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'The Thing' at 40: The cast & crew's definitive history of John Carpenter's masterpiece
John Carpenter knows who was really the Thing at the end of the movie ... but four decades later, he's still not telling.
"The Ultimate in Alien Terror" was a mere promotional tagline in 1982. Today, those five simple words refer to one of the greatest (if not the greatest) science fiction horror movies ever made. It's hard to believe that 40 years have passed since the release of John Carpenter's The Thing, which blended elements from 1951's The Thing from Another World (produced by one of Carpenter's biggest influences, Howard Hawks) and the John W. Campbell Jr. novella it was based on, Who Goes There?, to form an entirely new specimen that has been nigh-impossible to imitate all these years later.
Carpenter's affinity for the material was evident in 1978's Halloween, which featured a scene in which Laurie Strode and Tommy Doyle watch Thing from Another World on television just before Michael Myers' murderous rampage throughout the neighborhood. That little homage might have remained the director's only connection to the property, had it not been for his old buddy from USC film school, producer Stuart Cohen, who convinced him to take on the project, although the studio wasn't so sure.
"They wanted to put it into development, but weren't sure about John," he tells SYFY WIRE over the phone. "He hadn't made Halloween at that point and they wanted to keep their options open."
"It was not something I wanted to do," Carpenter admits. "Universal had [the rights to] The Thing and they wanted to remake it. The original Thing was one of my favorite movies. I really didn't want to get near it. 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].' So I decided to do that. This was right after Escape from New York. I had my first studio movie, which was a big deal."
The "right writer" turned out to be Bill Lancaster, son of Golden Age Hollywood star, Burt Lancaster, whose only credits up to that point were a pair of comedies: The Bad News Bears and The Bad News Bears Go to Japan.
Cohen, who brought the film to Universal by way of producer David Foster in the late 1970s, wanted to make "a thinking man's monster movie," he explains. "I said, ‘It's a movie where the characters are essentially indispensable and the better the characters, the better the monster.’ But we couldn't get anybody else to agree with that idea." He goes on to say that he always envisioned it as a more faithful adaptation of the original novella. "The idea of disguise, the idea of the internal as opposed to the external. Plus the unity of time, place, and action is what fascinated me ... It was never about remaking the Hawks version."
After three failed attempts to realize The Thing, Universal finally relented in May of 1979 when Ridley Scott's Alien burst out of screens and changed the face of horror-soaked science fiction. Cohen re-approached Carpenter, who once again refused. "He said, ‘You guys have failed three times. Why do I want to sign onto a failed project?'" Nevertheless, he agreed to revisit the source material before "reluctantly" agreeing "to develop a script," states Cohen, later adding: "The Thing was John Carpenter's film, from the first frame to the last, but it was also a passion project of my own — a first feature expressly designed by me to make my entrance into movies after producing television at Universal."
The producer hopes to publish a detailed memoir on the movie's production sometime next year. Tentatively titled Once Upon A Time In Antarctica: Adventures in THE THING Trade, the book will feature exclusive quotes from the elusive Rob Bottin (see below).
"It’ll include a date-specific timeline from 1976 through the day of release," Cohen promises. "Mine will be a little different and it’ll also involve the studio side of things. The meetings John wasn’t in. The most difficult thing to convey is the provincial atmosphere the film was made in really. The non-genre atmosphere the film was made in. That's what I'm trying to convey. And how alone John was in terms of swimming upstream."
A tale of snowy isolation and creeping paranoia, The Thing follows a group of 12 men at an Antarctic research station who find themselves besieged by a thawed-out alien life-form capable of replicating any living organism. It wants to take them over and head for more populated areas until the whole world is absorbed.
"We went back to the origin of the story, which is the imitation," Carpenter says. "It wasn't a big Frankenstein monster, it was a creature that can imitate other life-forms perfectly. It's a lot more complex and different than the first film."
The slow erosion of trust between the characters leads to in-fighting and violence as the alien, which can only be eliminated with fire, begins to pick them off — all while assuming a number of gruesome forms it has learned to mimic from a lifetime spent traversing the universe. This utilization of a frozen locale and horrific extra-terrestrial being of unfathomable origin may conjure up the cosmic dread of At the Mountains of Madness (published two years before Who Goes There?). However, Carpenter insists that the literary works of H.P. Lovecraft were "not really" on his mind while making The Thing.
The effectiveness of the titular creature comes down to the incomparable work of Mr. Rob Bottin, whose trailblazing (not to mention nightmarish) creature designs set a new benchmark for practical effects. "He said, 'Well, the Thing can look like anything.' I thought about it and [came to the conclusion of], 'Well, that's true because it's been throughout the universe. Whatever it imitated, it can pull it up,'" the director explains. "So why have one Thing? It's a constantly changing creature."
"Rob was the smartest person on the production, whip-smart," Cohen says. "His organizational abilities [left something] to be desired. But he was a genius. During preparation, of all the things that needed doing, I think the one that John concentrated most intently on was the monster. Ahead of casting, ahead of production, ahead of locations. It really was about re-conceiving the monster."
A 23-year-old wunderkind, Bottin operated out of Universal's Hartland facility in North Hollywood, which had previously served as the home of visual effects crews for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Battlestar Galactica.
"Bottin didn't like the way the producers were always breathing down his neck," says Von Babasin, a Hollywood neophyte at the time (his credits up until that point included Jaws 2 and Airport '77) who worked under Mechanical Effects Coordinator Roy Arbogast (he oversaw explosions, controlled set destruction, and the like) for seven months before moving onto Bottin's crew for another five to six months. "It was quite arduous for him ... So he negotiated this deal where they went over to the Hartland facility, which was a little facility in the middle of North Hollywood, that didn't have the producers always there."
Bottin put in so much effort on this film, that he was briefly hospitalized for exhaustion. "He worked a little too hard sometimes, I'm afraid," Carpenter adds.
"There were times when he was just happy and jovial, and there were times when he was just under pressure and was not a happy camper," Babasin remembers. Fortunately, Bottin had an encouraging "support group" in Ken Diaz (special makeup effects coordinator), Vince Prentice (special makeup effects crew member), and Erik Jensen (special makeup effects line producer). "These guys were kinda like his posse and he was constantly surrounded by his friends, which was very supportive for him."
Babasin, who was only 28 at the time, found himself inspired by Bottin's talent and work ethic. "To work with [him] made me want more out of myself. Because here I was, 28, this guy's five years younger and he's the largest special effects budget in history [$3 million]. I'm like, 'What am I doing?’ ... The guy’s a genius as far as his visual ideas and his creativity and sculpting and drawing abilities. It was pretty awe-inspiring to see him doing all this." As a "kind of assistant," Babasin found himself in the unique position of flitting between numerous departments. "I got to just bounce around."
And if the alien could look like anything, the reasoning went, then it could sound like anything, too. The creature's primal roars, insectoid chittering, and echoing cries across its various transformations cut right down to the bone, adding ghastly dimension to Bottin's visual effects.
"It was very painstakingly done by David Yewdall," Cohen says of project's supervising sound editor. "That involved a great deal of trial and error ... We brought the crew on early to begin developing the sound for a monster. Basically, the approach was one that King Kong used in 1933 [under] Murray Spivack, which was taking organic animal sounds and mixing them together and seeing what you got. We just took that to the nth degree. It was trial and error and when it fit, it fit. But it was a lot of effort ... I can tell you that the sound of the Blair monster is the roar [of] a lion and it's actually our tribute to King Kong. The others involved zebras…I forgot [what else]."
Despite the fact that his adaptation would be vastly different from the 1951 version, Carpenter still wanted to pay homage to the OG movie by recreating its famous opening title sequence, in which the letters seem to burn right through the screen. Not only would it serve as a love letter to one of his favorite movies, it would also hint at the brutal method through which the Thing takes over its victims by tearing through their clothes.
Bottin, who had just finished up work on Joe Dante's The Howling, suggested Peter Kuran of VCE Films for the job. A veteran of the first Star Wars and the Battlestar Galactica TV series, Kuran landed the gig by bidding $20,000, which was significantly less than the price tag proposed by Roger Corman's New World Pictures. Had Corman's company won the contract, The Thing's opening title would have been handled by an up-and-coming James Cameron. "I [can] actually say that I beat him out on a job," says Kuran, who accomplished the title effect with a number of everyday items: a fish tank, a garbage bag and some matches.
"I eventually [landed on] a setup that had a huge fish tank, which I used to put smoke into. Behind that, I had a frame that I stretched garbage bag plastic over. And behind that, there ... a 1,000-watt light being held back by the garbage bag plastic because [it] was opaque black. I put the title on the back of the fish tank using animation black ink in the cel to make the title. When I'd start the camera, I'd run behind and touch the garbage bag plastic with a couple of matches. The matches would make a hole, they would burn and open up and reveal the light, which then came through the title [making] the rays in the fish tank. We did several takes and got the one that we wound up using. One of the takes opened up and just said 'NG.' It didn't open up all the way."
Kuran's decision to use a fish tank was the result of a rather disastrous experience on The Wrath of Khan, which hit theaters the same year as The Thing. "I'd done a shot on Star Trek II [where] I used a salt heater and sugar to put together this effect. I did it inside and it just completely smoked out the whole building. So I learned from that and when I did The Thing, I put it in a tank, so that the smoke was in a tank [and] it wouldn't go anywhere further than the tank."
