to release a film about madness, paranoia and terror in the dark.

A bleak, miserable, and outright hostile film set in the freezing cold simply wasn't going to fly with audiences when 'ET' could charm them next door.

We interviewed John Carpenter himself back in 2016, and the director said "people didn't understand the movie, but it was too hopeless I think."

"It was WAY too hopeless, people wanted something that made them feel good. Like 'ET'.

If audiences wanted a scare that summer, they could simply go see 'Poltergeist' instead, which was rated PG, and didn't feature lovely dogs being turned into gruesome aliens.

'The Thing' may have lost the battle, but it most certainly has won the war.

In the man's own words "it's great that people have seen what I wanted them to see in 'The Thing' that it's a pretty good movie."

Ice To Meet You

Eagle-eyed fans of Carpenter would be aware that the director long had a fondness for the 1951 film 'The Thing from The Other World', going so far as to show it on a television in 'Halloween'.

The film had a seminal impact on Carpenter, and set about to retell the story for a new generation.

Cold War allegories about not trusting your nearest and dearest were out, state-of-the-art special effects were in.

Bill Lancaster's script is taught in film schools worldwide to show budding filmmakers how to introduce characters, establish motivations, and keep the audience guessing.

Dean Cundey's cinematography is first-rate, and the man who helped make the shadow and darkness the main character in the films of John Carpenter is at his very best here.

Cundey lighting the finale of the film by the iridescent orange glow of fire is an absolute masterstroke of cinematography and represents the peak of himself and Carpenter's collaborations.

Shortly afterward, Cundey was in the big leagues of Spielberg and Zemeckis, shooting the likes of 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' and 'Jurassic Park' for the Oscar-winning directors, but for our money his work on 'The Thing' is Cundey at his very best.

As if all this technical wizardry wasn't enough, the film has special effects that still look extraordinary to this day.

There's nothing we can't say about 'The Thing' that hasn't been said a million times before, but if you want an example of just how important practical effects are, watch the 1982 version of 'The Thing' and the 2011 remake and you will discover just how vital practical effects are to the filmmaking process.

"You gotta be fucking kidding me!"

In our John Carpenter interview back in 2016, the director said the blood test scene from 'The Thing' is his favourite shot from his career.

This gushing and praise weren't always associated with 'The Thing', however.

The New York Times' review of the film referred to it as "foolish, depressing and overproduced"

The review dubbed it "the quintessential moron movie of the '80s."

The late, great Roger Ebert was marginally more positive on the film than his contemporaries, but even then criticised the film for making the characters mere set-ups for the monster to attack.

Most damningly for Carpenter, the director of his beloved 1951 version of 'The Thing' hated his spin on it, remarking "if you want blood, go to the slaughterhouse."

A similar fate befell 'Starship Troopers' upon release; a legendary genre director made a film packed full of sub-text beyond the gnarly creature feature effects and critics dismissed it as mere popcorn fare.

They couldn't have been more wrong.

Here's The Thing

Prior to the events of 2020, the film had a strong following among film fans, but the long days spent indoors reminded many people of the ordeals Kurt Russell and co had to endure in 'The Thing'.

The film's themes of paranoia and fear of being infected gained resonance over the last few years.

When the Omnicron variant struck last Christmas, plenty of Twitter jokes were made comparing their household situation to 'The Thing' and people had to figure out who was infected in their household.

Sadly, none of us looked as cool and composed as Kurt Russell.

Russell is John Carpenter's lucky charm, with the pair working on 5 films together, but this collaboration may well be their best.

'The Thing' came hot off the heels off 'Escape From New York' which cemented Kurt Russell's transformation from former Disney child star to an action icon for a new decade.

Russell is every inch the movie star in 'The Thing', with his hair and beard combo worthy of a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.

Russell opted not to shave or touch his beard for a year, and the final result can only be described as a work of art.

The Iceman Cometh: Kurt Russell is at his movie star best in 'The Thing'

In the career of John Carpenter, the director has certainly had his successes such as 'Halloween', 'The Fog' and 'Starman', but by and large, the director had to settle for his films eventually finding their audience on home video.

Because of the success of 'Halloween', a John Carpenter film was always going to get a green light.

In the early part of the 1980s, films began to take on a second life if they failed at the box office thanks to the VHS becoming more readily available with consumers.

It was in this environment that 'The Thing' took on a life of its own.

At the time, Carpenter had a major deal with Universal, largely off the success of 'Halloween' back in 1978.

'Halloween' is still to this day a shining example of indie cinema, and studios tripped over themselves to work with the horror master.

The 80s were a very good decade to be a horror director, with Messrs Cronenberg, Landis, Craven, Hooper and Raimi snapped trusted by studios to make their blockbuster hits, but Carpenter's relationship to the studio system is perhaps most peculiar of all.

Carpenter had a multi-movie contract with Universal, but after the failure of 'The Thing' the contract was bought out and Carpenter spent the rest of his career working as a journeyman within the studio system.

Carpenter eventually worked his way back into the good graces of Universal with the studio putting out 'They Live' and 'Prince Of Darkness' on home video after they realised that while the films weren't quite blockbusters in the cinema, they were incredibly popular on home video.

If 'The Thing' was a hit, perhaps Carpenter would be referred to in the same revered, hushed tones as Spielberg, Lucas or Cameron, but knowing Carpenter, he would have struggled within the confines of the studio system.

'The Thing' is Carpenter taking the toys and luxuries afforded to him with the studio system, and there would have been expectations to produce a film on the quality of 'The Thing' every time.

As a result of 'The Thing' failing, Carpenter was taken off directing duties for 'Firestarter', and the director worked with Columbia to direct another Stephen King adaptation in the form of 'Christine'.

As the second half of his career proved, Carpenter was hit and miss, and at the big leagues of Universal, there were very little room for mistakes.

With the commercial failure of 'The Thing', Carpenter was out of the studio system as soon as he arrived.

In a 2011 interview with The AV Club, the director said the failure of 'The Thing' was a defining moment in his career.

"If 'The Thing' had been a hit, my career would have been different. I wouldn't have had to make the choices that I made."

"But I needed a job. I'm not saying I hate the movies I did. I loved making 'Christine' and 'Starman' and 'Big Trouble In Little China', all those films, but my career would have been different," Carpenter said.

The video game and NBA enthusiast had the last laugh, however.

Fittingly for the director who happily spends his days playing video games, games like 'Among Us', 'Dead Space', and 'Resident Evil' contain clear homages to his beloved film.

Episodes of 'Rick and Morty' and 'The X-Files' also serve as loving homages to the flick, and a young Quentin Tarantino directly quoted a shot from 'The Thing' in his debut film 'Reservoir Dogs'.

Any director would be lucky to have a groundbreaking classic like 'Halloween' in their catalogue.

With 'The Thing', John Carpenter has two undisputed classics to his name.