The Thing about ‘The Thing’

Described variously as everything from “the greatest B-movie ever made” to a masterpiece of horror and suspense, John Carpenter’s The Thing, which debuted on June 25, 1982, is a movie that rightfully stands amongst the likes of Alien and The Terminator as one of the most kick-ass sci-fi movies in history. The thing is, it turns out The Thing was so poorly received when it debuted that it nearly ruined Carpenter’s career.

First, for anyone unfamiliar with the The Thing, the basic plot is that a shape-shifting alien organism from the depths of space crash lands in the middle Antarctica and begins brutally assimilating the denizens of an American research base. Throughout the film, in traditional horror movie fashion, the eponymous Thing slowly kills off the cast while Kurt Russell, sporting the bushiest beard of his career, tries to incinerate it with a flamethrower. Of note is the fact that the film ends on a cliffhanger, showing Russell’s character staring down known hero of this Earth Keith David, as they both sit around waiting to freeze to death and come to the realisation that one of them could be the Thing… The fate of neither man is made explicitly clear, leaving what happens next largely up to the interpretation of the audience.

For some reason audiences and critics hated this, with many a scathing review being written criticising the movie’s nihilistic tone and lack of a satisfying conclusion to the story. This somewhat annoyed director John Carpenter who did actually film a more positive ending after being pressure by the studio, but ultimately cut it because it felt, in his words “cheesy”. As Carpenter would later note of the general reaction to the film’s ending: “The film wasn’t heroic enough, it wasn’t the U.S. Hockey team beating the Russians. That’s what people wanted to see.”

Not stopping there, perhaps the most baffling criticism levied against the film came courtesy of New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby who described the film’s practical effects as “phony looking”. A bold claim considering the film’s practical effects are still referenced today by experts in the field as being some of the most technically impressive ever seen on the silver screen.

The endless dunking on Carpenter didn’t stop with reviews, though, and the director of the film The Thing was loosely based upon, The Thing from Another World, Christian Nyby would later release a statement saying that the film was terrible. As if that wasn’t a bitter enough pill to swallow, following the bad reviews and exceptionally poor box office returns the film saw (it only managed to bring in $20 million on a budget of $15 million), Universal yanked Carpenter off of his next directing project and then bought out of the rest of his contract so that he wouldn’t make any more movies for them.

Carpenter, as you can imagine, was hurt by the critical mauling the film received, including being particularly stung when Sydney Magazine had a cover story on the movie titled: “Is This the Most Hated Film of All Time?”

Needless to say, Carpenter refused to comment on The Thing publicly for many years. Of course, over the years the critical consensus on the film has shifted dramatically and The Thing is now considered one of the greatest and most influential horror movies ever made. Which begs the question, what gives?

Well, according to Carpenter, one of the key reasons he believes the film flopped was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which was released just two weeks before The Thing. Said, Carpenter, “I just don’t think audiences in 1982 wanted to see that. They wanted to see E.T. and The Thing was the opposite of that… I was called ‘a pornographer of violence’… I had no idea it would be received that way… The Thing was just too strong for that time. I knew it was going to be strong, but I didn’t think it would be too strong…”

In the end, he didn’t think audiences were ready for a movie about a shape-shifting alien murder-beast so soon after one about a happy, friendly little alien who likes eating Reese’s Pieces.

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  • How the hell can you describe this film as a B movie. With the ground breaking special effects it had. There’s nothing cheap about it. A pure Masterpiece.

  • Always interested in articles about this classic film. Great film, but obviously not for everyone…the gore is a but too much for even hardcore fans…but that is what makes it so unique and scary. Still can’t show it to my 12 year old…

    Would be interested in a link to the Sydney Magazine article if you have it. Haven’t heard about that one….something to track down

  • I just wonder how long it will be until the Liberals are able to drag people out of their graves and crucify them? We’re almost to that point now. Half these actors are gone and this is how you treat them? Just shameful, but your day is coming and how will you answer to him?

    • Troll garbage

    • Conservative extremists have to add politics to everything they touch/troll. What do dead celebrities have to do with crucifying by anyone? Further, that last statement sounded like a death threat(similar to your user name). You better hope the F.B.I. is not looking into your account.

  • I didn’t see the movie until years later, when I could rent a VHS tape.

    I’d read the original Campbell short story, and I’d seen the original black and white movie. I knew it was going to be different than those; Hollywood always has to jigger things about. But it followed the original story fairly closely, right up until the last scenes.

    The main problem was, the movie was STUPID. It depended way too much on stereotyped horror tropes, interleaved with more stupid. “Hey, I need a tiny sample of blood to show I’m not an alien monster, so I’ll take this scalpel and do my best to cut my thumb off, so I’ll be crippled for the rest of the movie…” Whaaaaat?

    I wasn’t fond of the “ambiguous ending” either, but the overwhelming stupid is what I remember most, many years later.

    • Dude GTFOH with that stupid shit!!! Next your probably going to say you think the 2011 merging is belly with all that fake ass CGI!!!

  • Always been my favourite movie. A stand out amongst so many dire science fiction movies that have been made. Right up there with Alien and Terminator. I recently edited together the original and the more recent prequel so I can have an almost 4hr “Thingfest”

  • Loved this movie and purchased a copy to have in my collection. I rarely concern myself over what others think of things like this, we each have our own expectations, and some people look for opportunities to practice recreational outrage at every opportunity no matter what the topic. I just see it as a fun movie.

  • It should be noted that this film, and the 50’s schlock horror film “The Thing From Outer Space” were both based upon John Campbell Jr.’s sci fi classic short story “Who Goes There”, released in the late 30’s. But whereas the 50’s film was simply a monster movie, I read that the 1982 version “The Thing” was going to be much truer to the premise of the original story and went to see it the week it was released and loved it then as I love it now.

    For anyone who loves this movie, but has not read John Campbell Jr’s short story, I urge you to read it and you will appreciate the greatness of the movie even more.

  • I grew up around John Carpenter. I knew his father, a professor at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, KY. John has many references to places in and around Bowling Green in his movies. Sort of like Easter eggs for those of us who live here. I remember when he was a film student at UCLA and he came home to visit. He told me it was his plan to be a major movie director and/or producer. As I said goodbye and walked away from him I thought, “Poor John . . . .he has lofty ambitions. But for them to come true is going to be a stretch.” Hmmmmmm!