The Thing's opening titles also feature a nod to the wider culture of 1950s sci-fi in the form of a flying saucer that crashes to Earth hundreds of thousands of years before the events of the movie. The ship was actually a miniature model constructed by Susan Frank née Turner. "[Peter] sent me over to speak with John Carpenter by myself and it was great," she recalls over the phone. "Carpenter told me his concept of what a spaceship should be like — he liked the '50s spaceships. He was very nice person, very cordial [and] very supportive. So I went back, and I made it."
She continues: "We used motion control to film the spaceship in the opening sequence of The Thing, using different passes for the shots. One pass was the ship itself; two was the chasing lights on the perimeter of the ship; three was for the stationery lights. These different pieces of film were expertly combined by Pete Kuran in the optical printer with the matte painting of Earth by Jim Danforth and the 'exhaust flame' cel animation I created."
Turner still has the UFO model in her possession and hopes to sell it over the next couple of years.
With the creature designs and title sequence squared away, Carpenter set about finding his crew of frost-bitten men to populate U.S. Outpost #31:
Kurt Russell (helicopter pilot, MacReady), Keith David (mechanic, Childs), David Clennon (mechanic, Palmer), Richard Masur (dog handler, Clark), Joel Polis (biologist, Fuchs), Peter Maloney (meteorologist, Bennings) Donald Moffat (station chief, Garry), Wilford Brimley (biologist, Blair), T.K. Carter (cook, Nauls), Richard Dysart (physician, Dr. Copper), Charles Hallahan (geologist, Norris), and Thomas G. Waites (radio operator, Windows).
Some of the cast (like Russell, Dysart, and Hallahan) were already established Hollywood veterans while others (like David, Waites, and Polis) were promising young graduates of Juilliard and USC. "Everybody had a character that they would play, but [it felt] natural and fit together," Carpenter says. "I'm very happy with the cast."
Clennon credits Lancaster with building such memorable protagonists in the screenplay: "He created these characters and gave them dialogue. I think that's why I wanted to do the film because I sensed on my first reading that the way these 12 men interacted, he had sort of elevated the form. I'm talking like a snooty pooty pretentious literary critic of horror films. But I thought he had done a really fine job of bringing these 12 people to life."
Maloney recalls his audition at the now-defunct Coca-Cola Building once located along New York's Fifth Avenue: "I went up there with a whole bunch of other guys [actors who were not ultimately cast] ... John led us in improvisation. We teamed up, turned the tables over, and threw things back and forth across the room, pretending that we were at war with this monster, which was, of course, not there. That a fun audition."
Clennon was originally up for the role of Bennings "because they thought I could play a scientist," the actor says. "I look like a kind of nerdy, science guy. I got a lot of that [back then] and I said, ‘Yeah, okay, I'll go in.’ I guess I read the script, and thought, ‘Okay, I don't like I don't like horror films. I don't go to horror films. I'm too delicate. But there’s something about this script is fairly interesting and oh yes, it's based on a classic sci-fi [novella] that gives it a little literary class. So, yeah, I'll go in. But I also want to read for the part of Palmer because I think I could do something with it, even though it's against type.’"
He whole-heartedly agrees with our characterization of Palmer as a stoner, slacker, and conspiracy theorist rolled into one tight little package — not unlike the joints Clennon taught himself to roll for the movie. "The big spliff was my idea. And in another scene, I was smoking from a little pot pipe. I had a little folding wooden pot pipe that I owned and used in real life, so I was using that on the set ... You brought up conspiracy theory [and] I would never have used that term to describe what goes on in Palmer's head. But you're right, that is a way of categorizing it. It’s a fantasy, it's Chariots of the Gods, it's an explanation of why the world is as it is in his mind. But you're right, it’s a cousin of conspiracy theory. It's just such a great element."
While on the topic of Palmer, Cohen says that Bottin lobbied for the role, but was ultimately unsuccessful. "I put a stop to that, because he was way behind schedule. And as I told him, ‘We’re after actors for this, who can bring a lot with them to the roles. You don't have the time, and you're not going to do it.’"
Masur states that he was first interested in the role of Garry, but ended up choosing Clark after reading the script. "I said, 'The thing that I'm most attracted to is the dog handler.' [John] said, 'Really?' I said, 'Yeah, I love this character. I just think he's so misanthropic. He doesn't seem to want to be with anybody, but the dogs.' He said, 'Well, it's yours, if you want it.' And that was it."
To prepare for the role of Fuchs, Polis approached his character by enrolling in a beginners biology class at Baruch College in New York. "We dissected a frog and I just got into it."
David, meanwhile, saw Childs as "the strong, silent type. He was a man a few words, he didn't say a whole lot. But when he did, it counted. I just took took him as being [a person] who observes and notices everything at least twice."
A method actor by nature, Waites went pretty deep on the character Windows (originally called "Sanchez" in the screenplay, per Cohen), which drew a bit of teasing from his fellow co-stars. "Kurt and Wil Brimely — God rest his blessed soul — used to make fun of me and say, 'What are you guys doing? Discussing your motivation?'"
He continues: "I was trying to find something about the guy, who he was and what his dreams were. Did he want to work in a f—ing radio station in the Arctic for the rest of his life? No, he had to want to be something else. So I have him reading — I know this is very subtle — a Hollywood magazine with pictures of famous movie stars from the time on the cover. Because that's what he wants to be doing; to be in the movie business and be a movie star. And movie stars wear sunglasses. I picked up a pair of green sunglasses in Venice [California]. I was wearing them [when] I came into rehearsal, I kept them on, I read the character, and I went up to John on the break. I said, 'John, from now, from now on, I want everyone to call me Windows.' He looked down at the floor, and he looked up at the ceiling and took a long drag on the cigarette and put the cigarette out. You could see him thinking it through and he went, 'Alright, everyone! From now on, Tommy wants everyone to call him Windows, okay?'"
This apparently drew some backlash from Moffat and Clennon: "They're like, ‘This is f—ing bullsh**, man! This is so arbitrary! What are you doing, letting him call himself Windows and wear sunglasses inside?!’ John…I don't think he gave a f— what they said. I think they only said it to me. I think they ridiculed me because they thought I was just doing it to get attention. But I really wasn't."
"Donald Moffat ... didn't want Tommy Waites to wear those sunglasses through the whole movie and he didn't want to have to call him Windows," echoes Maloney. "That was a last-minute change around the table. Tommy said, ‘I think my character wears sunglasses all the time and should be called Windows.’ John said, ‘Okay!’ And Bill Lancaster, who was with us there during those weeks, said, ‘Okay!’"
According to Cohen, everyone hated the name "Windows" outside of Waites and Carpenter. "I thought it was an old Howard Hawks thing and that we were going to end up with characters' names from a lot of different Hawks films," the producer admits, going on to add that the runner-up for the part of Windows was none other than Brad Dourif. There was no blood lost (proverbially speaking) once Dourif landed the role of Chucky in the Child's Play franchise.
A fun little aside: The Thing features a pair of characters named "Mac" and "Windows" long before the advent of personal computers.
Before production began in earnest, Carpenter insisted on two full weeks of rehearsals (a highly unusual occurrence on a big-budget studio movie like The Thing), which took place on an empty Universal soundstage. "It was just having the actors get comfortable with their roles and with each other," the director says. "It was very, very valuable. There really wasn't wasn't much more than, 'Let's go through this, fellas.' They worked out a couple things and they worked out their characters."
Cohen asserts that the rehearsal process idea originated with him and was partly used as "a sales tool" to assuage skittish agents who didn't want their clients "playing second fiddle to a monster."
"We had difficulty securing the people we wanted to initially meet and it was only when I got them to read the script that they began to understand what we were up to and how well the characters were developed," he says. "It’s a process John never repeated. I'm not sure he loved it at the time. I think he felt that it gave the actors too much power. But here he did, and here it made sense."
"We really established relationships with each other and I think that comes through in the film," adds Polis. "When we finished filming the film, John famously said, 'I'll never rehearse actors again.' But 40 years later, I'm told — I don't know if it's true — but I think he thinks it was his best film. And I'm sure it's because of the relationships."
"[We'd] take the time to talk about the script and offer ideas [and] those of us who would like to do research did research, brought it in and shared it with everyone," Maloney remembers. "Then we wrote things on the board, we learned a lot about what it's like to be in the Antarctic."
Clennon states that the rehearsal period was marked by a number of "metaphysical" conversations about, 'Do you know, when you have become the Thing?’ and stuff like that. I thought, ‘It doesn't matter. We're making a movie.’ What matters is that the audience doesn't know who’s the Thing. To speculate about whether Palmer knows he's the Thing after he's been absorbed by The Thing and how that’s going to affect his acting is metaphysical bullsh**."
During this period, Masur spent a lot of time with the dog — a half-wolf mix named Jed and trained by a man named Clint Rowe — that gets chased to U.S. Outpost #31 by the Norwegian helicopter. "Jed was just remarkable," says Masur, who practiced with the canine for hours until the two could walk "in this totally casual way" down the hall leading to the kennel. "I love dogs," he adds. "I always have." Shortly after the lights go down, the seemingly docile animal reveals its true nature and begins assimilating the other dogs, prompting Childs to burn it with a flamethrower.
"Everybody always thinks it's so sexy and exciting. It was scary," David admits of wielding the flamethrower prop. "It wasn't napalm, but it was real gasoline coming through a real pump and a real gun and [producing] real fire. A slip of the finger could cost somebody their life or certainly lots and lots of damage. So, it was a little scary. I was excited and glad to be doing it, but it was a little scary."
