Examining the critical reaction to The Thing

Feature Ryan Lambie 20 Jan 2014 - 06:27

John Carpenter's The Thing was panned by reviewers in 1982. We take a look at the angry critical reaction and the later reassessment...

It's the summer of 1982, and director John Carpenter is on the cusp of releasing his latest movie, The Thing. For the 34-year-old filmmaker, the release marks the end of a major undertaking: the culmination of months of shooting on freezing cold sets and snowy British Columbia locations, not to mention the execution of complex and time-consuming practical effects scenes.

Carpenter was understandably proud of the results: after the independent such independent hits as Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween and Escape From New York, this was his first studio movie (for Universal) and also his most expensive to date, with a budget of around $15m. And while The Thing had appeared in cinemas before (in the guise of Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby's 1951 sci-fi shocker, The Thing From Another World) Carpenter's movie was a fresh adaptation of John W Campbell's novella, Who Goes There? - a story Carpenter had long prized.

The Nyby-Hawks adaptation took the skeleton of Campbell's story, about scientists discovering an alien life form in Antarctica, and made it into a monster movie chiller with James Arness as the hulking creature from outer space. Carpenter's The Thing, on the other hand, went back to the original story's most compelling idea: that of a creature which can transform itself into perfect imitations of the people around it.

With the help of Rob Bottin's groundbreaking effects work, Carpenter's movie would bring this creature "out into the light", and he was understandably satisfied with the unholy amalgam of suspense and outright horror he'd brought to the screen.

The icy critical reception

Yet when The Thing opened in US cinemas on the 25th June 1982, the critical reception was almost as aggressive and seething as the film's title monster.

Writing for The New York Times, noted film critic Vincent Canby described the film as "foolish, depressing", with its actors "used merely as props to be hacked, slashed, disembowelled and decapitated, finally to be eaten and then regurgitated [...] it is too phony to be disgusting. It qualifies only as instant junk."

Time magazine dismissed The Thing as "an exercise in abstract art", while Roger Ebert, in a slightly less aggressive review, described it as "a great barf-bag movie", but maintained that, "the men are just setups for an attack by The Thing."

Even reviewers outside the mainstream were hostile towards The Thing.  The magazine Cinefantastique ran a cover which asked, "Is this the most hated film of all time?"

In science fiction magazine Starlog, critic Alan Spencer wrote, "John Carpenter's The Thing smells, and smells pretty bad. It has no pace, sloppy continuity, zero humour, bland characters on top of being totally devoid of either warmth or humanity [...] It's my contention that John Carpenter was never meant to direct a science-fiction horror movie. Here's some things he'd be better suited to direct: traffic accidents, train wrecks and public floggings."

Carpenter was left reeling from the critical reaction. "I was pretty stunned by it," he later said. "I made a really gruelling, dark film, but I [thought] audiences in 1982 wanted to see that."

In terms of its theatrical performance, Carpenter's dark vision didn't exactly go down as either he or Universal had perhaps expected. A major summer release, The Thing scraped in at number eight at the US box office, and while it was by no means a flop - its lifetime gross amounted to just under $20m according to Box Office Mojo - neither was it considered a hit.

The cruel summer

The issue of Starlog in which Alan Spencer's review of The Thing appeared provides several clues as to why the critical reaction to the film was so extreme. First, there's the cover: published in November 1982, issue 64 of Starlog features the benevolent, childlike face of E.T.

Steven Spielberg's family blockbuster E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial had, unfortunately for Carpenter, appeared in American cinemas just two weeks before The Thing came out on the 25th June, and that film's warm, gentle view of extraterrestrial life was diametrically opposed to the nightmarish excess of Carpenter's, and moviegoers were still eagerly lining up to see it 14 days later. The Thing, it seemed, simply ran counter to the mood of the times. Neither critics nor audiences were prepared for the intensity or chilly nihilism of The Thing, particularly in the heat of the summer season.

