“Nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired.” – RJ Macready, or any one of us in 2020.
Happy October fiends! Here we are, a mere few days away from Halloween within Nightmare on Film Street’s Sound of Screams month. As per the theme, the hills are alive with the sound of screaming, therefor a topic from a film that’s intertwined with a legendary score is a no-brainer for this month’s edition Making a Monster. Honoring the late composer Ennio Morricone, put your headphones on and listen to his masterclass in claustrophobic film scores as we discuss the Things of…John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing! Please note, the information trove for this breakdown comes from the 1998 documentary The Thing: Terror Takes Shape, a behind-the-scenes look on the classic that I highly recommend viewing. Now, get your flamethrowers and lets light it up!
Assimilating a Story of Assimilation
A big fan of the film The Thing From Another World, director John Carpenter was attracted to the prospect of remaking the movie, an idea that was floating around Universal Studios in the mid 1970’s. Though he loved it, Carpenter was underwhelmed by the film’s alien, which he considered to much more resemble Frankenstein’s Monster than the alien from the source material, the John W Campbell novella Who Goes There? The director was intrigued by the whodunnit aspect of the story, and the idea of a creature that could perfectly imitate its victims. Introduced to the project by friend and producer Stuart Cohen, Carpenter envisioned the Thing as a single creature.
However, when special effects artist Rob Bottin was brought onto the project after working with the director on The Fog, the artist brought a much different idea. “He came in with a wild concept, which is The Thing can look like anything. It doesn’t look like one monster, it looks like anything. And out of this changing shape, this imitation, comes all the creatures throughout the universe that The Thing has ever imitated, and it uses these various forms. Rob was very daring in this approach.” Needing a visual understanding of this idea, Carpenter sent Bottin to meet with comic and storybook artist Mike Ploog to map out his concept.
Just a Guy in a Suit
A few weeks later, Bottin returned to Carpenter’s office with a stack of storyboards, which they pinned on the office walls. Impressed by what he saw, Carpenter gave Bottin the green light. “What was great about it was that John actually did give me a great opportunity, to say “hey kid, go nuts!“…it was a real amazing thing to happen to a 22 year old.” The artist immediately got to work sculpting the different renditions of the Thing. Without the aid of computer graphics, practical effects were king, a king that still reigns supreme near 40 years later. Latex and foam rubber creations covered in creamed corn, strawberry jam, mayo, and 5 gallon pails of KY Jelly were just some of the items that could be found on set.
Cinematographer Dean Cundey, who collaborated with Carpenter several times in the past, worked closely with Bottin to properly light the practical effects. The artist was very sensitive about his creations, often calling for darker and darker lighting to hide any possible reveals in the projects that would cause them to lose their realistic appearance. Finding the happy medium between showing off the incredible work yet keeping the mystique was a fun challenge the cinematographer was up for. “We developed techniques of little tiny spots of lights and shadows and all, so that you never really looked blatantly at a rubber creature,” Cundey explained.
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“[Rob Bottin] came in with a wild concept, which is The Thing can look like anything […] ” – John Carpenter
Perhaps the most well-known scene of the film, the sequence in which actor Charles Hallahan’s character Norris morphs into the Thing, provides a fascinating story of the type of artistry that went into the effects. Hallahan spent 10 days with Bottin, crafting different facial expressions, a torso, and even body hair patterns that perfectly matched the actor. Hydraulically-powered jaws would rip the fake torso in half, which would then bite off Dr. Cooper‘s arms (played by Richard Dysart.) Fake arms were constructed with wax bones, gelatin flesh, and rubber veins. It didn’t stop there.
Filmmakers found a double amputee who’s arms were severed in an industrial accident just past the elbows. Bottin and crew constructed a prosthetic mask of Dysart’s face, and glued the Jello arms onto him. As the scene progresses, Norris‘s head rips off his body, grows legs, and crawls across the floor (as heads tend to do). It was after this scene was finished that Carpenter knew his vision was coming to life. “When I saw that, I realized a great sense of relief, because what I didn’t want to end up with in this movie was a guy in a suit. See, I grew up as a kid watching science fiction and monster movies, and it was always a guy in a suit, or sometimes it was a kind of bad puppet, like It Conquered the World comes to mind…My fear was they’ll laugh at us. Even as a great as the movie was, Alien was a terrific movie, it still in the very end, up stood this big guy in a suit. I want something that is alive.”