Babasin constructed the small corner of the kennel ("everybody was so busy at Hartland at one point, that they actually bumped me up to prop maker," he recalls), which can be glimpsed in the 4-second shot where one of the poor, half-melted canines gets wrapped up in tentacles. "We mounted the dog there, we wrapped him up in tentacles, and just K-Y’d the heck out of him. K-Y Jelly was everywhere. And on ‘Action!’ everybody grabbed a tentacle and ran with it. They were hard rubber tentacles so as they stretch, they got smaller. By the time they really stretched, the tentacles all slipped away and let go of the dog. You reverse the photography and the tentacles just dive into this dog and wrap him up. Every time I see that, I go, ‘That’s my corner of the kennel!’"
The iconic scene was first conceptualized by artists Mike Ploog (best-known for co-creating Ghost Rider and Werewolf by Night at Marvel) and Mentor Huebner (whose cinematic work included Forbidden Planet and Blade Runner). "His [Huebner's] conceptual art actually more closely matched what we finally saw on screen than almost any other conceptual drawing I saw," Babasin says.
This set piece was so convincing, it caught the attention of The Humane Society, which thought the crew was "doing terrible things to real dogs," says Craig Miller, a publicity consultant who worked on The Thing, The Hitcher, and The Last Starfighter. "We had to bring them in and show them the mechanisms, so that they would get it wasn’t real."
Maloney, who had a terrible fear of dogs at the time, also needed to spend time with Jed in order to feel comfortable enough to let the dog jump up and try to lick his face near the start of the film. "When Jed stood up and put his paws on my shoulder and licked my face, he was taller than me, I think. I was pretty freaked out by having to do that."
Clark's hunting knife, which makes an appearance during the scene in which Garry cedes command to MacReady, was Masur's idea. He went to pick it up on one of his lunch breaks and accidentally cut his thumb:
"It just started bleeding like a stuck pig. I was in my costume and I take my hat off and I'm holding it against my thumb. I drive like this over to this emergency room, which was not too far away. I walk in, I'm sitting and I'm like, ‘I have to have somebody look at this right now. I gotta get back to work.’ And they said, ‘Well, you gotta wait’ and I said, ‘I’m bleeding like a pig here!’ So the guy looked at it, he put about a butterfly [bandage] on it — it didn't need a stitch — and he got it to stop bleeding. I went back to work and forget what I told wardrobe. I [I think I] told them I dropped it in a puddle or something [like that] because it had blood on it, but it was dark cap, so you couldn't really see it."
Once rehearsals were over, the shoot commenced, with Carpenter's trusty cinematographer — the legendary Dean Cundey — back at his side after Halloween, The Fog, and Escape from New York. The key to this movie, Cundey tells SYFY WIRE, was finding a sense of realism.
"We didn't remove walls from the set so we could back the camera up and get wider shots. We shot everything as if we were actually there and I think that gave a sense of reality to the environment," he says. "I made sure that the lighting came from the practical lights that hung overhead in the set ... I also think it was because the creature, in its various forms, was on the set. It was not a tennis ball on a stick, as so often it is nowadays. It was, in fact, something the actors could see, touch, feel. I think all of those authentic touches created an atmosphere — not only for the actors, but also for the crew."
The biggest challenge was shooting Bottin's creations in such a way that they felt alive and took "advantage of textures and gooey slime and all of the stuff that we used to give a sense of weirdness to the creature," the DP explains. "So it was all carefully done. Rob [would] set up the creature, would point and say, 'Okay, I hate this area, let's not look at that too much. This [area] came out okay.' And so, I would very carefully light with little, little pools of light and darkness for the creatures that he built in an effort to show off their best aspects, their strengths — rather than the audience looking at something too big. And saying, 'Oh, well, that looks like a blob of rubber to me.'"
"We are the last of the great rubber movies," Masur says. "After us, things started going pretty much all CGI for these kinds of effects. But Rob Bottin got to do the Mona Lisa/Sistine Chapel of rubber. And it's pretty impressive, I gotta say."
"It's an important film for being one of the last films that was made with all the old techniques," echoes Turner.
"We didn't go to computers because they didn't really have them back then," Carpenter says. "They didn’t have it perfected and I'm happy with the way it looks. It's fine as it is. I don't see why you’d change anything."
"The Thing is one of the last great all analog films, made on the cusp of the sea change from chemical to electronic," Stuart concludes. "It was made the old-fashioned way with no video assist or electronic monitoring to aid its director. You processed the film and showed up the next day to see the results. Sometimes, in the case of the opening chase on the Juneau Ice Field — which was filmed with a small second unit — the film was sent down the coast for processing. Incredible? Not really. There was no choice. It's simply how things are done. Same with all of Rob’s stuff. We'd shoot it and show up the next day to see if it worked. Sometimes it did."
Before the shoot kicked off in earnest, the crew attempted to get some early helicopter footage for the movie's famous opening (where a pair of members from the Norwegian camp attempt to kill the Dog-Thing) with an approximation of the desolate Antarctic tundra on the Universal backlot. Per Babasin, producer Stuart Cohen refers to this as "The $40,000 Mistake."
Over the course of three-and-a-half weeks, the crew converted "this hill above the dump in the backlot" into a wintry biome via "white sheets of muslin, and 100-pound bags of gypsum," as well as "fiberglass rocks." A trio of "miniature" remote-control helicopters 10-15 feet in length were constructed to fly across the phony landscape, except all three of them encountered problems. One bumped into a rock and crashed; the second exploded by accident; and the third simply "didn't fly right." About a month of work and $40K went down the drain in just a single day.
"John just turns around to the crew, leans against the bar and says, ‘Okay, folks, that's a wrap!’" Babasin recalls. "And that was it. From what I understand, they actually did get a few frames of Number Three. But like I said, Stuart Cohen does not like to relate that story. People rarely like to relate stories of failures, but there's a lot of that in filmmaking. It's trial and error. Even the greatest effects guys of all time have tried things that have failed, trust me."
Filming mainly took place on Universal soundstages that were constantly kept between 40-45 degrees in an effort to simulate the Antarctic setting. "It was cold in there and so, I had the costume designer make a woolen neck warmer, which I wore in the movie," Polis reveals. "And in in a week's time, the whole crew was wearing neck warmers."
"We had to try to make the stages as cold as we possibly could with air conditioning units and spraying misters in the air to try to get the visual of the breath coming out of the mouth," Babasin explains. "We would be all dressed up in these parkas and looking like we were in Antarctica, and then walk off of the stage to go outside and it was 100-degree weather. The Universal [studio] tour trams would drive by and they'd go, ‘My god!’ We must have looked crazy walking off the stage in all these these jackets and everything in the middle of a summer in L.A."
"It was very hot in the San Fernando Valley and, of course, the stages were being chilled down to where frost could be seen coming out of the actors’ mouths ... so many people were getting sick on the production, being on the stage at — I don't know — it must have been down in the 30s, certainly no more than the 40s on the stage," says Miller. "It was over 100 degrees outside at the studio. So going in and out between the two took its toll on a lot of people."
"The first day I got sick," Cohen adds. "It was 37 degrees inside and 106 outside. The crew inside, wearing parkas all day, was ok. I was going in and out, throwing my jacket off and then throwing it back by going inside and I came down with the flu by the end of the first day. I was not the only one. The crew ended up trading colds and flu back and forth ever since Day One."
Exteriors were filmed on the Salmon Glacier up in Stewart, British Columbia (near the Alaskan border), where a life-sized research station was erected. The crew then allowed the snow to accumulate for several months before making the journey north. "One of the things that fascinated me the most was how they made the set in [Canada] look exactly like the set that we were on in Universal," David says." I mean, the same pictures hung the same way. It was as if they had lifted that room and put it in [Canada]."
It was a breathtaking spot, but the weather never stayed consistent. White-outs, overcast skies, and below-freezing temperatures never failed to wreak havoc, especially with regards to the cinematography.
"Once you get a cloud or clouds overhead, then everything goes white. And we had to match the skies, which were clear and beautiful, so it was a pain," Carpenter says. "It was a mountain that we had to go up. We were down by the bottom of the mountain and then we had to travel up every day. We'd get up there, the weather would be sh**, we'd have to wait all day long, get nothing done, and then go all the way back down ... We all were in it together. It was not an easy film to make. We had to fight the elements. It was rough. And since we were all in it together, we all bonded. Everybody bonded."
"I've backpacked all over the United States and so, I love the outdoors. I was in heaven. It was an adventure," Polis adds. "T.K. Carter hated it. He was used to LA, he had never been in that kind of cold. And some other people didn't like it very much. But man, it was so beautiful up there and we had all these great toys: helicopters, flame-throwers, and all this sh**. It was like a kid's dream come true."
At the end of many rough, yet rewarding, work days, the gang would unwind in the Alaskan town of Hyder with plenty of free-flowing Everclear to keep them warm. "That became a hazing or a ritual that we put ourselves through," continues Waites, who has since become a recovered alcoholic. "We did a lot of drinking and a lot of partying. It was burning the candle at both ends — staying up all night and having to shoot all day. It was the ‘80s, man. It was a different time."
Of course, not everyone got in on the merriment. "Donald was a family man and [became] upset when we would come in at three in the morning drunk from the bar and wake him up," states Polis. "But he was a good man, and a wonderful actor."
