The 80’s were quite the time for genre cinema. An era that gave us some truly great horror movies, many now seen as some of the greatest of all time. One smaller sub-genre that flourished in this era was the creature feature; films in which horrific homunculi created cinematic carnage to the delight of gore-hounds everywhere. The Beast Within, The Howling, Slugs, C.H.U.D (and of course, Bud the C.H.U.D), The Fly and many more. One name however stands alone. A film that defied the curse of the remake to become one of the most respected horror movies of all time. John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Origins of a classic: Who Goes There?
To fully go into the history of John Carpenter’s take on The Thing we would have to start in 1938. Penned by John Campbell Jr, Who Goes There? was a science fiction novella that served as the basis for all that followed. Concerning a group of research scientists in Antarctica who find something buried in the ice. Something ancient and not of this earth. The creature assimilates & mimics any biological life it come into contact with. What follows is a tale of paranoia and survival as the team must ascertain who is ‘The Thing’. This formed the primary basis for each progressive adaptation of the story from here on.
The Thing from Another World!
Who Goes There? was first adapted for the big screen as The Thing from Another World in 1951, Directed by Christian Nyby. The film was named by Time magazine as the greatest sci-fi film of the 1950’s.
In the film, The Thing is quite different from the one depicted in Who Goes There?. In the film, it is a plant-based organism who survives on blood to regenerate rather than copy who assimilates its prey, like in the novella. This is a big divergence from the nature of the creature in Who Goes There?. Carpenter re-addressed these changes in his adaptation.
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John Carpenter’s The Thing
Development of Carpenter’s take on Who Goes There? began in the mid 1970’s. Producers David Foster & Lawrence Turman suggested an adaptation of Who Goes There? to Universal Pictures. Unlike the 1951 adaptation, they suggested a more literal take on the source material. In 1976, film producer Wilber Stark purchased the rights to 23 RKO pictures with Universal in turn purchasing the rights for The Thing from Another World from Stark in return for an executive producer credit.
There was a time where the likes of Tobe Hooper, John Landis and during a period, Walter Hill and Sam Peckinpah were all considered to direct The Thing. The role eventually went to John Carpenter, following his success with his 1978 movie Halloween. Carpenter was initially reticent to direct, seeing the 1951 film as difficult to beat. It was at this time Carpenter was instructed to read Who Goes There?. After opening his eyes to the possibilities the novel opened up, the director was injected with a newfound motivation. The antagonist could be anyone. Casting the likes of Kurt Russell, Keith David, A. Wilfred Brimley and Richard Dysart, The Thing was to be his first big budget project for a major studio.
The magic of Rob Bottin
The film, renowned for its lovingly crafted visual effects, is still regarded to this day as the benchmark for practical effect work. The man who oversaw this task was Rob Bottin. From the remarkably effective opening titles, to the varying horrific forms the creature eventually takes, Bottin’s team did a sterling job. Bottin previously worked with Carpenter on The Fog (1980) and came onboard The Thing during pre-production.
It was time for Bottin to make The Thing his own. Carpenter initially envisioned The Thing as a singular creature, but Bottin made the suggestion that it should look as though it’s constantly changing. Revising the idea, The Thing assimilated and took the appearance perfectly of anyone it came into contact with. When threatened, The Thing would only then show its monstrous, homunculus form. Bottin saw The Thing as a creature of necessity, which allowed the creature to adapt different attributes as necessary. If in danger, a stomach could transform a mouth equipped with razor-sharp teeth or spider-legs could sprout from a disembodied head for a quick getaway. It was truly groundbreaking work in the sphere of sci-fi/horror creature design that stands tall to this day.
Scoring The Thing
Unlike his prior work, The Thing was not scored by Carpenter, it was in fact the work of the great Ennio Moricone.
Unsure of what Carpenter wanted before their initial meeting, Moricone composed an array of synth music knowing the directors previous use of the medium. In tandem to this he also composed a traditional orchestral score as back-up. Carpenter (of course) chose the synth track. Why didn’t Carpenter compose the score himself if he knew exactly what he wanted? Alan Howarth, who collaborated with John Carpenter on many of his scores during the 80’s elaborated on this, paraphrasing Moricone on the matter in an interview in 2011
I’ve asked [John Carpenter], as he was preparing some electronic music with an assistant to edit on the film, ‘Why did you call me, if you want to do it on your own?’ He surprised me, he said – “I got married to your music. This is why I’ve called you.’…Then when he showed me the film, later when I wrote the music, we didn’t exchange ideas. He ran away, nearly ashamed of showing it to me. I wrote the music on my own without his advice. Naturally, as I had become quite clever since 1982, I’ve written several scores relating to my life. And I had written one, which was electronic music. And [Carpenter] took the electronic score.
This is an absolutely fascinating piece of trivia. Moricone got the job essentially due to Carpenter being a huge fan, even if it may have been easier to do the job himself. The score to The Thing stands as one of the all time great sci-fi/horror accompaniments.
Why don’t we just wait here a little while? See what happens..
Upon its release in 1982, The Thing wasn’t a huge success. Critics widely panned the film and it failed to set the box office alight in comparison to other films of the time. Competing with the likes of E.T and opening on the same day as Blade Runner, it had a challenge ahead of it from the start.
However, time has been kind to The Thing. It’s enjoyed something of a critical re-evaluation over the years. The Thing has become widely regarded as one of the greater sci-fi/horror films of all time, certainly quite the feat for a remake. Praised for it practical effects, the magnificent ensemble cast and sure direction by Carpenter, The Thing finally found it‘s audience and the adulation it so rightly deserved.