It’s difficult to conceive, 38 years after its release, that this John Carpenter’s horror/sci-fi classic was considered a box office flop. After all of the celebratory anniversary reissues, the countless accolades from fans, filmmakers, and critics, and a firmly cemented cult classic status, one has to question how such a beloved film could have had such a rocky release. The answer, fellow fiends, lies within this month’s Nightmare on Film Street Video Vault, and since it’s Monster Mash month here at the podcast, what better film to take a deep dive on than one with more monsters than one could shake a sled dog at? Throw your parkas kids, ’cause we’re going sub-zero with John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).
BACK OF THE BOX OVERVIEW
Based on both the 1938 John W. Campbell novella Who Goes There? and Christian Nyby’s film The Thing from Another World (1951), The Thing follows a group of American research scientists stationed in Antarctica as a stray sled dog enters their camp while being chased by a helicopter full of Norwegians with guns. After dealing with the Norwegians, the researchers take the dog in only to find that there is something very wrong with this pooch. It brutally attacks the other dogs and their handler, but it quickly becomes clear that this isn’t a case of rabies. You see, this canine begins to transform into the exact recreation of itself. Now the team is faced with stopping this extra-terrestrial being from reproducing before they have all been assimilated. Question is, who is who anymore?
THE U.S. OUTPOST 31 RESEARCH TEAM
The late Donald Moffat (Trapped in Paradise, 1994) plays station manager M.T. Garry, a retired military man who heads up the facility and its team. Kurt Russell (Bone Tomahawk, 2015) stars as R.J. Macready, a Vietnam vet with PTSD, paranoia, mistrust out the wazoo, and a penchant for J&B blended Scotch, who also happens to be the team’s helicopter pilot.
Keith David (They Live, 1988) is Childs, the facility mechanic who grew up in Detroit and has his own unique set of trust issues. David Clennon (Star 80, 1983) plays Palmer, the laid-back stoner with an affinity for TV games shows who is also an assistant mechanic to Childs. Rounding out the technical side of the team are Thomas G. Waites (The Warriors, 1979) who plays a radio operator, Windows, named thusly because of his trademark sunglasses, T.K. Carter (Corvette Summer, 1978) as Nauls the station cook and youngest on the team and finally Richard Masur (Nightmares, 1983) plays Clark, the quiet and serious facility sled dog handler.
On the science side of the team, we have the late Wilfred Brimley (Cocoon, 1985) playing Dr. Blair, the biologist, who heads up the research team with his assistant Fuchs, played by Joel Polis (The Rookie, 1990). Peter Maloney (The Amityville Horror, 1979) plays George Bennings, the facility meteorologist while geologist Vance Norris is played by the late Charles Hallahan (Warlock: Armageddon, 1993).
Last but certainly not least on the team is physician, Dr. Copper, played by the late Richard Dysart (Prophecy, 1979). Fun fact: The only female presence in the film is the voice on the radio which was provided by Carpenter’s then-wife, actress Adrienne Barbeau (Creepshow, 1982).
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DEVELOPING THE PARANOIA
The Thing is dark, dystopian, and nihilistic at its core. Perhaps that was part of the initial backlash the film received upon its release. Rich in paranoia and mistrust, the film’s bleak themes were possibly too moody compared to the other, more family-friendly aliens (E.T. The Extraterestrial, 1982) that shared the silver screen the same year of its release. The film drew on how psychosis can grow insidiously through communities caused by people not being who they say they are or even worse, your best friend actually being your enemy.
There is a strong representation of the distrust that humans inherently have for others we don’t know and the fear of betrayal from those we do. Very timely for a film that was released at the height of the Cold War era when these very themes were at an all-time high and while this seems obvious within the film’s context, there are some more subtle points beneath the film’s snowy surface.
Mutually assured destruction, not between nations but between the team itself is one interpretation that rings true, as is a post-Vietnam War weariness that shows an exhausted counterculturalism within each member of the team, displaying their own rejection of the status quo within their own idiosyncrasies. Another inference is the parallels between the film’s events and Red Scares that took place during the 1950s in America and McCarthyism that came in its wake. The Thing conveys an anti-communist fear of infection of civilized areas that, left undefended, would surely lead to assimilation and imitation.