Despite the uncooperative climate, Carpenter wanted to make full use of the location and went so far as to move a number of scenes outside, "which, to my mind, just defied the whole premise of the story, which was, 'We can't go outside unless it's an absolute emergency,'" Masur admits. "After I saw the film, I thought John had made a good decision. So that big scene at night where where Kurt's going, 'I know I'm human' and burning the blood bags and everything. We [originally] shot that all inside in the rec room and it was a great scene — it was really tense and crazy. And then John moved it outside and we're standing there in a line in the cold."
"Originally, he had me killed on the set indoors," Polis says of Fuchs, who carries forth Blair's research on the creature once the biologist snaps. "I've got a great picture of me hanging from the door with a shovel in my chest. He took a look at it and went, 'No, no — this isn't a slasher movie.' And so, he devised [this new death]. He actually gave me like five or six extra scenes when we went up to [Canada]. He wrote them for me, because I became the bridge to the science."
Another memorable sequence shot in the blistering cold of Canada was the death of Bennings, the first member of the group to be assimilated onscreen when he's briefly left alone in the storeroom with thawed-out alien remains. "If you see the movie and you see anybody with a beard like me, then you know that that person is not going to transform in the face. Because with with facial hair, it’s too difficult to make the [special effects] cast," Maloney explains. The creature barely gets to finish the absorption process when Windows returns, forcing the Thing masquerading as the meteorologist to make a run for it. The monster doesn't get very far when it's burned to death by MacReady.
"I had no shirt on, my coat was wide open, and with the wind-chill, it was 103 degrees below zero," Maloney recalls, adding that the only source of warmth came from a pair of hand warmers stuck inside the false arms. "John said, 'Well, look, the cameras are going to maybe slow down here [because] it is so cold. I'm putting you in charge. If you feel that it's dangerous or it's too uncomfortable, you just tell me and we'll go back inside and warm up.' I don't remember asking him to do that. Actors want to please the director and sometimes, they can put their lives in danger because they want to do what the director wants. And we all want the movie to be terrific. We don't want to chicken out and deprive the movie of a scene that might be terribly thrilling to the audience."
The subsequent scene where Garry laments the death of his friend was the result of the aforementioned rehearsal process.
"I remember Donald saying, ‘Well, you know, Bennings is my friend. Why in the story do I not express my anguish at what we've just done to Bennings?’ Which was see this man overcome, the first one in our group, to shown signs of infection from this terrible virus," Maloney reveals. "Then we we kill him, we soak him with gasoline, we light a flare and we stand around and watch him burn, like a Tibetan monk protesting the war or something. It’s a horrific, horrific ending. Even though I’m half-monster, half-human, I plead not to be killed, with that strange bellow that comes out as me as I turned to look at Kurt before he throws the torch. Donald didn't know why his character was not expressing the human emotion that one would express if a good friend suddenly was killed ... And so, there was something written in there. Bill and John were very attentive, John especially, to what we needed."
Clennon expresses a similar sentiment about Carpenter: "If an ad-lib worked, he’d use it. He wasn't real strict about sticking to the script."
For example, Palmer's "Thanks for thinking about it, though" line was not in the screenplay, but a suggestion from Clennon's friend, the late Don Calfa. "I say, 'I'll take you up there, to the Norwegian camp, Doc! I'll fly up there!' And our captain, Garry, says, ‘Forget it, Palmer!’ Don Calfa said, ‘When he says that, try saying: Hey, thanks for thinking about it, though.’ He's a little out of touch and the captain, Garry just sternly, scornfully dismissed his idea. ‘Hey, thanks for thinking about it, though.’ Like, as if the guy had actually thought about it. And that line stayed in the film. It was ad-libbed and it was a gift from the late Don Calfa."
Another bit of improvisation can be found in the scene where Palmer and Childs get high and watch pre-recorded episodes of Let's Make a Deal. This brief, slice-of-life moment may seem irrelevant to the larger story, but it really hammers home the profound isolation and monotony these men face every single day. It just adds another layer of realism to the piece, wonderfully balancing the impending alien threat with concepts any human being can immediately understand. Palmer drives this idea home when he gets up to change the tape because he's already seen the episode currently playing on the television.
"I thought, ‘Look at the level of boredom that these guys have to contend with.' ... I thought, ‘Palmer, in his stoned orientation to the world, maybe sees these game shows as dramatic structures.’ It's like you're watching a movie and you're stoned, you’re loving it, and you're watching this thing unfold before your eyes. It's a drama, they create this drama around a game — partly a game of chance and [partly] a game of guesswork. And so, he sees it in those in dramatic terms.’ And so, I thought, ‘I’m going to put one in the player and then I'm going to reject it, saying, Nah, I know how this one ends.’ I thought, ‘Well, that's a stoner approach to life. I don't want to watch this game show again because I remember how it ends. Give me a few months, maybe a few weeks, and I'll forget it [and] it'll all be new to me and I'll be surprised by the way it plays out.'"
Cundey had the cameras "winterized," a process by which the manufacturer (in this case, Panavision) replaced the usual lubricant with an anti-freezing agent. "We [also] had a warming system for the the magazine on top of the camera that held all the film to keep the film from freezing and cracking and buckling. So keeping everything warm was an important thing." However, if the cameras were brought inside during breaks, the lenses would fog up with condensation from the temperature differential. "Pretty quickly, we decided that the room with the camera work always had to stay the same temperature as outside, below freezing. So the poor camera assistants never got a break to go into the warmth while they were working. They would go into the below-freezing camera room and they would work in their big parkas and their gloves and everything."
With regards to color, the cinematographer leaned into the idea of contrasts: "[For] the interior of the of the camp, I would tend to light it with a slightly warm light, implying that where they were living and working was kept warm compared to the exterior [which] tended to be blue. Sometimes, light coming from the camp would be warm so that we could say, ‘Oh yeah, that's warmth and safety over there' ... Blue tends to be something we associate with cold and freezing as opposed to warm light that we associate with fires and sunny days and all of that."
Tragedy nearly struck during a six-hour bus trip to Stewart, where the actors stayed for the duration of the real-world leg of principal photography. Everything was going smoothly until a white-out hit and threatened to send the bus off the side of a mountain. Proving himself worthy of the MacReady role, Kurt Russell immediately assumed control of the situation.
"Kurt goes, 'Okay, nobody move. Who's in the seat farthest from the door?' I said, 'I am.' He goes, 'Alright, Tommy — get on your hands and knees and crawl to the front,'" Waites remembers. "Slowly, I did it [and] I got off the bus. One at a time, he got us all off the bus. Then the weight shifted and we got behind the bus and we pushed it back on [the road]. And we drove [on] safely. This was before cellphones. There were no radios, no communications. We arrived at 5:30 a.m. as sun was coming up, and there was John Carpenter at the bus stop, waiting for his men. He shook each one of our hands as we got off the bus, not knowing the peril we had just been through."
"Kurt Russell was our captain," adds Maloney. "He was hilarious and with us all the time. There was no separation of him and us the way there sometimes is with the star of a movie and the rest of the cast. We seemed to be all equals, except in the billing. At the end, of course, Kurt gets his [name] separately because he is the star."
Despite having worked with Carpenter on Elvis and Escape From New York, Russell was not immediately cast as the lead. In fact, he was very last actor to join the ensemble. Cohen reveals that the studio suggested a young Kevin Kline for MacReady "late in the game" and Carpenter went so far as to meet with the up-and-comer at the now-defunct Tail 'O The Cock restaurant. "Our go-to watering hole," Cohen adds.
In another instance, life imitated art with a bit of dissent amongst the ranks when Carpenter decided to cut a short exchange between Windows and Palmer. "It was sort of like a build-up to us fighting," Waites says. "But let's say it was three quarters of a page of dialogue. That's a lot of lines for an actor trying to get work."
He and Clennon had already gone over the scene together when it was suddenly axed. The two actors weren't very happy about this and spent the next 10 minutes or so verbally abusing their director — completely unaware that they were mic'd up. "John sticks his head around the corner [and] he goes, 'Hey, guys, I just heard every word you said.' And he wasn't laughing. It took me a while to dig myself out of that one. We were both mortified. And Clennon's like, 'Oh, come on, John! A little mutiny is perfectly normal on every set!' I think I wrote him a note to apologize, but I felt so terrible."
Clennon remembers the moment a little differently. According to him, the altercation was not over cut dialogue, but over the efficacy of trying to reinforce the outpost doors with two by fours shortly before MacReady — left for dead by Nauls — forces his way inside and threatens to blow up the whole complex.
"I said, ‘This would never work. This is this is silly. This is bullish**.’ And what I meant was in engineering terms, this ain’t gonna work. Any carpenter’s apprentice could tell you that what you're doing with these two by fours is not going to secure these doors. It's silly," Clennon says. "John had his headphones on and my mic was on. John came tearing across the set and started screaming at me, 'It is not bullsh**!’ He was just furious with me and I was I was kind of taken aback. I was shocked that I had been overheard and he didn't persuade me that I was wrong. But I figured, ‘Okay, well, we'll just try to fake it here and, and maybe nobody will notice.’ I think that was the case, I don't think anybody noticed that what we were doing was, at best, a fanciful way of preventing the monster from coming through the doors."
With that said, Clennon does touch on a number of early character moments that he wishes hadn't ended up on the cutting room floor. He points to the critical and box office success of Ridley Scott's Alien, which opened three years before The Thing, and followed a similar narrative about a collection of blue-collar workers battling a seemingly unstoppable beast from outer space.