The actor Kenneth Tobey, who played Captain Hendry in The Thing From Another World, summed up the general consensus after a screening of Carpenter's film. "The effects were so explicit that they actually destroyed how you were supposed to feel about the characters," Tobey said. "They became almost a film in themselves, and were a little too horrifying."

Its gory excess when compared to the sheer cuddliness of E.T. wasn't The Thing's only problem, either. As that November issue of Starlog proves, 1982 was a crowded year for science fiction, fantasy and horror. Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan and Poltergeist opened on the same day - the 4th June. Disney's hugely expensive sci-fi adventure Tron came out a little over a month later, on the 9th July.

Then there was Blade Runner, 20th Century Fox's expensive sci-fi gamble, which, like The Thing, opened on the 25th June and was initially regarded as a financial and critical disappointment.

The Thing was therefore unfortunate to appear in a bumper summer for genre films, and it was doubly hobbled by its R-rating; had its release date been moved to the winter and away from its more family-friendly competitors (even Poltergeist somehow garnered a PG certificate),  it's possible that it could have found a wider audience in cinemas, despite all those savage reviews.

The aftermath

Bruised by the reaction to The Thing, Carpenter continued to make movies (he made Christine in 1983 and Starman the year after) but lost considerable confidence from the experience, and took some time before he'd talk openly about the earlier film's box office disappointment. Perhaps ironically, one of the outlets Carpenter first opened up to was Starlog.

"I was called 'a pornographer of violence'," Carpenter said in 1985. "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 [...] I didn't take the public's taste into consideration."

It was on video - and later television - that the perception of The Thing began to change. The initial shock and repulsion which greeted it in the summer of 1982 began to ebb, as the full extent of what Carpenter, and his filmmakers  - among them writer Bill Lancaster, cinematographer Dean Cundey, composer Ennio Morricone and effects artist Rob Bottin (aided in certain scenes by Stan Winston) had managed to achieve.

With the growing passage of time, it becomes easier to see the criticisms aimed at The Thing as being among its most positive attributes. The characters aren't "merely props", but distinct individuals whose traits are introduced subtly and cleverly - a brief line here, a quirky facial expression there.

That Kurt Russell's MacReady is slow and even reluctant to emerge as the group's leader adds to the film's unpredictability. The terse dialogue and frosty tone heightens the sense of paranoia and suspicion - this is a cold war horror about the very human emotions of fear and distrust, where the Thing could lurk anywhere, perhaps even within MacReady himself.

The Thing's apocalyptic tone was such that, when it came to filming the conclusion, even Carpenter wondered whether he'd gone a little too far. But editor Todd Ramsay coaxed him on, encouraging to remain true to his own bleak vision. "You have to embrace the darkness," Ramsay told Carpenter. "That's where this movie is. In the darkness."

The enduring classic

It's more than 30 years since The Thing first appeared in that crowded summer of 1982, and it's long since shaken off its "instant junk" stigma. Repeat viewings have exposed the rich depths beneath Rob Bottin's spectacular mutations: to this day, there are fan sites, such as Outpost 31, dedicated to detailing the minutiae of the film's production and story details.

Speculation still rages over exactly when Blair (played by Wilford Brimley) was first imitated by the shape-shifting monster, or whether the victims of the Thing know whether they've been replaced, or whether the two survivors at the end of the film are even human anymore. It's the ambiguity of Carpenter's filmmaking, as well as its obvious technical brilliance, that has allowed The Thing to endure, despite the slings and arrows of its critics.

Back in 1982, Roger Ebert wrote, "there's no need to see this version unless you are interested in what the Thing might look like while starting from anonymous greasy organs extruding giant crab legs and transmuting itself into a dog. Amazingly, I'll bet that thousands, if not millions, of moviegoers are interested in seeing just that."

On that latter point, Ebert was precisely right: thousands, even millions of film fans are interested in The Thing. It's just taken them a little while to realise that fact.

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