YOU GOTTA BE EFFING KIDDING
Before Carpenter took the reins of The Thing, Universal Studio hired director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974), and had he been left in the director’s chair we would have been left with a drastically different film. Hooper’s version would have featured a non-shapeshifting alien and an epic adventure with a Captain Ahab-like character named “The Captain” who hunts The Thing. This version would’ve served as a stand-alone film, a remake, and a sequel to the 1951 Howard Hawkes-produced film. There would have also been very little influence from Campbell Jr.’s novella, which Hooper reportedly found to be dull.
Hooper’s vision was so different that he went as far as to pitch it as a horror-comedy with slapstick humor. Can you imagine? Part of the pitch was to have a swashbuckling action-adventure, a modern-day Moby Dick so to speak, set at the bottom of the world on the continent of Antarctica. Thankfully producers Drew Turner and Stuart Cohen were so revolted by Hooper’s ideas that he was let go and Carpenter was brought on board and we got the version we did.
WHO GOES THERE?
Not only was the potential there for Tobe Hooper’s dumpster fire version of The Thing, but the faces of the characters we all know and love could have been drastically different. Pretty much every character saw several actors read for the parts with a litany of Hollywood who’s who in the audition seats.
Nick Nolte (The Deep, 1977), Jeff Bridges (King Kong, 1976), Kevin Kline (The Big Chill, 1983), Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone, 1983), Tom Atkins (Night of the Creeps, 1986), and Jack Thompson (Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, 2010) were all looked at for the MacReady role with the part having been written with Harrison Ford (What Lies Beneath, 2000) in mind.
For the role of Childs, the late Bernie Casey (In the Mouth of Madness, 1995), the late Isaac Hayes (Return to Sleepaway Camp, 2008), the late Geoffrey Holder (Annie, 1982), Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters, 1984), and Carl Weathers (Predator, 1987) were all in the running before David landed the part.
“The Thing is dark, dystopian, and nihilistic at its core. Perhaps that was part of the initial backlash the film received upon its release. “
The late Donald Pleasence (Alone in the Dark, 1982) was up for the role of Blair but had to back out due to scheduling conflicts. Pre-Tonight Show host Jay Leno (American Hot Wax, 1978), the late Garry Shandling (The X-Files, 2000), and Charles Fleischer (A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984) all read for various parts while the late Lee Van Cleef (Escape from New York, 1981) was up for Garry. Other Garry hopefuls included the late Jerry Orbach (The Sentinel, 1977), the late Kevin Conway (The Funhouse, 1981), the late Richard Mulligan (Teachers, 1984), and the late Powers Boothe (Cruising, 1980).
William Daniels (The Blue Lagoon, 1980) and the late Brian Dennehy (First Blood, 1982) were considered for the role of Copper while SNL’s favorite Trump impersonator Alec Baldwin (Beetlejuice, 1988) claims he auditioned for multiple roles in the film. Franklyn Ajaye (The ‘Burbs, 1989) was up for Nauls part but declined with a rather lengthy dissertation to director Carpenter about the stereotypical writing of the character.
RISE OF A CULT CLASSIC
As mentioned before, The Thing did not have a happy theatrical run but once it found its way to home video and television showings, the gates to the cult classic kingdom opened and welcomed it with open arms. The late Sidney Sheinberg, former CEO of MCA Inc. edited a version of the film for TV where he added narration and an alternate ending where the alien escapes the camp by imitating a dog. Carpenter vehemently disowned this version and speculated that Sheinberg had created the TV cut because he was mad at the director for not using his creative ideas in the theatrical cut of the film.
Today the film is lauded by critics and fans alike with some claiming it as Carpenter’s best work. Even Carpenter himself sees The Thing as a triumph, openly claiming it as one of his best pictures. It has earned its place in pop culture with a host of comic books, video games, a prequel, soundtracks, esteemed top ten lists, and hundreds of licensed products. It’s a film that will live on in the hearts of those that were there from the beginning and those that came late to the party as a testament to a filmmaker that masterfully tailored a tale of terror that transcends time.
IN THE CAN
If you are new to this classic, you’re in for a treat. This delicious slice of sci-fi/horror is so cohesive in its assembly that it is almost impossible to top it. From an incredible ensemble cast with impeccable chemistry to the mind-blowing practical effects of Rob Bottin (Seven, 1995), The Thing is an exceptional piece of cinema that has something for everyone, even the Norwegians.
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