"One of the things that made it work for me is that I got to know every single one of those characters. So when they were threatened, I knew who they were and I had a set of feelings about them," the actor says of the Xenomorph's big screen debut. "I thought that Bill succeeded in doing that. It was there on the page and it was there when we shot the film. When the film was released and I saw it for the first time, I thought that John had cut too much of the introductory material for each individual character ... I got lucky because he didn't cut a significant amount of my material. So by the eighth minute into the picture, you know who Palmer is. He’s an oddball, he's funny, he’s silly, and you kind of like him, so you don't want him to be absorbed by Thing."
Clennon claims one of the assistant editors gave him a heads up about this prior to the film's theatrical release. "She kind of warned me that John wanted to get to the first manifestation of the monster as quickly as he could. And so, he dispensed with a lot of the character stuff because he wanted to wow people with the monster. He was impatient; he was in a hurry to get there and he didn't want to linger over establishing a character."
"You Gotta Be F—ing Kidding..."
We'd be remiss if we didn't talk more about the most iconic scene in the film: the big reveal that Norris has been assimilated. In fact, Carpenter's favorite alien design is the Norris head that splits away from the man's body (like a TGI Friday's patron pulling apart a fresh mozzarella stick) during the iconic defibrillator sequence with Dr. Copper.
"The most fun was the head coming off and sprouting legs and crawling away. It was ridiculous, that's why. At this point, the creature was designed after the script [was written]. I read Bill Lancaster's description of this scene and he came up with the line, 'You gotta be f— kidding,' which I just think is perfect."
"It definitely has to be when Dick Dysart gets his his arms bitten off. No one ever expected that," echoes Waites. "The camera's underneath, from the patient's point-of-view, and he reaches in to see what's in there and he comes out with no arms. They got a real double amputee to play [Dysart in the wide shot]. I gasped."
"That had been storyboarded and when I do a film class, I show the storyboards as drawn and the actual images we shot. It's surprising how much they coordinate exactly," adds Cundey. "Because the storyboards were drawn very carefully to say, ‘Okay, here's the moment, here's the action we want to see, here’s the specific dramatic thing.’ I think that the fact that it was so carefully conceived was a big help. Having these storyboards and drawings of moments also gave Rob the inspiration to say, ‘Okay, the head has to stretch like this, and it has to crawl like this.’ And rather than just building stuff, he fitted all of the stuff into the moments that had been been conceived."
"Every time we shot something like that, everybody grabbed something," Babasin explains of the production's it-takes-a-village mentality. "We were all controlling some aspect of some creature. The duct monster [for example], there was a guy in the duct because that was a hand puppet. And so, he's inside there, controlling this guy while the crew is down below with fire extinguishers. Some of us are doing fire control, some of us are actually initiating the sequence of events. Everything is done so methodically."
He continues: "Obviously, the duct monster blows its way up, but then Charlie's head rips off and that's one setup. Then it lowers itself down the table and that's a whole other setup with a guy inside who's lowering the head down. Then it reaches the bottom and the tongue [wrapping around the desk], that's done in reverse photography with a piece of tubing that has air flowing through it so it whips around. They bring it back into his mouth and then reverse the shot and it just flies across the room. Then he drags himself, that's a fourth setup. Then he’s under the table and he turns around, that's another setup. Every one of the setups was was just elaborate and it would take 20-30 guys to control all the different aspects."
MacReady torches the Norris-Thing laid out on the operating table, but misses the head, which breaks away from the body and attempts to crawls off. Palmer catches sight of the arachnoid noggin and utters the piece of dialogue that perfectly sums up The Thing: "You gotta be f—ing kidding." It's a line that has echoed across the generations and inspired contemporary filmmakers like Andy Muschietti, who included little homage to Norris's scuttling head in IT: Chapter Two.
"At some point, I think they came to the conclusion that this gag was going to be so spectacular — almost operatic. The ultimate Fourth of July fireworks display," Clennon explains. "It was gonna be so outrageous. The ideas that Rob Bottin was bringing to the table were just fantastic, and outrageous and unbelievable. I guess John and Bill came to the conclusion that the audience was going to be so blown away by this and they might even doubt what they had seen."
He continues: "There had to be some acknowledgement on the screen that what [the audience] had just seen was truly outrageous and spectacular. And somehow, they came up with, with that line. Maybe John or Bill just blurted it out. I'm imagining this scene where the guy's chest caves in and turns into a pair of jaws and snaps off the guy's arms and we go from there. So at the end of it, it’s like, ‘What do you say? We should say something because the audience is going to be reacting to this amazing display of gore and art.' It’s like, ‘Well, maybe we acknowledge that it's a little too much.’ So you say, 'You gotta be f—ing kidding' ... It’s like a humorous affirmation of what the audience is already thinking and feeling. And if they suspend their disbelief and buy the effects, it is truly horrifying. But it is also outlandish and outrageous and pushing the limits of credibility in a very realistic way. And so, you’re giving voice to what the audience is thinking. I think that's why that line is such a classic."
"One of my favorite scenes to shoot was [the one] after Charlie's head comes off," David says. "We’re following it [as] the head is crawling like a spider and David goes, ‘You gotta be f—ing kidding…’ That was some funny sh** … Clennon, he was just funny as hell."
"The first time I saw it, I just laughed my ass off," echoes Masur. "I thought it was so great."
"Now I'll Show You What I Already Know"
For the infamous and tension-filled blood test sequence, Cundey devised an ingenious system for hinting at the identity of the imposter:
"I took a certain liberty that when the guy we're most suspicious of is seen, I didn't put the eye light in his eyes. I didn't put that little sparkle that we use most of the time on characters to create the sense of life, of intelligence. I kept the light out of his eyes, so his eyes were the ones who were dark and dead. I think just subconsciously, the audience sensed that. It wasn't until years later that I said, ‘Okay, well, let me let me tell you what I did.’ And people said, ‘Oh yeah, now I notice.’ But it wasn't so much noticing as feeling, sensing, adding to the suspense. I think it paid off because it built that suspense as we went down the line from character-to-character and he was always lurking and waiting."
To achieve the effect of Palmer's blood running away after it's touched by the hot wire, the crew built a custom section of flooring attached to a gimbal that could move in any direction. "Then we attached the camera to the floor, so it stayed stationary, looking at this floor," Cundey explains. "No matter what direction we we moved the floor, the camera was always looking at the same spot. And then we put the blood on the floor and moved it around. As it would run in a particular direction, the camera would only see it as crossing the frame. I think it was pretty effective."
"I remember watching the behind-the-scenes process that you do to make the film moment work," admits David. "Where the blood was being come from and how it was going to look. The most remarkable thing was the hand and the petri dish. The hand is a mold of Kurt's hand, but it wasn't his [actual] hand."
"When you stick a needle in a human body, graphically in close-up, the audience is going to have reaction," Clennon says. "When you cut somebody's thumb with a scalpel, I'm going to have a major [visceral] reaction … So my theory is that a horror film director can use needles and scalpels, and fake blood to make an audience anxious and apprehensive and vulnerable to what's going to happen next ... having been softened up and made apprehensive and anxious and vulnerable, the effect of what you show them next — which is not real — is is going to enhance the effectiveness of the gag that you're springing on them."
Once exposed, Palmer starts to transform and ends up attacking poor Windows, who fails to burn the creature in time. "I believe I did my own stunts [for that]. They put me on some machine [and] that's me shaking around," adds Waites. "I think I did a few takes of it and then they said, 'Okay, let's do it with the stunt guy.' I seem to remember John letting me do it because I was in quite good physical shape at that time."
"I think maybe there were two or three grips, perhaps, just out of frame, who were shaking the sofa. I don't know if I was trying to amplify the shaking myself, I don't remember," Clennon says of Palmer's horrific convulsions just before the man's head splits open. "What strikes me about that scenes is that my face is expressionless. There's nothing going on with my face. I'm not grimacing or mugging for the camera. That’s a good thing, I think it's kind of striking that it's almost like Palmer’s not there anymore, it’s just his body that is vibrating as the Thing emerges. It’s almost like he's a corpse ... That's a very effective moment that the editors found and used to good effect."
For Clennon, the sequence works so well because Carpenter and Lancaster chose "the most unlikely character to be the Thing ... he is the least likely candidate. It can’t be Palmer, he's too flaky, he's silly, and he's harmless and he's funny. The Thing is not going to inhabit him! It's just not right. And lo and behold, that’s what you get ... I think it is a little shocking and I don't know if other people comment on that, but I don't think anybody's ready for it to be Palmer. There’s nothing sinister about Palmer and then all of a sudden, [it turns out] he fooled you."
According to Babasin, Palmer's transformation was also set to include slime oozing out a pair of fake arms "that had like a thousand pinholes in them and there was a pipe down each arm that pumped in K-Y Jelly. The K-Y was supposed to ooze out of all these individual holes and look really creepy," he remembers. "They needed someone who had a similar body as Palmer at Hartland, so they came running up to me. ‘Hey, you want to sit in for Palmer?!’ I was like, ‘Yeah, sure!’ So I sat on the famous couch, had my arms back, and had these fake arms come out. I guess the visual just didn't look good. It was another one of those trial and error things. I think as the ooze came out, it would just become one mass [of] ooze. And it didn't, it didn't have those individual little squiggles, which I think they were looking for from each one of those little pinholes. So that was axed."
