On June 1982, one of the most emblematic movies of the 80s and, by extent, of the Science Fiction/Horror genre was released. It was panned upon release by critics and audiences alike, who didn’t understand its artistic and storytelling merits, and who added it to the growing list of Body Horror movies that were so popular during that decade. Time would put both the movie, and the critics who slammed it in their place. To understand why the movie failed both critically and at the box office, we have to go back to a time and place, and especially a year, that was rife with cinematic landmarks. To say that the movie came out at the wrong time is an understatement. Let’s find out why.
When the rights to John W. Campbell’s novella; Who goes there ?, written under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart, became available, Stuart Cohen, an executive for Universal Studios’ Television department grabbed them, and immediately started working on adapting it to the big screen. Early development work was done by filmmaker Tobe Hooper and writer Kim Henkel. Producers Laurence Turman and David Foster were the ones in charge of bringing the proyect to life, and didn’t like Hooper and Henkel’s treatment. It was then that filmmaker John Carpenter was approached by his long-time friend Stuart Cohen on the possibility of tackling the proyect. Carpenter immediately jumped at the idea, as he was a long time admirer of the 1951 Howard Hawks and Chritian Nyby adaptation; The Thing from Another World. Carpenter had also read the novella on which said movie was based, and really liked it. The 1951 adaptation bore little resemblance to the original text, as the creature of the film was a plant-based creature that looked more like a Frankenstein-esque monster than anything else. Carpenter wanted to go back to basics and take the original concept of the thing being a creature that could pretty much imitate any life form by assimilating its host and creating a perfect replica undistinguishable from the real thing. That shape shifting quality gave the story a unique edge in that anyone could be the creature, thus creating an atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia that would go hand in hand with Carpenter’s themes and obsessions from previous films. Sadly, it would be some time until Universal decided to step up and greenlight the proyect, mostly due to the massive success of Alien (1979), Ridley Scott. It was believed that audiences had, once again, an appetite for this kind of movies. Shooting, though, wouldn’t be without its problems.
An all male Ensemble piece
With a director pretty much in place, it was time to look for a crew and cast that could be up to the task in bringing Carpenter’s vision to light. Bill Lancaster, son of actor Burt Lancaster, was entrusted with writing the screenplay, of which he would end up writing three drafts. He struggled with the big number of characters from the novella, and ended up slimming them down to twelve, thus making the story more manageable and understandable. Director of Photography Dean Cundey, Editor Todd Ramsay and Production Designer John J. Lloyd were other important pieces in the creative jigsaw puzzle that Carpenter was trying to assemble. But no piece of the puzzle would be as essential as that of Rob Bottin as Make-up artist and Creature Designer. His was a fundamental contribution in giving the film the look and feel that would turn it into the cult classic it would become. Being a huge admirer of Carpenter’s previous work, he arranged a meeting with the filmmaker through a mutual friend and collaborator of Carpenter’s, Dean Cundey, thus resulting in their first collaboration in the film The Fog (1980). Going off, at first, on the extensive storyboard work that had been done by artists Mike Ploog and Mentor Huebner, Bottin ended up going with his own ideas and concepts for the creature, coming up with some very crazy, and inventive ideas for the creature design, in an attempt to forego the idea of having someone in a suit performing as the alien, and creating something more organic, which suited Carpenter, who was opposed to the idea of the suit, as it was something that had been used in the original movie, and on the recent Ridley Scott masterpiece. Bottin created such a wealth of designs for the film, and had such little time to deliver his work, that he wound up working seven days a week, sixteen hours a day, causing him to be sent to hospital due to mental and physical exhaustion. It was at this point that Stan Winston and his team had to step in to work in some creature design for the scene in which the Thing, in the form of a dog, attacks the rest of the dogs in the kennel of the American station.
