In 1982 the whole world, it seemed, was going ET crazy. Steven Spielberg’s overly sentimental (a trait that has marred most of his work since) film about a cute and cuddly alien who just wants to go home was a box-office sensation. Unfortunately, ET completely overshadowed another science fiction film released that year that was its complete antithesis. I’m talking, of course, about John Carpenter’s The Thing – a terrifyingly visceral tale of unrelenting claustrophobia, paranoia and fear that featured an alien life form that was about a million miles away from Spielberg’s kid friendly visitor.
The Thing was a remake of the Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby 1951 film The Thing From Another World, which was itself an adaptation of the classic 1938 novella Who Goes There? by science fiction maestro John W Campbell. Owing to the restrictions within the film industry at the time Hawks and Nyby were unable to be faithful to Campbell’s original story and so his shape-shifting alien became a humanoid vegetable from outer space that fed on human blood. A love element between Kenneth Tobey and Margaret Sheridan was also added which only succeeded in reducing the tension and some of dialogue does seem to our 21st century ears a little corny. Don’t get me wrong here, The Thing From Outer Space, with its undertones of Cold War paranoia, is still a great film – it’s only real let down is the alien itself, which disappointingly turns out to be Peter Graves’ younger brother, James Arness (who later went on to play Matt Dillon in the TV series Gunsmoke), in a rubber suit.
John W Campbell was said to be unhappy with the film and so when John Carpenter decided to go back to the roots of the original story, his version could, technically, be regarded as a re-imagining rather than a remake. With a screenplay by Bill (son of Burt) Lancaster, the setting was moved from the North Pole to Antarctica and the female character was ditched. With special make-up effects genius Rob Bottin on board the alien could be shown absorbing and imitating the humans trapped in the snow-bound research station in graphic detail, and the scene where Richard Masur discovers it in the process of absorbing the dogs in the cage is an almost exact replica of that from Campbell’s novella.
As a result of Spielberg’s sugar-coated ET, The Thing didn’t do all that well at the box-office, but time and technology were about to give it an afterlife that was nothing short of spectacular. By the end of the 1970s a new electronic device was being introduced around the world that would eventually change the way everyone watched films – it would be known as the Video Home System (or VHS) player. I bought my first VHS player in 1984 and the first film I rented was The Thing. It was great because I could do something with it that I couldn’t do when watching a film on television – I could watch the scene where the dogs were getting absorbed and then rewind it and watch it again and again and again. I eventually bought my own copy of the film when my son Robert was about ten years old and he badgered me for days about letting him watch it.
“It’s really scary,” I told him. “I don’t think you’ll like it.”
“Oh, please, Dad. Please please please.”
After two weeks of his incessant pleading I gave in. I waited until my wife went out and then sat him down and loaded the video into the machine. “Right then, you’re not going to get scared, are you?”
“And you’re not going to tell mum that I let you watch it, are you?”
“OK then,” I said, pressing PLAY, “here we go.”
The film starts with a dog running through the snow in Antarctica. It’s being chased by a helicopter with two Norwegians inside, one of whom is shooting at the dog with a telescopic rifle. The dog manages to evade its pursuers and heads towards a US Research Station. The helicopter lands as dog runs towards a group of men and the Norwegian with the rifle goes to throw an explosive but it slips from his hand and blows up the helicopter, killing the pilot. The gunman continues to move towards the group of men and accidentally shoots one of them in the leg, all the time shouting at them in Norwegian. The commander of the Research Station takes out his pistol and kills the Norwegian.
So far, so good. I looked over at Robert and he was smiling at me. “This is not scary, Dad,” he said.
“Uh-huh,” I replied.
MacReady (Kurt Russell), the Station’s helicopter pilot and Doc Copper (Richard Dysart) then fly out to investigate the Norwegian Station. When they get there they find the place smouldering after a huge fire had swept through it – dead, charred and frozen bodies are inside its incinerated remains and there’s a room that contains an enormous block of ice that appears to have had something extremely large inside it. On their way back to the helicopter they discover the burnt remains of something that is not entirely human, but which has the the heads of two men fused together, both of which look as if they had died in agonising pain. MaCready and Copper decide to take the remains back to the Research Station to carry out an autopsy in order to determine what it actually is. While they are away, the dog, which has been roaming freely around the Station goes into someone’s room and when they arrive back with their cargo the dog is watching them through a window.
I could see by the way Robert was pressing himself into the back of the couch that he was starting to get nervous. He had begun to realise by then that the dog wasn’t all that it seemed to be. “Are you all right?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said quickly, and we carried on watching.
The autopsy reveals that the internal organs of the thing they have found are all normal human organs. In the Recreational Room later that evening Bennings (Peter Malony) is surprised by the dog as it brushes through his legs and he orders Clark (Richard Masur) to take it out and put it in the cage with the other dogs. The dog walks sheepishly into the cage and lies down. Clark closes the cage and turns out the light and begins to walk away.
This was it. This was the moment when the alien was going to reveal itself. I could see Robert’s eyes widening, and an unmistakeable look of fear beginning to manifest itself on his face.
The other dogs in the cage begin growling. One of the dogs tries to get out of the cage by biting through the wire mesh. Long, thin, tentacle-like strands start growing out of the dog’s body and shooting out and ensnaring the other dogs. The dog snarls and then its head splits open and . . .
“TURN IT OFF! TURN IT OFF! TURN IT OFF!” screamed Robert in absolute terror, holding his hands to his face and drawing his knees up into his chest.
I turned it off and told him that I told him so.
That scene, so early on in the film, was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. When I saw the film on its original release that visceral scene shocked everyone in the cinema to the bone and filled them with equal measures of horror and disgust. They must have been thinking, like I was, if this sort of thing is happening fifteen minutes in, what is the rest of the film going to be like?
Well, what was it like?
It was like being trapped on an unstoppable roller-coaster that just kept getting faster and faster until it reached its brilliant ambiguous conclusion. I walked out of the cinema exhausted, but at the same time elated at having seen something truly original.
John Carpenter made some great films early on in his career – from his great original feature, the sci-fi comedy Dark Star, he went on to direct Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and the blackly comic Escape From New York – but it is The Thing that shines out above all of them. If he had never made another film in his life The Thing would have made up for it. It is his masterpiece. It’s the film where he got everything exactly right.
The Thing gained a cult following after its release on VHS and it has continued to sell in DVD and Blu-ray formats. Since the release of the 2011 prequel it has gained a new generation of fans. Like Groundhog Day (which was also panned by the critics on its original release) it has since been re-evaluated and is now regarded as a classic of its genre. In fact it now has a higher rating on the IMDB website than ET. This is what’s called “a good thing.”
Fortunately today nobody listens to film critics because most of the time they don’t know what they’re talking about. The critics fell over themselves last year in their praise for American Hustle, but I haven’t yet met one person who actually thought it was any good. “Brilliant!” “Amazing!” “Superb!” wrote the critics. “Boring!” “Overlong!” “Pointless!” replied the punters.
Back in the 1980s people misguidedly listened to the critics and they were guilty in part for the failure of The Thing. I recently looked through the reviews that were written at the time of its release – Roger Ebert said that it was “a great barf bag of a movie.” David Anson in Newsweek wrote that it was “so single-mindedly determined to keep you awake that it almost puts you to sleep.” And Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that it was “a foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that mixes horror with science fiction that is fun as neither one thing or the other.”
After reading those overwhelmingly negative reviews I came to the conclusion that they had all missed the point. The Thing wasn’t meant to be fun – it was meant to scare the pants off you and in that respect it succeeded brilliantly.