The scene ends with one of the biggest laughs in the movie. Still tied up, a weary and beleaguered Moffat's Garry explodes at his comrades: "I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I'd rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS F—ING COUCH!"
"He started out so calm and then he flipped out. We burst into laughter, it was really hard to keep it in," Waites remembers. "John's sets are really fun."
"Yeah, Well F*** You, Too!"
In addition to the UFO model that opens the movie, Frank also found herself tasked with creating a miniature version of the outpost generator room for the film’s explosive climax. “I went over and measured everything, took a big chunk of foam, cut it out, and figured out how to do all the different cans and that stuff,” she explains.
The effect of the alien destroying the floor was achieved with what Babasin calls "the tortoise shell," a battering-ram like device that moved along and track, forcing "this hard, fiberglass tortoise shell through the floorboards," he says. "That was a very elaborate mechanical effect ... I remember we shot it three times before lunch, which was an impressive thing to do. It was all set for the morning to shoot and they shot it first thing. Then we had to redress the entire set, lay all those new boards in, and flock the whole thing, put it back to one. That’s not an easy thing to do."
That same artifice was applied to the scene where MacReady lobs Molotov cocktails into each room out of the outpost in an effort to deprive the alien from any sense of shelter. "We we had to rig mortars, gas mortars up in each individual room," Babasin says. "And as he walks down the line, lighting fake Molotov cocktails and throwing them in, we're blowing the heck out of the set. That's all interior. So you'll see an interior blow up and then they'll go [to an exterior shot] of British British Columbia and you'll see a big bomb go off. Then you'll go back inside and you'll throw a couple more Molotov cocktails. It's all edited together, obviously, and it looks quite impressive when it's done."
MacReady’s final standoff with the Blair-Thing was originally supposed to feature an extensive amount of stop-motion work by Randy Cook — only a fraction of which made it into the finished cut. “It was some great stuff," Carpenter says. "The creature comes up out of the floorboards and you see these tentacles. The problem is that everything we'd done was live-action [and] it just didn't fit. It just looked like a different movie and that was troublesome. So we just used the bare minimum.”
"I know there's a picture out there of the miniature that Randy Cook did," Babasin adds. "It's got the dog creature [and] he's grown out and away from the original Blair monster. I have to say it almost looked too good. It was so meticulously done and the creature in the movie, they never really developed him that way. The dog came out, but he didn't grow across the entire compound like it appears in the miniature. The miniature looked great, but I just don't think it really meshed well, continuity-wise, with the the full-size creature."
“Stop-motion at the time was still very stuttery and so, they decided to eliminate what had been designed in the storyboards and keep it down to one shot," echoes Cundey.
The Thing's ultimate form — an amalgam of man dog, and cosmic horrors beyond comprehension — was a Bottin-created puppet. "I remember there were over 40 guys on the final [Blair] monster. We were all just crammed underneath," Babasin reveals. "This thing was built on a stanchion that was six feet off the ground. Because there were like 40 guys underneath it, all controlling something and bringing the dog forward and oh my gosh, it was insane."
"We were running out of money," Cohen reveals. "Rob's shop was like a boulder rolling downhill, picking up labor costs. John had to go hat in hand to Universal for the last $100,000 in order to make the monster, otherwise there wasn't going to be one. A lot of it didn't work quite the way we wanted it to. Nauls was supposed to pop out of it, the dog was supposed to move much faster. There were a lot of things going on that we couldn’t do."
Multiple cameras were used to capture the total destruction of the camp once MacReady lobs the stick of dynamite at the Blair-Thing. "They blew up the set, which was gorgeous at night," Polis says.
"That was impressive," echoes Clennon, who was also present for the controlled demolition. "I believe that was the work of Roy Arbogast, who set the charges. He was the man was responsible for the destruction of the outpost, which was pretty thorough. That was a memorable moment for me. I thought it was worth sticking around. Generally, I'd be happy to go back to the hotel, but I stuck around for a while to watch that from a good distance. But that was very impressive and I think it shows on screen ... It’s a very good effect among many, many spectacular effects in in the movie."
A Heart-Thumping Score
Cohen was present in British Columbia, but needed to head back to Los Angeles mid-shoot in order to screen an incomplete cut of the film for his wishlist composer, Ennio Morricone, the famed Italian composer known for his work on Sergio Leonne's Dollars trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns. "He said ‘No,’ twice actually," Cohen admits. "I phoned a friend to help us with the process, that friend being Bernardo Bertolucci, the film director who knew Ennio, and put it in a good word for me."
Morricone did sign on, but it took a second meeting at the Hotel Hassler in Rome ("in a small second floor conference room outfitted with a piano and a 3/4 inch VCR for the occasion," Cohen remembers) to fully convince him.
Several months later, Morricone came back to Los Angeles "with a valise, carrying the four electronic pieces that he had composed and then played for us," Cohen states. "And that was it in terms of a conversation. Very little really between John and Ennio. Morricone did his thing and then John went away and did his." As many fans know, the scoring process was far from cohesive and the soundtrack ended up being a mixture of cues from Morricone; Carpenter; and the director's longtime collaborator, Alan Howarth.
"John was a little conflicted about the entire thing," Cohen explains. "I knew that the decision to go with somebody other than himself was a very personal one. I was always convinced that the film needed orchestral components, as well as electronic, which meant that John would need to work with someone other than himself. Based on our mutual love of old music and great classical composers of the day, I had in mind a dramatic idea that John would work with the great established composer of his choice. And essentially, that's how it worked out, but John want’t entirely convinced and had to be talked into it a bit."
We spare Cohen the monotony of providing a detailed rundown of whose themes are whose, although he can say for certain that the famous "heartbeat theme" used for the opening helicopter chase "was Ennio channeling John." Carpenter and Howarth, on the other hand, provided the swelling "electronic tone" that plays over the opening credits. "That’s John's music underneath Ennio’s credit, which did not thrill the composer at the time because he didn’t know it was gonna happen."
A chunk of Morricone's unused music was repurposed 33 years later for Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, which also starred Kurt Russell in a story about mistrust among a group of people in a confined frozen location.
"I did not get a heads-up," Cohen says when asked if he knew about Tarantino snagging some Thing tracks ahead of time. "I was reading about it, actually. Tarantino was describing how Morricone wasn't available and then he said, ‘Well, maybe you could come to Rome, I can write a few things.' I was thinking, ‘Gee, this sounds just like how it worked out for John and myself.'"
The Much-Debated Ending
Even after all these years, fans still continue to debate the film's ambiguous ending. Was MacReady a Thing? Was Childs a Thing? Was neither of them the Thing? SYFY WIRE hoped to settle the discussion once and for all, but things (no pun intended) are rarely ever that simple. "I know who was the Thing in the end," Carpenter teases. "I know, but I'm not telling you ... I just feel like it's a secret that must be kept. The gods came down and swore me to secrecy."
"It’s been a long time since I've seen the movie, but I’m pretty sure someone was a Thing," Miller adds. "I'm not sure who, but I don't think the Thing was gone."
Cohen, however, is of the opinion that neither of the men was an alien. "I know the ending was designed to be deliberately ambiguous. This is the way Bill wrote it ... although he believed personally that both men are human at the end. I subscribe to this belief. But if John Carpenter tells you he knows who the Thing is at the end, believe him. Trust him. Just make sure the next time you ask the question, he takes a blood test first."
"It was a beautiful night, it was cold, we had just finished watching all these explosions all around the camp," David says of filming that final encounter between Mac and Childs. "As I remember, there were five cameras all around filming from different angles. I remember sitting around, watching [mimics sound of explosions] and how exciting that was, before we had to do the scene. It was winding down to the last day, so there are all those mixed emotions in that among the actors."
With no concrete answers available, viewers have come up with numerous explanations. One of the most prominent theories out there posits that the bottle Mac hands Childs is not full of whiskey, but gasoline. The reasoning goes that if Childs was infected, he wouldn't be able to tell the difference, but that logic falls apart when you remember that the alien is capable of imitating its victims perfectly on a cellular level.
"We were both drinking out of the same bottle, so why would that be gasoline and [why would] he not be as dead as I would be?" asserts David. "Those kinds of comments, I don't even pay attention to them, because they're kind of stupid. [Mac] really is not Houdini, so where would he have switched the bottles if that were the case?"
"I appreciate them, but they don't know what the hell they're talking about," Carpenter says of all the fan theories. "There are some hilarious ones. Everybody says, 'Well, he took a drink, so he must be contaminated.' Blah, blah, blah. On and on. I'm not speaking about it anymore."
Others claim that Childs is a Thing because he has no eye-light in those final moments. Again, this does not hold up to scrutiny, as that system was only applied for the blood test sequence (Cundey himself confirms this). A third hypothesis alleges that Childs must be infected because you can't see his breath in the below-freezing temperatures. David, however, provides the perfect counter-argument to this:
"I don't know the last time that you were in the cold and standing by a fire [but] if you're in the cold, more than likely the wind is blowing. Whether it's blowing hard or blowing soft, the wind has a direction. If the wind is blowing in my direction, and the heat from the fire is coming at me, you're not gonna see the smoke come out of my mouth the same way as if someone on the other side of the fire, where it is cold, and the smoke is coming out of his mouth. So that theory didn't hold water for me either because if you've ever been by a campfire [in the cold], you know what that looks like."
