My first experience with John Carpenter's The Thing was unusually alarming. Somehow I had misunderstood what type of film it was and believed it was one of those slow-burning psychological thrillers where a closed-off group of people become paranoid and turn on each other. And it is like that, in part -- but it's also a horror film, by which I mean horrible things happen, in graphic detail. That, I was not prepared for. So when the first gruesome thing happened, it came as a bigger shock than it would have otherwise, and I was transfixed for the rest of the movie.
Transfixion is now a common response to The Thing, but when it was released 27 years ago this week, on June 25, 1982, it hardly captivated anyone. Reviews were mostly negative: "foolish, depressing, overproduced," said one critic; another called it "a wretched excess." David Ansen at Newsweek said, "In sacrificing everything at the altar of gore, Carpenter sabotages the drama. The Thing is so single-mindedly determined to keep you awake that it almost puts you to sleep."
Audiences didn't show up, either. Despite Carpenter's proven track record with Halloween ($47 million), The Fog ($21 million), and Escape from New York ($25 million), the box office for The Thing only amounted to $13.8 million. It was later, on home video, that it gained a cult following -- fitting, in a way, since the movie was one of the first to feature characters who owned a VCR. It's now among the top 200 films rated by Internet Movie Database users (a suspect group, to be sure -- The Shawshank Redemption is currently No. 1 -- but a reasonable barometer of moviegoers' tastes) and has been enthusiastically praised by viewers and critics who approached it many years after its theatrical release. It's now considered a classic of the horror/sci-fi genre.
So what changed? Not the movie, of course, but the audience. In 1982, despite the popularity of slasher films like Carpenter's own Halloween and knock-offs like Friday the 13th, science-fiction and horror remained relatively tame. The chest-popping creature in Alien (which The Thing owes a lot to) had been an anomaly: For the most part, sci-fi aimed at adults was not gory. Many of the critics at the time mentioned The Thing's gruesomeness, seemingly put off by it.
By today's standards, the level of grotesquery in the film is about the same as in plenty of other movies. It's not commonplace, exactly, but it's certainly not as rare it was in 1982. My surprise wasn't at how gross the movie was, but that it was gross at all, which I hadn't expected. And I think that as time wore on, and as audiences (especially horror fans) became accustomed to such effects, viewers were able to see past the blood 'n' guts that 1982 audiences got hung up on and see the B-movie thrills underneath it all.
Based on a 1938 novella called Who Goes There? (which was much less faithfully adapted as 1951's The Thing from Another World), The Thing concerns a group of researchers and crew members at an isolated facility in Antarctica. A shape-shifting extraterrestrial creature is dislodged from the ice and begins taking over their bodies, making it nearly impossible to tell who's still human. Kurt Russell plays a helicopter pilot, MacReady, who becomes the group's de facto leader primarily on the basis of being Kurt Russell.
The story was adapted by Bad News Bears screenwriter Bill Lancaster (son of Burt), and was the only thing he ever wrote apart from that franchise. It is by no means a flawless screenplay. Like many horror films, illogical weapons are readily available (what possible use could a scientific team in Antarctica have for a flamethrower?), and some of the characters' reasoning is unsound. MacReady's theory is that if the creature is transmitted at a cellular level, then you should be able to tell if someone's infected by "attacking" a small sample of his blood with fire to see how it responds. Obviously, you would first test this theory on the blood of someone you know is infected, to see if it does indeed react, but MacReady skips that. He turns out to be right about the way an infected person's blood reacts, but his methodology is ghastly. You'll never be a scientist with that kind of sloppy experimenting, MacReady!
Nonetheless, Carpenter proved here (well, re-proved) that he could direct a scary scene with the best of them. The near-constant howl of the wind in the background, the uncertainty of when -- or whether -- the creature would manifest itself again, the horrific injuries it inflicts: Where many horror films are gory rather than scary, The Thing manages to be both.
FROM THE TIME CAPSULE: When The Thing was released, 27 years ago this week, on June 25, 1982...
• E.T. had been released two weeks earlier and continued to dominate the box office. In second place was Blade Runner, competing for attention with some of The Thing's sci-fi audience. The Thing opened in eighth place.
• On TV, The Weather Channel had launched a month earlier. (Yes, The Weather Channel has been around that long.) Tom Brokaw had recently becoming the anchorman for NBC Nightly News, with co-anchor Roger Mudd. The short-lived series Police Squad!, which would later inspire the Naked Gun movies, had just aired on ABC. Cagney & Lacey and T.J. Hooker were new series. Mork and Mindy, Bosom Buddies, Barney Miller, and The Incredible Hulk had just ended their runs.
• The Equal Rights Amendment was five days away from being voted down.
• England's Prince William, first child of Charles and Diana, had been born four days earlier. Kirsten Dunst was less than two months old.
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"Eric's Time Capsule" appears every Monday at Film.com. You can visit Eric at his website, where all theories on how to determine whether someone is human or alien are rigorously peer-reviewed.