Trust’s a Tough Thing to Come By
The intricate, hyper-detailed practical effects of The Thing certainly paid off in the end, but their complexity didn’t come without a price during filming. For instance, some of the mechanisms were “one take” creations, meaning they were designed for only one use without the need for major reconstruction. Two of these examples reared their ugly head during the Norris chest-chomping scene. After 10+ hours of make-up, cameras started rolling and the chest ripped open, with tentacles whipping out and saliva having supposed to have flown every which direction. Instead, the liquid shot out in such a manner that resembled “a fountain in Las Vegas” according to Carpenter. Hours later, the shot was fortunately captured in the second take. The next mishap came with a bit more of a “bang.”
To create the effect of Norris’s head tearing off of his body, Bottin wanted to replicate the stringy, gooey popping that could be found in comic books. Problem is, they really had no means of creating it. Improvising, they started melting plastic and bubblegum, packing it into the neck. Fumes of paint thinner and lacquer filled the room, combining with the fumes of melting plastic. Just before the shot began, Carpenter asked for a fire bar to be placed near the practical effect. Other areas of the room were burning from the outpost crew using of a flamethrower on the Norris-Thing, and Carpenter didn’t want to lose any scene continuity. When a member of the film crew lit the fire bar, the entire replica body exploded, and a huge fireball erupted in the room. Thankfully no one was injured, but Bottin looked down, mortified as his months-long creation lay burning on the table. “Don’t just stand there, put it out you idiot!” Bottin recalled Carpenter saying. “I was just so shocked that months of work preparing for this moment was blown to bits in just a second.”
To form an even clearer picture of how much effort was required for the practical effects of The Thing, a few effects were even handed off to other artists. The late Stan Winston, responsible for countless legendary effects in film, was brought in to create the Dog-Thing puppet used during the kennel scene. And for those of you who think you may be over-dedicated to your job, this one’s gonna sting. Mottin lived at Universal Studios for over a year, sleeping in locker rooms, sets, and on any couches he could find. Working seven days a week with virtually no breaks, Carpenter took note of his tired appearance and suggested he check himself into the hospital at the end of the shoot to recoup, and that he did. “Since then, I’ve wised up, and…I don’t do that anymore.” Mottin quipped.
Wait Here For a Little While…See What Happens
As the infamous story goes, The Thing unfortunately went up against a much friendlier alien, E.T., and lost at the box office. In all actuality, no one really can agree as to why the film underwhelmed so hard in it’s initial theatrical run. Some also attribute it to it’s bleak ending during a time of economic downturn in the U.S. Actor Kurt Russell theorized that audiences of the time rejected the film due to the “poking around” at the monster and charred human remains, comparing it to people being appalled at the butcher process of animals while gladly buying cuts at the market. Carpenter was referred to as a “pornographer of violence” which by today’s standards is a real laugher.
Yet, since it’s opening run, The Thing has since become a staple horror film, even finding itself among the top horror films ever made in yearly rankings. The practical effects and the efforts to create them, to me, are unmatched in any film to this day. CGI has taken away most of the intense realism these type of effects excelled at. For many of us, the 2011 prequel, also titled The Thing, is as pure of example of CGI vs practical’s that one would ever need to understand this.
Still, it’s fascinating to think that a movie we horror fans recognize as such a masterpiece today was reviled at the time of it’s release. Sure, there are such things as cult classics, and many films find new appreciation among different generations. But The Thing stands so much higher than a cult-classic status that you just have to wonder what crawled up audience’s behinds in 1982. Maybe something…out of this world?
Is The Thing one of your favorite horror movies? Are you still grossed out by the practical effects so many years later? What members of your family and friends can you actually trust that they’re not the Thing? LOOK OUT BEHIND YOU then log onto Nightmare on Film Street’s Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram pages to discuss the practical effects triumph that is The Thing!