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John Carpenter Reveals Pivotal Scene that Convinced Him to Direct The Thing

Here's a little hint: the scene involves blood, Petri dishes, and super-heated wire.

By Josh Weiss
A man's face bleeds and distorts in The Thing (1982).

Despite knocking it out of the park — and then some — with 1982's The Thing (now available to own from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment alongside the 1951 and 2011 versions), John Carpenter initially turned down the offer to direct Universal's second film adaptation of Who Goes There?, the seminal sci-fi novella published by John W. Campbell Jr. in 1938.

"The original Thing [From Another World] was one of my favorite movies," the celebrated master of horror said during a phone call with SYFY WIRE back in the summer of 2022. "I really didn't want to get near it." Had it not been for the persistence of his old USC film school buddy, producer Stuart Cohen, Carpenter wouldn't have touched the property with a 10-foot arachnid leg sprouting from the body of an assimilated Siberian Husky. "I really didn't want to get near it," he told us. "But I re-read the novella and I thought, ‘You know, this is a pretty good story here. We get the right writer, the right situation, we could do something [with this].'"

The thing (no pun intended) that really got him on board, however, was the now-iconic sequence in which helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady (famously played by a shaggy Kurt Russell) dips a super-heated wire into Petri dishes of blood to find out who has been infected by the shape-shifting creature. Since the pivotal moment from Campbell's novella had not been translated to the screen for the 1951 movie, Carpenter saw it as his chance to put a unique spin on the material.

For More on John Carpenter's The Thing:
John Carpenter Zoom Crashes a Special Screening of The Thing in the Middle of the Antarctic
Return of The Thing? Everything to Know About The Cancelled Miniseries Sequel to The Thing
Kurt Russell and John Carpenter Discussed the Ending of The Thing "For a Long, Long Time"

John Carpenter Agreed to Direct 1982's The Thing Based On Now-Famous Blood Test Sequence

"This was also my first studio movie so many things were at my disposal — it was very different to independent film-making where you have to scrounge around," the filmmaker said in a recent interview with The Guardian. "The blood-test scene is the reason I did the movie. I thought I could do something special with it."

And he did just that. Not only is the scene an absolute masterclass in ramping up tension and suspense, it is also the only time throughout the movie where the filmmakers hint at the current identity of the Thing. Cinematographer Dean Cundey accomplished this by making sure there was no light — "that little sparkle that we use most of the time on characters to create the sense of life, of intelligence," is how he explained it to SYFY WIRE — reflected in Palmer's eyes.

Carpenter then went on to reveal that Russell was not his first choice for MacReady, even though the two had already worked together on two other projects: Elvis and Escape from New York. "But the studio really liked him and, of course, I loved him," the director continued. "The big beard was his idea; I came up with the hat. He used a flamethrower in a few scenes and had special training. It’s not very hard — you pull a lever and out comes fire. You just have to try not to get in the way of it."

According to Cohen's The Original Fan blog, Christopher Walken, Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges, Sam Shepard, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Atkins, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, and a slew of others were all considered for the lead role before Russell came aboard. In fact, he was the very last actor to be cast, the decision being made the very same day Carpenter, Cohen, and several other key members of production set out for a preliminary shoot on the Juneau Icefield in Alaska.

The Thing is now available to own from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment alongside the 2011 prequel and 1951's The Thing from Another World. Want even more Carpenter goodness? Head on over to Peacock for Dark Star (1974), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Body Bags (1993), Halloween Ends (2022), and John Carpenter's Suburban Screams (2023).

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