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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"Why don't we just... wait here for a little while... see what happens"... has there yet been a better final line in a genre film to date than this? John Carpenter firing on all cylinders and at the absolute top of his game (and screw what the critics thought in 1982, those same critics were flat out wrong about William Friedkin's equally masterful 'Sorcerer' five years previously, whatta they know?), it doesn't get more classic than 'The Thing'... an undisputed masterpiece of atmospheric paranoia par excellence!

Although I STILL haven't been able to watch the scene when the Thing freaks out among the dogs... now THAT was true horror, poor mutts!

Contacting the fiercest critics for their opinions about the film now would be a good article, if any of them will admit to getting so wrong I guess. Love love love this movie. The prequel? Good effort, but doesn't reach anywhere near the lofty heights of the first.

one of the all time best films ever

You could argue that the most definite evidence as to who is still human is Childs, not Macready as in that final scene, it's clear that Childs still has a metallic earring. On the other hand it's quite plausible that the reason that is the case is because no-one on the production at the time thought about whether to take it out or not as opposed to making it a big clue one way or another.

One of my favourite films, such a shame the reaction hit Carpenter so hard. I love films that turn into massive paranoia trips. Plus the special effects still look great today and I even love the music (which was by Carpenter himself wasn't it?)

Got to say, didn't realise that 1982 was such a damn good summer for releases.

Ennio Morricone did the score for John Carpenter's The Thing. He was actually nominated in 1982, quite undeservedly, for a Razzie for worst musical score for The Thing.

Ahh ok, I know Carpenter did score some of his films himself. Happy to be corrected in this case. It is indeed a crime that it might get a Razzie nomination, but I find those awards pretty pathetic in general.

A very well timed article for me. Watched the DVD for the first time on Saturday. Previously I'd only seen a vhs version recorded from ITV (which I'd watched many times). Absolutely loved it. Might have to check out Outpost 31 as I have loads of questions. What did the Thing look like before it turned into something else? What was everyone's role on the post? (dunno why but I'd just like to know this).

Amazing to think that 1982 gave us: ET, Star Trek 2, Tron, Blade Runner and The Thing.

In some ways, you could argue that ET is the relatively least talked from that group about now in some ways when influences are talked about.

I hate to bring up the remake* but there is a hint of an earlier form when the block of ice containing it is shown. Though that's just probably a conglomeration of previous alien life forms it has absorbed.

*Yes, it's called a prequel but yet why did it have to mimic so many scenes from the 1982 film during the course of it?

I've got a VHS copy of "Batman & Robin" at home and on the back is a quote from Jonathan Ross proudly declaring it as "the greatest film of all time". I'd like to ask him what he thinks of it now.

Just a quick correction; TCF had nothing to do with Blade Runner, it was A Ladd Company/Warners picture, and got slammed nearly as hard as The Thing did.
Which kind of demonstrates the utter uselessness of critics when it comes to quality genre fare.

What I've always found odd is why Carpenter's movie in particular got so much vitriol given it was part of a slate of interesting and edgy pictures that Uni was pushing in the trades as their "new horror classics", other noteworthy entries at that time being Paul Schrader's Cat People, and Cronenberg's Videodrome.

Absolutely love John Carpenter's The Thing, One of my favourite films of all time! And my most watched film of all time along side Big Trouble in Little China.

Which brings me to the Prequel/Reboot attempt. Whilst not a terrible film in itself, it had it's moments, some good creature designs but the ending was rubbish. I felt like they didn't actually need to tell that story, it was pointless. The unknown nature of what happened at the Norwegian Base added to the mystery of John Carpenter's The Thing... I'm not a fan of Prequels generally as you know what the outcome of the events will be, they usually damage or take away the mystery of the original films.

I think a Sequel/Reboot would have been a better way to go. Have a new international team set up near where the Americans were based... years after. The crew could have heard rumours about what happened but most think they are stupid ghost stories or conspiracy theories... before finding something in the ice.

Did anyone play The Thing Xbox/PS game? It followed on from the film and personally I found it to be quite a good story. Would love to see a next gen remake of that.

I believe it was the Batman Forever VHS. It did make me chuckle when I first read it as I couldn't imagine Jonathan Ross saying that about a Joel Schumacher Batman movie!

