It's comforting to know that the critics can be dead wrong, especially when it comes to science fiction. Case in point: despite being known today as a classic of horror and sci-fi, John Carpenter's The Thing was initially torn apart by critics, who called it (among other things) "the quintessential moron movie of the '80s."
It wasn't just cinema snobs, either — everyone hated it upon release. According to Carpenter himself:
"I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit… The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane. Even the original movie's director, Christian Nyby, was dissing me."
Now The Thing is considered a cult classic and a pop culture staple. It regularly shows up in lists of the best horror films ever, not to mention Empire's Top 500 Movies of All Time. What caused the huge shift between the film's release in 1982 and now? To answer that question, we're going to need an autopsy.
THE TERROR TAKES SHAPE
The original inspiration for The Thing came from a short story by sci-fi author John Campbell, titled Who Goes There?, which was turned into the influential 1950s sci-fi monster movie called The Thing from Another World, directed by Christian Nyby. Carpenter's 1982 remake broke from Nyby's version (which had a Frankenstein-like vegetable monster) and stuck closer to Campbell's novella instead: scientists in the Antarctic discover an ancient alien spaceship in the ice, which contains a shape-shifting alien monster that has the power to infect and imitate whatever it come into contact with. This causes the isolated research station to devolve into a paranoid mess as everyone tries to figure out who's been infected.
From the beginning, Carpenter's film featured a lot of horrific special effects (including the infamous kennel scene where the alien-dog hybrid is shown for the first time).
The monster's many shapes were the product of Rob Bottin, who admitted when pitching his creature ideas to Carpenter that he wasn't sure how he'd pull them off. That was fine with Carpenter:
"What I didn't want to end up with in this movie was a guy in a suit," Carpenter said. "See, I grew up as a kid watching science-fiction monster movies, and it was always a guy in a suit."
However, as the film came together, Carpenter and editor Todd Ramsay realized that the ending might be too dark and "nihilistic." Despite filming alternative happy endings for the movie, Carpenter decided to keep it the way it was. In the 1998 documentary The Thing: Terror Takes Shape, Carpenter said the film can be seen as a metaphor for the breakdown of trust in the world, but whatever the interpretation audiences came up with, the Thing "always comes from within."
"The Thing," Carpenter said, "has a lot of truth in it, dressed up as a monster."
Unfortunately, moviegoers only saw the monster.
THE MONSTER AND THE CRITICS
Let's take a quick sample of the 1982 reviews of The Thing:
Astonishingly, Carpenter blows it. There's a big difference between shock effects and suspense, and in sacrificing everything at the altar of gore, Carpenter sabotages the drama. The Thing is so single-mindedly determined to keep you awake that it almost puts you to sleep.
John Carpenter's The Thing is a foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is fun as neither one thing or the other… a virtually storyless feature composed of lots of laboratory-concocted special effects, with the actors used merely as props to be hacked, slashed, disemboweled and decapitated…
Designer Rob Bottin's work is novel and unforgettable, but since it exists in a near vacuum emotionally, it becomes too domineering dramatically and something of an exercise in abstract art.
Yeah, that's about as scathing as you can get.
The film stayed at #8 in the box office and made $19.6 million against a budget of $15 million. Carpenter was heavily impacted by The Thing's perceived failure, but by 1998 the movie was already making a strong comeback on home video—in fact, it was already regarded as a cult hit. By 2008, it was named one of Empire's 500 Best Films of All Time, where it was called "a peerless masterpiece of relentless suspense, retina-wrecking visual excess and outright, nihilistic terror."
Looking back, there were three major things that doomed The Thing on release — first was the 1950s version. When fans heard Carpenter was doing a remake of Nyby's classic, they expected a rubber suit. Instead, they got gallons of KY jelly. But separated from those expectations, the 1982 version shines:
There is a case for arguing that the Carpenter version goes as far as genre movies normally dare, if not further, in questioning not just the nature of humanity under stress but its value. Faced by the alien, the humans themselves become inhuman in every possible way.
By modern standards, The Thing's special effects aren't nearly as realistic or scandalously graphic as, say, The Human Centipede, but when they hit screens in the '80s, they were shockingly disgusting. Most of the criticism that the Thing's special effects steal the show and become a form of "abstract art" or worse, turn it into a "barf-bag movie," comes from a generation of movie critics who hadn't dealt with the kind of gore dished out by franchises like Saw or Hellraiser. Guardian writer Anne Billson sums it up well:
Television shows such as ER or CSI have so inured today's audiences to gushing wounds and gruesome autopsies that it's hard to imagine a time when scenes of Wilford Brimley foraging around in the Thing's alien carcass could have so offended tender sensibilities.
Carpenter was right when he said that the Thing comes from within — 30 years after its release, the special effects and plot has stayed the same, but audiences have changed.