"There are no minute clues to identity in The Thing," Cohen declares. "The film was made to be seen on the big screen, the only standard then. No VHS, no Beta, no cable, no internet. We hoped people would come once, maybe twice, if we were lucky. The idea, flattering as it is, of folks looking at the film endlessly and parsing it for clues and meaning seems like something born of the ‘Easter egg’ mentality that exists today. John is pretty much a full frontal director. What you see is what you get."
"John never would reveal the answer or maybe never had an answer. He he just wanted to leave it hanging, so it would be an intriguing ending," Cundey muses, revealing that there was plenty of speculation amongst the crew during the shoot.
"We came up with various endings as we were working. [One such] ending [had] Kurt [as] the only one left, a helicopter comes in because Kurt's going to escape and then somehow, the creature gets on the helicopter, and goes to the Navy ship and starts the sequel. Or should the two of them be rescued and then we find out that the other character is really the Thing and he escaped on this Navy ship? There were all kinds of stories written, mostly by the crew, as we sat shivering."
Cohen elaborates on the "unseen, alternate ending with MacReady," which was shot at the suggestion of editor Todd Ramsay. "So John, to assuage his editor, made one shot. He wasn't thrilled about doing it. It wasn't all that great a shot, but he made it." The shot (never spliced into any version of the film or even seen by the studio) was filmed at the Hartland facility and showed Russell's character "sitting on a hospital gurney inside a room, in his half frozen state" after being rescued. "It would have been like a long, slow lap dissolve from the scene you now see, you’d hear the sounds of a helicopter rescue or something."
For Waites, the importance of the ending lies not in who might or might not be an imitation, but in how "no one trusts anyone anymore." Humanity's nasty habit of pointing fingers and making wild accusations is what makes The Thing so timeless (even more so than the '51 adaptation, whose obvious Red Scare allegory feels rather dated).
And while the '82 adaptation may have stood as a metaphor for the nascent AIDS crisis, its overarching message of eternal suspicion can be plugged into any time period and still feel shockingly relevant. "The idea that my standing next to you at a bar, I could get sick and die. You could be trying to overtake the species with your virus," Waites explains, drawing a parallel to the era of coronavirus. "That [John] had the prescience to know that our paranoia would just increase..."
"I think it means more if neither one of them is the Thing, and they're just gonna sit there until they freeze to death. It sure is bleak," adds Clennon. "I never resolved that in my own mind. I think the religion of American movies would not allow you to even entertain the idea that it was Kurt Russell because he's the star of the show and he brings the [whole] Kurt Russell thing to the movie, so it can’t be him. And I don't think it's Childs either. They're both right to be suspicious of each other. Given everything that we've seen, we know it’s possible that one of them is the Thing. But I also accept that they have to be suspicious. It’s possible that the Thing snatched Childs at some point and devoured him in six minutes and spit him back up again. But my personal take on it is that neither of them is the Thing and they're gonna die in the ruins of that outpost.
Despite the fact that Carpenter essentially birthed a lucrative new sub-genre of horror with Halloween several years before, the studio was hesitant to use the term "horror," Cohen reveals. "[It] was too narrow a catchword to apply. The Thing, they decreed, would be promoted as a full-bore science fiction thriller in a bid to emulate the marketing success of Alien several years earlier. You do not see the word 'horror' used in any way."
Miller was brought on board during production (around the spring of 1981) to help drum up excitement via magazine interviews (think Starlog, Cinemafantastique, Fangoria, and American Cinematographer), slideshow presentations at the World Science Fiction Convention and World Fantasy Convention, and a tie-in reprint of the original novella. "Sort of a little chapbook kind of thing, like a little pamphlet with a ‘John Carpenter's The Thing’ cover and the original John [W.] Campbell short story in it."
Universal also held a "Draw the Thing" contest:
"We had special blank sheets of paper that said ‘John Carpenter's The Thing.’ We had one drawing of the Thing as the full creature and one paragraph quote from the original short story that described the ever-changing horror of the creature. And then we had the contest for people to draw their image of the Thing. The winner of the contest got a trip for two to Universal Studios, a stay at the Universal Sheraton, a studio tour. I think they came to the set of The Thing. We got hundreds and hundreds of entries at both that convention and others. Some silly drawings, some not so great drawings, but a few terrific drawings."
It was also during this time that storied illustrator Drew Struzan whipped up the famous theatrical poster of the lone figure in thick winter gear standing in the middle of a frozen landscape as a bright light shoots out of their hood.
"Despite its now iconic status among fans, we were unenthusiastic about Drew's work when it was dropped unceremoniously on our desks the week after the first preview with a note attached saying 'This is IT,'" Cohen says. "We thought it evidence the studio had panicked and [relegated The Thing] to B movie status. Halloween II in the snow. John Carpenter said, 'They might as well have painted a bloody knife in the guy's hand.' And two years after assiduously avoiding the man in the suit idea for the monster, what did we have? A man in a suit."
The equally famous tagline of "Man Is The Warmest Place To Hide" came courtesy of Steven Frankfurt (hired at Cohen's insistence), the same advertising whiz who came up with "In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream" for Alien.
"Could he do the same for us?" muses Cohen. "He could, and we were thrilled with 'Man Is The Warmest Place To Hide,' which is what he came up with. We hated the tagline that replaced it here, 'The Ultimate in Alien Terror,' which was the handiwork of Universal President Sid Sheinberg, who was desperate to get the word 'Alien' above our title to reference Ridley Scott's film. The European one sheet is closer to our original idea for an ad campaign and restored Frankfurt's tagline to its rightful place."
An Ominous Opening
The Thing opened in theaters everywhere on June 25, 1982 — just two weeks after the release of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (and on the same day as Blade Runner). By that point, moviegoers had already fallen head over heels for the squat cosmic visitor with a taste for Reese's Pieces, and didn't exactly know what to make of Carpenter's graphic and nihilistic slow-burn that The New York Times dubbed "instant junk." Even Christian Nyby, director of The Thing from Another World, publicly bashed the film.
"Certainly, some people loved it, even at the time, and horror fans really dug it," Miller says, "but I just think it overwhelmed too many people. And so, it didn't get the audience it deserved." Had the film been released a few decades later, it may have fared a better chance at the box office. "The internet allows us do so much more in terms of getting buzz out there, getting people to understand what they're going to be able to see, what they're going to be seeing." He knew the film was in trouble at the first public screening: "It wasn't studio people, it was people we'd invited. Just the level of reaction, I was beginning to fear it was too much."
He continues: "In many ways, the film was ahead of its time. I wouldn't say it's mild, but it's not out of line with other horror films [of today]. But in the early 1980s, the horror was so much, [that] audiences were literally terrified. I'm pretty well convinced that the reason the film didn't do better at the time was it really overwhelmed a good portion of the audience just with the horror of the creature."
"They hated it. They thought it was too violent, too gory," echoes Cohen. "That was a sense that we were getting. Nobody was saying any of the elements that the film is prized for today: the creeping tension, the walls closing in, claustrophobia. Nobody paid attention to any of that."
"People liked the cuddly more than they liked the fear," Frank says. "It was softer. Ours was a little harsh compared to E.T. ... It was ahead of its time."
"It wasn't marketed," declares Polis. "They gave it two weeks of marketing. Cat People was supposed to open that weekend. They were so far behind on that and we finished up, the film was ready. They were gonna give us months of marketing and suddenly, they just shoved it into that position between E.T. and Poltergeist. E.T. was such a worldwide phenomenon, we just didn't have a chance."
Cohen clarifies that Cat People came out in March of that year and "had nothing to do with us at all."
He continues: "Universal lost faith in the film, but they still tried to promote it. They were conflicted about how to promote the film, certainly, and that showed up in the advertising, but it had a decent [marketing] budget of three-and-a-half million dollars, most of it being print at that time ... Not only were we were we blindsided and submerged by the tidal wave of good will that came from E.T., [but] the fact that was made by the same studio, the same marketing department, same advertising department really had an effect on us coming two weeks later. We were really considered the poor stepchild."
Ironically, Cohen received a call about three months before The Thing's release from Universal's head of distribution, who told the producer that the studio was really counting on the movie to carry the brunt of summer ticket sales.
"I said, ‘Well really? Why?’ And he said, ‘Well, we've just seen E.T. and we think it's soft. ‘Soft?’ I said. He said, ‘Yes, we think it's for children. We don't think anyone else will come. So we're really counting on you guys to grab the teenage audience and carry us through.’ I said, ‘Well, that's great. Thanks a lot.’ I went next door to John and said, ‘Do you believe this?’ This is the first we’d heard anything about E.T. and we had trouble believing it. But maybe it was true. Anyway, that was Universal’s initial reaction, the studio didn't know what it had on its hands until they previewed E.T. later that month."
And even though Universal had included The Thing trailer in nearly 1,000 prints of E.T., no one seemed interested. "Our trailer was being seen by more people on that day than any other in motion picture history," Cohen says. "I went down to the Cinerama Dome for that reason to see the trailer with the film along with David Foster [and] there was no reaction whatsoever. This ultra-sold out crowd of grandmothers with their grandkids [there was] no reaction at all, really. I had a feeling that we were in trouble. And we were. There’s a toxic stew of reasons why I think the film failed, but the zeitgeist was a big part of it."
"It was a disaster," Maloney adds. "No one came to see it. No one wanted to see it. They pulled it from the theaters ... Universal thought we were gonna save their ass. They were in terrible danger as a company and they had put their bets on John Carpenter's The Thing."
