Ennio Morricone composed over 500 film scores during his illustrious 70-year career but few demonstrate his brilliance better than the one created for John Carpenter’s The Thing.
It may not have garnered the accolades of his soundtracks for The Mission or Cinema Paradiso, but the Italian’s heart-stopping synth-led score remains iconic, not least for the fact it was unlike anything he had produced before or since.
Up until then, Carpenter had scored the music for all of his films, earning plaudits for his pioneering use of synthesizers – something he insisted was born out of practicality as it allowed his soundtracks to “sound big with just a keyboard”.
Handed a $15 million budget by Universal, along with the added responsibility that came with it, Carpenter was eventually persuaded by associate producer Stuart Cohen to outsource work on the film’s soundtrack.
It was Cohen who suggested Morricone, but Carpenter had no qualms about hiring the Italian.
Like many filmmakers of his generation, Carpenter had devoured the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which the composer had made his name with.
His appreciation of Morricone ran so deep, in fact, Carpenter even revealed to the Italian that he played his music at his wedding to actress Adrienne Barbeau.
Eager to give his production a more European feel, Carpenter flew out to Rome to meet with the composer and somehow got him to agree to score his adaptation of the novella “Who Goes There?”
It was a story unlike any the Italian had ever worked on before, centring on a snowbound Antarctic research outpost and a group of men going up against an alien capable of absorbing and imitating any living form, human or otherwise.
Carpenter’s version would be made all the more distinctive for the presence of Rob Bottin and a script from Bill Lancaster, the son of legendary actor Burt Lancaster, that called for an array of grotesque special effects involving inside-out dogs and teeth-baring chest cavities.
Morricone had established his reputation with westerns but, in the early 1980s, was beginning to make an impact in mainstream Hollywood, making the project something of a leftfield choice.
Arguably the biggest challenge Morricone faced was Carpenter himself.
Though not difficult to work with per se, Carpenter struggled to relinquish control of composing duties and kept Morricone on a tight leash during what proved a close collaborative process.
Considered more of an auteur at the time, Carpenter’s films had all boasted a distinctive keyboard-and-synth-led sound that was dark, brooding and unmistakably atmospheric.
It was something he was determined to maintain in The Thing, with Carpenter even going as far as repeatedly playing Morricone his score from Escape From New York by way of guidance.
While that particular sound may have been classic Carpenter even then, it was a marked departure from the strings and trumpets more commonly associated with the Italian’s work.
On top of this, Morricone was also expected to work on the soundtrack without having seen the finished film, which was still being edited at the time.
The Maestro, to his credit, took it all in his stride, accepting that there would be some trial and error in the creative process as he attempted to replicate that signature sound.
“He was just wonderful to work with,” Carpenter recalled to Entertainment Weekly. “He was the kindest man, and very, very collaborative. Did not show him the film. We weren’t done yet, so I just talked to him about it. Discussed it with him. And the film came later.”
Carpenter’s happiest memory of working with Morricone came during their collaboration on the film’s main theme – even though the Italian’s version originally struck a slightly different note.
While replicating the dark, droning sound present in Carpenter’s previous work, the director suggested Morricone’s first attempt was “too flourishy and ornate”.
“I said to him, ‘Ennio, use less notes,’ and he did,” Carpenter told IndieWire. The director’s feedback appeared justified when the finished version was complete, with Morricone effectively capturing the classic, stripped back Carpenter sound while imbuing the film with a unique sense of dread.
The theme plays over the film’s opening like a bleak warning for what lies ahead: “abandon hope, all ye who enter here”.
The manner in which the sparse, thudding, beat gives way to droning synthesiser serves as an auditory embodiment of the ‘thing’ itself, absorbing the soundscape around the audience.
Even the simple beat underscoring proceedings resembles something akin to a heartbeat, eventually being drowned out by something bigger and otherworldly.
Resistance, as the cliché goes, is futile.
Sergio Leone once described how Morricone’s music “underlines actions and feelings more than the dialogue” with The Thing’s minimalist score adding an unmistakable layer of tension that imbues even the most ordinary of shots with an unnerving sense of doom.
It wasn’t just Morricone’s work on the main theme that helped elevate The Thing, however.
After travelling to LA to finally watch some footage of the unfinished film, Morricone recorded several additional sections of his soundtrack during a series of orchestra sessions at Universal, telling Carpenter to “use it wherever you wish”.
Though Carpenter was eventually forced to record several simple compositions to glue the completed movie’s score together, the music created during those orchestra sessions added an extra dimension to the film that owed more to Morricone than the director.
“He added something to it, that I didn’t realize, didn’t ask for,” Carpenter told IndieWire.
“This deep, tragic sense that this is the end of things, of everything. Oh my god, it really worked. I was delighted with it.”
This notion of “the end of things” is present in the score accompanying memorable scenes like the one in which Wilford Brimley’s Blair runs a series of simulations on his computer calculating the time frame before the alien achieves global assimilation. It’s also present in the stunned faces of the men after their first encounter with The Thing in the dog kennels.
In many ways, these moments represented Morricone’s greatest achievements on this particular project, having found a way to imbue Carpenter’s film with something different and more in keeping with the Italian’s own inimitable approach, while adhering to the director’s expectations.
It should have been the score to cement Morricone’s place in mainstream Hollywood. Instead, the Maestro would have to wait another two years and another Leone collaboration in 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America, which he bagged a BAFTA for.
A box office bomb upon release, Roger Ebert infamously called The Thing “a great barf-bag movie” while Vincent Canby in the New York Times said it was “the quintessential moron movie of the 80’s”.
Incredibly, the film drew a raft of negative reviews (Blade Runner, which was released the same week suffered a similar fate) though none appeared to reference the score specifically.
Morricone would, however, eventually suffer the indignity of being nominated in the Razzie Awards for Worst Musical Score for his work on the film – though he ended up having the last laugh, and then some.
In 2016, an 87-year-old Morricone became the oldest competitive winner in Oscar history, taking home the Academy Award for Best Original Score for Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight – a score that included three unused tracks from the Italian’s original soundtrack for The Thing.