Film Discussion

The Thing (1982) – Throwback 40

1982’s The Thing is often cited as one of the best works of film writer and director John Carpenter, and this is a statement that I believe you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone disagrees with. Thanks to its striking location, its feeling of severe isolation, themes of paranoia and shocking body horror, The Thing has many aspects that have helped maintain its position as one of the best horror films of all time. But The Thing is more than that, it’s also one of the best book to film adaptations that’s ever been put to the screen.

The Thing started life as a short story by American science fiction author John W. Campbell Jr. in 1938, under the title ‘Who Goes There?’. The story centred on a group of America scientists stationed in the Antarctic, who discover an alien spaceship buried in the ice for more than twenty million years. Discovering a frozen creature near the ship, the alien life-form thaws out, and then begins infecting the base staff one by one, leading to a situation where no one knows who to trust.

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‘Who Goes There?’ proved to be a popular story thanks to the frightening nature of the narrative, and was adapted into a feature film in 1951, The Thing From Another World. Whilst this adaptation would use certain elements, such as the Antarctic location and the alien from another world, much of the story was changed, and the end result bore little resemblance to the short story.

Decades later, in the mid 1970s, when producers at Universal Pictures wanted to revitalise the project, young director John Carpenter was approached to direct following the breakdown of other directors; such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper. Whilst initially reluctant to get involved, Carpenter was attracted to the project thanks to the original short story, which included many elements of horror that he found appealing. After some back and forth on various scripts, Carpenter finally agreed to helm the project, and production on The Thing began in 1981, with the majority of filming being done on refrigerated sets in Los Angeles.

© 1982 Universal Pictures.

The Thing, which followed the original story a lot closer, sees the peace shattered at a remote US research station in Antarctica when men from the nearby Norwegian research station arrive, attempting to shoot a dog. The men are stopped, and killed, and the dog is taken in by the Americans. Travelling to the Norwegian station looking for answers, the US team are shocked to find the place in ruins, and no signs of survivors. What they do find, however, is much more shocking, as they learn that the Norwegian team discovered an alien craft frozen in the ice – as well as its inhabitant.

Bringing the frozen remains back to their own base, the team learn some frightening things about the life form when it seems to come back to life. Not only will the cold not kill it, but if it is able to gain access to other living things it can infect them and convert them, perfectly mimicking any life form it comes across. With the possibility that anyone on the base could have already been turned into one of these things, the team try to figure out a way of detecting the alien creature, whilst also ensuring that none of it escapes to the rest of the world.

The Thing went through something of a rocky production, with a number of issues that plagued it across its time. There were issues with budget, with Carpenter having to push for more money constantly, particularly in regards to the special effects and monster budget. A number of sequences were scaled back to save money, or removed entirely, and whilst filming in frozen locations in Alaska a bus containing cast and crew nearly went off a cliff, and camera lenses froze and broke on more than one occasion.

© 1982 Universal Pictures.

After filming, the project faced further issues in the edit, and more than one ending was filmed when test audiences disliked the open ended, almost nihilistic tone of the film’s end. Test audiences were unsure what to think about the movie, and Carpenter went back and forth with the studio on different possible endings, including one where Kurt Russell‘s character is seen rescued and confirmed not to be infected, but it was ultimately decided that the more ambiguous ending served the project better.

The Thing was released in the summer of 1982, but faced some tough opposition as a number of other science fiction films squared off against it in the box office. Not only did the film have to compete with special effects extravaganza Tron, it also went up against Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the family oriented smash-hit E.T. the Extra-TerrestrialThe Thing did not do well, and struggled to make much over its budget, and whilst it was by no means a loss for the studio it failed to become a financial hit, and was treated poorly by critics at the time. The film received negative reviews across most publications, was decried as being overly gory and compared unfavourably to the other science fiction films on offer at the time, particularly for its more nihilistic and negative tone.

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Over the years, however, and thanks in large part to home release, The Thing began to receive a cult following, and was soon reevaluated, being seen as one of the better examples of both the science fiction and horror genres. The film ended up being praised for the very things it was initially put down for, with its bleak tone, opened ended conclusion, and sense of hopelessness appealing to audiences, even going on to inspire a prequel film, a novelisation, comic sequels and spin-offs, and a video game.

Whilst The Thing was underappreciated in its time it has become a high point in horror cinema, helping to cement the career of its director, and becoming one of the best film adaptations of all time.

The Thing was released in the UK on 26th August 1982.

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