True, it was on the Batman Forever VHS. The reason he is quoted saying that is (and I *think* this is the story) that he had a bet with another film critic and the winner would be the first one with one of their quotes on a video or a poster or whatever.

Have to agree with the reception it got on its original cinema release. I remember seeing it in 1982 in London with two other hardcore horror/sci-fi buffs and all three of us were left cold by it. The FX are great, but that's all it is. The lack of suspense or genuine chills, considering this was John Carpenter, was the biggest disappointment. It's certainly big and loud, but also no classic.

One one my favourite Horror films of all time. I've watched it many times and it still thrills and hasn't date much at all. I'm still trying to coax the wife to watch :)

I think the opposite is true. Childs isn't wearing the same coat in that scene and that's the only time continuity is broken. Also, MacReady offers Childs a drink and if you think back to the very first scene with MacReady playing chess against the computer which he destroys by pouring whiskey into its modem — "Cheating bitch" — the fact Childs accepts the drink in this last scene means Childs isn't concerned about being affected - even after all their pains to avoid contaminated food. MacReady even laughs after Childs takes the bottle from him as if he realises in that moment that he's opposite The Thing.

Blimey, good memory, you guys. It was indeed 'Forever' VHS. The exact quote is "One of the greatest movies ever made".

Watch the scene again, paying attention to the vapor from MacReady's breath.

Childs' breath doesn't appear.

Carpenter made a statement a few years back that Childs had been replaced and the "no breath" was his way of cluing us in that he was the Thing.

The "no earring / no fillings / no metal implant" plot point came from the 2011 version.

In Carpenter's version, they only mentioned that the thing ripped through your clothing when it possessed you. There wasn't anything about non-organic items being expelled during possession.

Carpenter has actually scored the majority of his own movies and in this case I'm sure that Morricone was doing his best Carpenter impression as I also thought wrongly for years that Carpenter had scored this one too.

This isn't the first time that a bonafide classic movie has been panned by the critics on it's release. makes you wonder whether it's worth listening to them at all about anything! Lol.

This movie is one of those rare examples of a remake that is equal, if not better, than the original (another example being The Fly). And I agree with Northern Star; best final line in a genre film EVER!

Poltergeist, The Dark Crystal, Conan the Barbarian, and Halloween III also.
Best year ever to be a Science Fiction / Fantasy / Horror movie fan.

Still in my view one of the best horror films of all time (the story is great of itself, but the mood, the characters/performances and the tangible effects lift it to that higher level of brilliance). I think the points made in the article are very true - maybe these days this could come out in Summer and do well but back then? No way and certainly not against ET. The truly sad thing is that the critical mauling Carpenter took over this and the studio-kicking he got over Big Trouble (both of which are generally highly regarded these days) seem to have caused him such pain that he hasn't really done anything all that challenging since (Prince of Darkness/They Live were fine low budget B pictures, but his remake of Village of the Damned, Vampires and Ghosts of Mars show very little sign of the talent that brought us these two films, Halloween and The Fog), and that's a real shame.
As an aside, the article does make a very interesting comment about the enduring impact of some films, in particular noting that ET may have slid by the wayside over the years. Not sure that's true - sure, no-one is going out there trying to persuade their buddies to watch ET as an undiscovered gem, but is this really because (similar to the original Star Wars trilogy) everyone's probably seen it. I mean, is there anyone out there who doesn't know what "phone home" references? Also, one of the main things that, in hindsight, I find interesting about ET, is that it is one of the earliest films I can remember that featured a divorced family when that (ie divorce) wasn't the main point of the film. That in itself was pretty revolutionary.

The biggest problem was that they scrapped all the practical special effects at the last minute and insert CGI.
CGI is not scary the way practical effects are. Actors behave differently reacting to having an actual rubber monster in their face as opposed to some guy waving a tennis ball on a stick in front of them while the director yells "It's tentacles are reaching for you!"

I have to agree. I think that the extreme gore of the FX, for the time, make it stand out but it really isn't a very good film. If the characters are 'distinct individuals whose traits are introduced subtly and cleverly' then it was too subtly and clever for me. I remember them as a bunch of jerks who for the necessity of the script participate in their own down fall. I can remember not caring for a single one.

It falls under the Hollywood lunch scenario:
"Hey, people talk about [Insert movie name] on the internet a lot. We should remake it! With CGI! And a woman! A script? Who needs that? We'll just photocopy the Wikipedia page and hand it out to the cast. Can we have some money now?"

