When we last spoke, we discussed Howard Hawks’ and Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World, which hit screens in 1951 to great acclaim and greater box office.
Flash forward to 1981. Director John Carpenter is coming off a string of hits. His first feature was a low budget, sci-fi comedy called Dark Star. This was followed by Assault On Precinct 13, the story of an inner city police station under siege. Carpenter next wrote and directed a made-for-TV thriller with Lauren Hutton called Someone Is Watching Me (he also wrote the spec script Eyes, which would become the Irvin Kirshner-directed The Eyes Of Laura Mars). Carpenter’s next movie blew the doors off the joint.
Originally titled The Babysitter Murders, the film’s producer, Irwin Yablans, suggested it take place on Halloween. This would become the film’s theme and title. 1978’s Halloween tells the story of Michael Myers and his love of stabbing. It cost about $ 300,000 and grossed $ 65 million. Halloween was followed by another made-for-TV movie, Elvis, a biopic of the King Of Rock n’ Roll starring Kurt Russell. Then came The Fog followed by the wicked excellent Escape From New York, again, starring Kurt Russell, this time as Snake Plisken.
Meanwhile, at Universal, a remake of 1951’s The Thing From Another World was in the works. It was submitted to Carpenter to direct but Carpenter, being a huge Howard Hawks fan – Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 was heavily influenced by Hawk’s Rio Bravo - was wary of remaking such a well-regarded film by such a well-regarded director. However, after reading John W. Campbell’s original novel Who Goes There? Carpenter became interested in the concept of the alien’s ability to copy and replace its victims. This aspect of the alien was not covered in the original version and gave hawks, as they say, “a way into the film.” By focusing on an aspect of the tale not covered in the original film, Carpenter would be able to tell a different story than the Hawks / Nyby original. He also felt that it echoed the Agatha Christie story And Then There Were None in that the cast of the story gets picked off one after the other.
The film was written by Bill Lancaster and starred Carpenter’s now frequent collaborator Kurt Russell, as well as Wilfred Brimley, Keith David and others. There are no women in The Thing. It is, as they say, an all-male feature. But or make no mistake, the real star of The Thing is The Thing. This coming summer, The Thing will be 40 years old, and the movie, with the exception of one or two oldey-timey computers, remains b goasically ageless. The special effects, far from being quaint and dated, are still absolutely mind-blowing and still 100 % believable. For this you can thank three things: The Thing was made before the advent of CGI, so all of the effects are practical. They look real because they are real. The effect sequences were story boarded by the great comics illustrator Mike Ploog, who brought so much imagination and inventiveness to the sequences and, finally, they were designed and executed, with one or two exceptions, by a young man named Rob Bottin.
The Thing’s initial designs were done by a man named Dale Kuipers who came up with the concept that you would never see the same Thing twice. Carpenter loved Kuiper’s concepts, but as pre-production got underway he was injured in an accident and sidelined for several months. Carpenter turned to Rob Bottin, with whom he had worked on The Fog.
Rob Bottin was only 21years-old at the time. He was a big fan of Kuiper’s work but felt he could improve on it, saying in a later interview included in the DVD’s special features, “Dale had come up with something that was a lot better than ALIEN’s face-hugger but it was basically a big bug. In a match cut, the dog or whatever would explode and there’d be this big bug sitting there and it would go off and do it destruction. But to me, because of the title, I expected it to be a little more like a thing.”
Bottin pitched Carpenter his ideas for the thing in The Thing. They were so outlandish that Carpenter actually took a day to think about them before offering Bottin the job. He did and he did. In an interview with Cinefantastique magazine, Bottin explained his rationale behind the creature’s design, and also gave a hint to their rather unflappable approach to some of the films more jaw dropping sequences: “Since it has been all over the galaxy, it could call upon anything it needed whenever it needed it. Like when the guy’s stomach splits open and changes into a big mouth and bites the guy’s arms off. If you think about it, it’s logical. The doctor is bugging him and he’s trying to play possum. What’s it going to do? Best thing is just to let the guy fall in and bit his arms off.”
Credit where credit is due. Simply because of the staggering amount of effects shots that Bottin was responsible for, a few were farmed out. The famous kennel sequence, for instance, was done by the late, great, Stan Winston.
Carpenter began filming in the summer of 1981, with interiors shot on the Universal lot. However, the interiors were supposed to be set in the Arctic, so the characters were quite naturally dressed accordingly. But it was one of he hottest summers on record, which, for Los Angeles, is HOT. The soundstages were air conditioned to below freezing, then the actors would walk out into 100 degree heat. After the interiors were shot, production moved to the top of a snowbound glacier in Stewart, British Columbia.
The film was completed and when Universal previewed the film, the audience scores were fantastic. According to Carpenter, his best since Halloween. The film was slotted for a June 25th release. But when it was released, critics and audiences did not respond. To put it mildly.
So what happened?
What happened, happened exactly two weeks prior to The Thing’s release, on June 11, 1982. It was another movie about a visitor from outer space, far less dangerous visitor than the Thing. A friendly little alien named E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
Decades are eras, but they don’t run exactly to the calendar day. What we think of as the pop-cultural 1960’s did not start on January 1st, 1960. To use cultural pop cultural milestones, the 50’s began with the arrival of Elvis Presley and ended with the departure of JFK. The 60’s started three months later, in February of 1964, when The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan ended at Altamont. If that’s true, and of course these are only my metrics and open to debate, but by that standard, the 70’s ended on June 11th, 1982 when E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial opened. Reagan was in the White House and Americans wanted to forget the malaise of the 70’s and pretend everything was great. And boy, oh boy, nothing gave people the warm fuzzies more than E.T. I was an usher at a movie theater that summer, saw every movie a hundred times, and let me tell you, nobody wanted to talk about anything but E.T.
Premiering just two short weeks after E.T. opened – fun fact, Blade Runner was released the same day to equal indifference - critics looked at The Thing and ripped it apart. In The New York Times, Vincent Canby called it “foolish and depressing. It qualifies only as instant junk.” Roger Ebert called it, “a barf bag movie.” Starlog, which was a science fiction magazine and should have known better, said, “John Carpenter’s The Thing smells, and smells pretty bad. It has no pace, sloppy continuity, zero humor, bland characters on top of being devoid of either warmth or humanity.”
The Thing arrived too late. Or too early. It certainly should not have arrived at the dawn of the candy-colored 1980’s. The Thing is a seventies film in its nihilism, but it suffered in its initial release from the E.T. backlash. Aliens didn’t turn their chest into a giant shark mouth and bite your arms your off! They could ate Reese’s Pieces and made your bike fly. It was only in the ensuing years that The Thing, and Blade Runner, found their audience on home video. As the giddy optimism of the 80’s gave way to reality and people came back down to Earth, both The Thing and Blade Runner were the subjects of critical and audience reappraisal. They are also, in their production and costume design, pretty much timeless, whereas the top two grossing pics of the year, E.T. and Rocky III, are very much artifacts of their time. The cinematic equivalents of big hair and acid washed jeans.
All my opinion of course. But I would know. I was an usher!