Another member of the team who had his work cut out for him was Production Designer John J. Lloyd, who went to Alaska early on during Pre-production to scout for locations. The initial idea was to shoot the movie in Montana, where the 1951 version had been shot, but due to a lack of snowfall during the last two winters, it was decided that production would be moved to Stewart, British Columbia, near a glacier, where a replica of American Scientific Station 31 would be built by a Canadian construction crew during the Summer, and would hopefully be covered by snow by the time the cast and crew came to shoot during the following Winter. The site was perfect, but presented one major logistical problem in that there was only a one way access road used mainly by the workers of a nearby mine. The crew had to come up to the set and go down to the coastal town where they were staying, each day using this road, but making sure they stayed in radio contact with the miners and truck drivers who used it, as those driving down the road couldn’t stop. Some parking spaces along the road were dug up, so the upcoming traffic could park to one side to let the vehicles coming down come through. When the time came for the crew to start shooting in location, the whole encampment was snowed in, and the results were astounding. Shooting days were long, exhausting and the crew and cast had to contend with below zero temperatures that also took their toll in the equipment, which had to stay outside, covered and protected, as the variation in temperatures, if brought inside the set, could cause them to break down.
The ensemble cast was made up of mainly character actors of which the standout one was Kurt Russell as helicopter pilot MacCready, who had previously worked with Carpenter in Elvis and Escape from New York. The actor was viewed by Carpenter as the anchor on which the rest of the performances rested. Brilliantly played by the likes of Wilford Brimley as Dr. Blair, T.K Carter as the Cook Nauls, David Clennon as Palmer, Keith David as Childs, Richard Dysart as Dr. Copper, Charles Hallahan as Norris, Peter Maloney as Bennings, Richard Masur as the dogs keeper Clark, Donald Moffat as the Officer in charge of the station Garry, Joel Polis as Fuchs, and Thomas Waites as Communications Officer Windows.
It was a rare case in that it was an all male cast driven movie, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in the industry for some time.
Braving the elements
It was a difficult shoot all round, not only in location. Most of the indoor scenes were shot inside refrigerated sets in Universal Studios. What made it especially difficult was that 1981 was one of the hottest Summers in memory, so actors would walk out of refrigerated sets onto the scalding hot street outside, causing most of them to get sick. They also had to put dry ice inside their mouths to make the effect of vapor coming out of their mouths. All of this, in addition to the thick winter gear the actors had to wear while shooting, made it especially tough, as most of them would elect to keep their winter clothes on, instead of having to change into something more suited for Summer, everytime they went outside for lunch or to rest.
Fortunately, the cast had had the chance to rehearse all their scenes together months before actual shooting started, creating such a strong bond and camaraderie between them that not much on-set prep work was needed when the time came.
Financial and critical reception
The movie came out at a time where lots of major releases, which were more appealing to the public at the time, where coming out. There was one major release though, that I think, stopped this movie from turning a profit at the box office.
E.T The Extraterrestrial was the biggest earner at the box office that year, and one that caused a lot of movies that year to either underperform, or as it was the case with The Thing, to outright flop at the box office. Critic reception was divisive too, to say the least; some critics praising its technical merits, while others, like Roger Ebert famously did, giving it the thumbs down. Some critics retracted in their original assessments overtime, but some, like the aforementioned Ebert, never did. Most audiences found it downright repulsive in that they thought it focused too heavily in the gore aspects of the piece, disregarding the more nuance aspects of its character study in isolation and mistrust. Those same audiences would come around years later and regard it as the masterpiece it is, thanks in great part to its success in the home video market.
The Thing is a thoroughly engrossing film experience that thrives on tense atmosphere and paranoia. Even though most people classify it as a Horror movie staple, and it has some truly horrifying gore sequences, the movie is more a character study of a bunch of people couped up in a remote Antarctic Station, who are faced with an impossible situation, in which mistrust and deception are rife, and nothing, and no one is what it seems. Carpenter succeds in increasing the suspense and building tension with each passing scene, in defining the characters with a few well-placed character descriptions, all of this with the help of a brilliant cast, claustrophobic set design, moody Cinematography and a score by Ennio Morricone that is on point in setting a suspenful tone for the film.
It’s also a showcase of practical and visual effects with the work of two of the best professionals in the industry: Make-up and Creature Design wizard Rob Bottin, and Matte Painting artist and Alfred Hitchcock regular, Albert Whitlock. The first in bringing about one of the most terrifying creatures ever seen on the big screen, and the second in coming up with some truly breathtaking scenes, like the one in which MacCready and Co, find the unearthed Alien spaceship. The movie is also intelligently narrated, giving you just enough information, and showing you just enough of the creature and its intentions, to keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s unsettling enough, thanks to some very smart editing, to keep you guessing at all times; to the point of not knowing who is who. And that’s the brilliance of it. The terror comes from within. It’s just unfortunate that audiences at the time were unable to appreciate it.
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