Produced on a modest budget of $15 million, the film brought in less than $20 million at the domestic box office, and Carpenter's career took a serious hit. "I wish we’d had the opportunity to really sell The Thing for the level of what it was, and to get audiences prepared going in without doing one of those cheesy, ‘We’ll have nurses in the theater lobby!’-kind of thing," Miller explains. "But those kinds of pictures never expected a lot of people to go see them. The Thing really wanted a large audience."
The last four decades have been incredibly kind to the movie, which is finally recognized as an unparalleled cinematic triumph, whose impact on popular culture cannot be understated. "I don't know if it's gone to masterpiece yet," says a humble Carpenter. "I know a lot of people have re-examined the film and have nice things to say about it now ... It's a lot like my work. It's kind of damned at first."
"It's amazing how home video and cable really saved so many of these kinds of films," Miller continues. "Now, you hear from people who absolutely loved The Thing, absolutely loved The Last Starfighter or The Dark Crystal. We just didn't get them in the theaters at the time. None of these movies did terribly. They weren't huge disasters or anything, but they weren't the hits everyone had hoped for."
"It's unfortunate that The Thing didn't get the juice that it has gotten over these last 40 years," David says. "It's a film that really holds up well, and I think it's one of John's best. We had a kick-ass cast, it was a good story, there were so many wonderful things about it. But at the time that it came out, it did not get the accolades that it has consequently gotten over the years. That's the only thing I can say about it because it was wonderful working with John Carpenter. He's a wonderful filmmaker, and I wish he was still as active today because I would work with him anytime."
"Obviously, we were stunned because we thought this was a sure hit," Babasin admits. "We were all working on it, looking at this stuff in real time, and if it looked good to us in real time, it was going to kick ass on camera. It’s easier to fool the camera than it is to fool the eyes, so we were really disappointed and Carpenter didn't deserve that. He was such a genius at doing this and [he was], of course, ahead of his time, as they like to say. But to now to see it get the critical acclaim it's receiving, is just so rewarding. To see Dean and John get their just desserts, it's very satisfying."
"Justice has prevailed," Waites proclaims. "I feel so vindicated, mostly for John. He risked his reputation on doing his movie his way, which is what a director is supposed to do. And because he did it, he suffered immediate backlash. But ultimately, 'The truth will out,' as Shakespeare would say. Whether you're a science fiction fan or a horror fan or just a cinema fan, you sit and watch it and you get pulled in by the music, by the cinematography, by the camera movement."
Maloney has witnessed profound cultural resonance firsthand at a number of fan conventions: "The movie means a lot to people. When you sit at a table signing autographs and three generations of a family come up dressed as cast members of The Thing ... a grandfather, father and the grandson. They're standing there and ask you to say your lines that they remember [because] they've memorized your lines. They say, 'Say that line that we like!' And we do, and they have tears in their eyes."
"It's always a pleasant surprise to me to find out that people really have something to say about the film and about the larger world," Clennon explains. "I say that, even though I don't fully understand the drawing power of the film. I don't fully get it ... There must be something there because the people I'm engaging with are very bright, thoughtful people. So they're getting something out of this film. They see it and they take something away, and they go back to it again. They revisit it and that’s intriguing to me."
While the intervening decades have brought about a great deal of deferred acclaim, they have also brought the unfortunate passing of several cast members: Charles Hallahan (1943-1997), Richard Dysart (1929-2015), Donald Moffat (1930-2018), and Wilford Brimley (1934-2020).
"[What] makes me sigh a little bit is how many of these guys aren't here anymore," Masur admits. "Dysart's gone, Moffat's gone, Charlie's gone, Wilford's gone. And then there are a few of us who are chasing up close behind them now."
The men may not live forever, but the close relationships they shared certainly will.
"You really couldn't wait to get to work every day — whether it was Wil Brimley doing rope tricks or Kurt telling stories ... whatever the day brought," Waites says. "Oftentimes, we would go out afterwards and get to know each other. [We'd] hang out and had a lot of laughs, man, a lot of fun. Under John's auspices, we forged a bond."
"We got pretty close," echoes Maloney. "As close as you can get, working together for six months on a movie [and] coming from all different backgrounds, different disciplines and training. I think about those guys and how wonderful it was to [work] with them and what a privilege it was to be in a movie with them. The human side of it."
Legacy From Another World
In 2011, Universal Pictures attempted to reboot the property with a prequel film (also titled The Thing), which depicted the events at the Norwegian camp and led directly into the events of the 1982 classic. Written by Eric Heisserer (Arrival) and directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. (The Forgotten Battle), the project eerily repeated Hollywood history as a critical and box office misfire, with many audience members pointing to the fact that its unconvincing CGI did not hold a candle to Bottin's achievements.
As fate would have it, Cundey was "approached early on" to serve as director of photography on the prequel, "but they had already committed to somebody else," he reveals. "The fact that it was shot on a stage in a backlot with a lot of green screen — all the stuff that we we didn't do — was obviously more convenient and comfortable for them. The fact was they took a different approach and when I saw their film, I thought, 'Well, interesting, but it didn't have some of the same feel of the original.'"
"Even though ours is a remake, there was a good reason to remake it," Maloney explains. "Because when they made the  original, they didn't have the technology to do what we did. They also didn't have the money to do what we did. And so, I excuse it on that level and say it's a totally different thing."
"I had plenty of chances to check it out and I never did. I was I was kind of curious about it. I feel like I should see it," Clennon concludes. "I understood two things about it and maybe maybe I'm wrong. [Firstly is] that the color palette that they used was very similar to the original Thing. The look of the film, the costumes, the colors, everything was very similar to the original. And then I heard a rumor that most of the special effects were practical, but that somebody higher up decided that they had to be CGI. That seemed like a terrible waste. Because I think I heard that the practical effects were quite good and there was no good reason to replace them with CGI."
If Carpenter had to choose a worthy successor to his movie, he'd probably go with the 2002 PlayStation 2 video game that picks up directly after the events of the '82 film. "That was fun, and I was in it," says the avid gamer, referring to the character of Dr. Sean Faraday, whose appearance was based on that of Carpenter, though it should be noted that the director did not record any dialogue. "It's a lot of fun and I'm happy to have my visage in it."
Funnily enough, the director's notorious love of video games was already apparent on the set of The Thing. "John used to play video games on the set in between takes and he would beat the machine every day," Waites recalls. "It was Pong, he would be playing it in between takes because it takes forever to set up [certain shots]."
In the mid-2000s, SYFY toyed around the idea with a television miniseries from future Aquaman screenwriter, David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, and The Shawshank Redemption director, Frank Darabont. The idea never materialized on our screens, mainly owing to the fact that the studio opted to reboot the property on the big screen.
Back in early 2020, however, it was reported that a new reboot — partially based on "lost" John W. Campbell Jr. material — had entered development. Appearing at the Fantasia film festival several that summer, Carpenter revealed that he and Blumhouse were directly involved with the project.
He refused to give up any details at the time and continues to stick to that caginess when we broach the subject. "Maybe ... we'll see," he says. What the hell do I know? That's the theme of my career. Write [this] down... John Carpenter: 'What the hell do I know?' No one tells me anything." He also declined to speak hypothetically on the reboot when asked about what he'd like to see out of it. "I'm not gonna tell you that. That would be something I would figure out and do and then you would discover it in the movie theater."
The cast, on the other hand, is a different story. Polis would like to see "some great CGI" and a story that brings the property "up to date," especially in a post-COVID world. "If I had to do it over again, I would have been in a hazmat suit when we brought that Thing into the rec room — if we brought that thing into the rec room [at all]. I didn't watch it for years and when I saw it, I went, 'Whoa, we missed that.' Things like that bring it up into our [21st century] understanding of science and contagion."
David would like to see "a good movie — something that holds up and is worthy of the hype."
Maloney isn't big on the idea of reboots, but wishes the studio good fortune. "I hope they make money for themselves, but does it really interest me? No, I don't have any interest. They could fool me. They could say, 'Well, Peter, we've redone it. Bennings is dead, but we want you to be in it!' If they said that, I'd be happy to do it because of John."
Similarly, Masur doesn't see much value in rebooting a film "that worked really, really well. What you need to do is take something that didn't quite work, but should have. That's makes for a great remake, where it just misses or some piece of it doesn't come together or you do something where you flip it."
"I'd like to see John Carpenter's influence," Waites concludes. "I'd like to see them ask John to write the script or ask John to produce it or ask John to influence it in some way."
Cohen has no interest in seeing "the further adventures of Childs and MacReady," but is open to a reimagining of the source material. "You’d need a visionary director, somebody very special. You could contemporize it [or] you could set it in1938. Analog radios [and an] analog monster. Hell, do it with the cast of the [Royal Shakespeare Company] and give it to Gaspar Noé. You could put in a big frozen soundstage at Pinewood. That sounds interesting to me. There are other ways you can go with it, but I think that in terms of a sequel to this movie, I say no. I think that there is more plot you could do with MacReady and Childs, I’m not sure if there's more story. I think the story has been told about as well as it can be by John — and it should be left well enough alone. But I think I'm the minority in that."
Babasin wants a return to "the real, practical effects" on the reboot, recalling his time on Jaws 2. "There was nothing like being on a ship, towing a shark, and being able to control the jaws opening and closing as it's attacking a sailboat. You just don't do that in a computer format. You've got to be out there on a boat pulling a shark! It's the real deal. I know everybody always bemoans the way things were, but I really think it was superior in a lot of ways."
The Thing is now streaming on Peacock.