I said it could be argued. I didn't say I'd win said argument ;-).

To repeat pretty much everyone else, this is one of my all time favourite movies.

You forgot "The Secret of NIMH"!

Yeah, really nothing new to add - easily makes my top ten, every time.

If you haven't heard the Carpenter/Russell commentary (unlikely, if you read this site but anyway) it's worth a listen. It was recorded waaay back in the '90's for laserdisc I think and doesn't sound like the contractually-obligated chore that some of the newer commentaries are guilty of; just two friends reminiscing. Very cool.

Just shows you, critics have no friggin clue. This was classic when I saw it, and it's still better than any modern film I think, they just don't make them like this anymore....

This is an out and out classic..so tense..so isolated..just how a great horror movie should be. As for the critics at the time..this quote goes close to summing them up.. 'Trust's a tough thing to come by these days. Tell you what - why don't you just trust in the Lord' In other words don't have trust in the the critics..have trust in the fans they'll turn up..and we did!!

I just recently bought the old xbox game in a fit of nostalgia as I remember playing it and enjoying it back in the day. I've not started it yet as I'm a little worried that my memory of it may be a little rose tinted.

What a fascinating article. I wasn't aware of the controversy surrounding the film at all, and only ever viewed it as the classic it is. Thanks for bringing this aspect of it to my attention. Also reading the comments it had never occurred to me that Childs might be the Thing. I will have to watch it again with a more critical eye. Thanks to Ryan and the commentors on this thread.

Chalk that down to the general post-Kubrick shift towards arty nihilism.

Agreed. But in this case, weren't the actors reacting to rubber monsters that then had CGI superimposed over them??

I love the film to bits, but yes, that comment about distinct characters didn't ring true for me either.

I had no idea about the negative reaction, I've always assumed it was universally regarded as one of the great horror movies.

An enlightening article indeed.

Yeah, that's right. They did have physical props to react to.

Saw it in the theatre in 82...IT WAS AWESOME THEN....Still NOW worth repeat viewings!!
One of the best movies i have ever seen..in my top 10 of all time!!
Critics be damned!

My biggest gripe with the prequel/remake. Was that the "creature was way too out in the open..Too much in your face..Not stealthy enough..They threw most of the subtle movements out the window..I would still grade the flick at a B-

I first saw the Prequel about a year ago and the CGI Thing was sort of fun . Than this Christmas I finally saw The Thing for the first time and apart from being a really great movie the actual Practical effects Thing is horribly freakin' motherffin scary as hell.

Good write up but it's a shame you're being so PC. I found a lot of your sentences should have ended with ' in the USA '.

This movie proved that horror films can be great films full of suspense and plot. 30 years later we seem to have thrown it all away....

I didn't think some of the CGI creations were that bad... but still not a patch on practical special effects.

I generally don't care what these "reviewers" write. Because as with most things beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There as been numerous films slammed by critics which i love.

One of my all-time favourite films... first watched on my older brother's borrowed portable TV in black and white! Still scared the bejeebers out of me, watched it with one hand on the dial (yes, dial, only one button on that set, the on/off switch) so I could turn the picture to fuzz when things got too intense... subsequently seen this film more times than I can count and will watch many, many more times in future, I never tire of it. There are so many reasons to love this film but one not often mentioned is that, yes, you have a cast of great actors, many of them middle-aged or older... the number of horror movies before and since with mostly 'teen' casts, no suspense, no tension and 'The Thing' with all these old gnarly dudes, it just adds something... quite what I don't know... gravitas? verisimilitude? acting chops? All that and more...

One stroke of genius that rarely gets picked up on is the way the conclusion is foreshadowed at the beginning of Carpenter's film. MacReady is engaged in a game of chess with his computer. A contest of wits with non-human intelligence that ends in stalemate and with Mac resorting to pouring is Whiskey in the machine to bring the match to an end.

It's pretty much EXACTLY what happens as Mac takes on The Thing and is the reason why the bleak denouement feels so depressing but ultimately right. From what little we initially learn about Mac and his limitations, this was the only way his battle with an alien intellect could play out.

I'd also argue that this is the reason people are so convinced Childs is The Thing at the end even though Carpenter never explicitly states this.

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