A master of mood, John Carpenter highlighted seclusion and paranoia in his (at the time) under-appreciated science fiction/horror mash-up. Critics slammed the director and box office receipts were disappointing, but as time passed, the film has gained popularity with reviewers and audiences alike. The Thing now sits on several “best of” lists, including Film.com’s “Best films of 1982” and Bravo’s “100 Scariest Movie Moments.” Though Kurt Russell provides a solid antihero we want to see get out alive, it is the mind-bogglingly insane, mutating alien that steals the show and leaves us wanting to crawl out of our own skin.
1. Director John Carpenter (Big Trouble in Little China, Halloween, Ghost of Mars, Christine, They Live, The Fog) identified The Thing as the first film in what he calls his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” Prince of Darkness and Into the Mouth of Madness complete the set. This was the director’s first big studio film, about which he said “The most incredible part of making a studio film was the amount of professionalism you could put into a scene. To do the blood test, acting, costumes, special effects—it would be very difficult without the studio and (their) team.”
2. The film is based on John W. Campbell, Jr.’s short story, Who Goes There?. A controversial editor (Astounding Science Fiction) and writer (Twilight, Night, The Incredible Planet), Campbell is credited with having shaped modern science fiction and Isaac Asimov called Campbell “The most powerful force in science fiction ever…” Who Goes There? had previously been adapted to film (by Howard Hawks) in 1951 as The Thing from Another World; Carpenter’s film is more faithful to the novella. A prequel to Carpenter’s film, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. (Red Rain) was released in 2011.
3. Carpenter and Kurt Russell began working on The Thing immediately following Escape from New York; this was their third film together (including the television movie, “Elvis”) and the pair continued collaborating with Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from L.A.. Of Carpenter, Russell has said, “”I feel like I have a smarter, older brother in John.” Carpenter on Russell: “Friendship aside and aside from the fact he’s so damned agreeable, he’s trained—the kind of training a lot of actors never get. To him, being in front of a camera is second nature. Instinctively, he knows where the camera is and how to play to it. Directors love actors like that.”
4. The director wanted to begin the film with a flying saucer in space, headed toward Earth and in homage to The Thing from Another World, have the titles “burning away. We copied the original Thing logo exactly.”
But because of the DGA (Director’s Guild Association) stipulations and contracts, “it didn’t work out.” Carpenter said the sequence was “a little strange.”
5. The opening scene was filmed in Alaskan ice fields, above Juneau. They were “…up there a couple of weeks and didn’t realize there aren’t many clear days. It gets foggy and you can’t see anything.” Carpenter noted that the helicopter shots were all second unit photography and of the flying scenes said, “I hadn’t learned to fly yet…this is one of the things that made me want to learn.” Bush pilots were hired to fly the choppers; Russell called them “Fearless…wild men. One of them offered to crash a helicopter for money.” Russell’s brother-in-law (at the time), Associate Producer and first AD Larry Franco, is seen leaning out of the helicopter. Carpenter also lamented not being able to get any beer. “We tried to send helicopters to get it, but the locals didn’t help out too much.” Russell was upset he forgot his skis.
6. Carpenter and Russell discussed that MacReady (Russell) was likely a Vietnam veteran, an alcoholic and a true loner—a character who never wanted to assume leadership, but was forced to by circumstance. A chagrined Russell said, “The hat was already established” when he came on board.
7. Of debuting two weeks after ET, Carpenter said, “Theirs was sweet, ours was mean. At the time, it (The Thing) was a horrifying, repellant film—now it’s just a regular action film. With all the crazy things that happened, what the audience couldn’t stand were the needles in the blood test scenes.” People have told him, “The needle is the worst shot.” Camera operator Ray Stella volunteered his arms for all the needle sticks—“He said he could do it all day.”
8. Carpenter said there was a lot of improv and re-writing on set. His biggest challenge as a director was having so many characters that it was difficult to tell them apart at times—“I probably screwed up”—and the scenes with all the actors in a room together (“I didn’t know how to make it interesting”).
9. Of Wilford Brimley (Cocoon, The China Syndrome, Did You Hear About the Morgans?) who played Dr. Blair, Carpenter declared “One of the great all time people. He’s the real thing, it’s impossible to ever do anything phony—he’s who he is.” Brimley had no problem doing the autopsy shots, “He was a real cowboy.” (Before becoming an actor, Brimley worked as a wrangler and a ranch hand, a blacksmith, a bodyguard for Howard Hughes, and he began his acting career as a stunt man.) “Wilfred loved his character. His favorite moment was opening the Thing up and pulling out what was underneath.” Brimley told the director, “You know it stinks when you open up these things.” Shooting a particularly tense scene, Carpenter asked what the actor was thinking about and Brimley replied, “Oh, picking up my laundry.”
10. Carpenter was “amazed” while working with Jed (White Fang, The Journey of Natty Gann), a Malamute-wolf mix. The dog was so well-trained, during scenes he would not look at the director, the camera or crew. Filming the scene with all the dogs “was difficult…when Jed comes into the caged area, all the other dogs want to jump on him.” As the Thing reveals itself, the other “poor little dog just wanted to get out of there. The Humane Society was on set the entire time.” The tentacles are whips that Effects man Rob Bottin (Robocop, King Kong , The Howling, Legend, Se7en, Fight Club) was operating, “much like Indiana Jones.” Because of Bottin’s busy schedule, the dog Thing was created by Stan Winston (Iron Man, Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Edward Scissorhands). The slime emitted from the Thing is carbopol, (according to Carpenter) “the stuff inside Twinkies.”
11. This was the first time Carpenter had actors using a real flamethrower; they had two on set. Keith David (Platoon, Mr.& Mrs. Smith, The Chronicles of Riddick) ran in with it, the set was put on fire and then the fire put out. The next day, Kurt Russell played a prank on Carpenter, showing up in bandages and saying he couldn’t work because he’d been burned. “Everyone kept a straight face.”
12. Carpenter called Richard Masur (Risky Business, It, “Bored to Death”) brilliant; “The subtlety and fear that builds in the scene between his character, Clark and Brimley’s Dr. Blair is where the movie really begins.” One guy is getting suspicious of another, they start viewing the tapes of the Norwegian camps and getting the backstory of the saucer’s unearthing. When the men go to investigate the crater and saucer, the foreground and actors are real—the background and saucer are an Albert Whitlock matte painting. The cliff though, is real and Russell spoke of how frightening it was—“If you didn’t know where the next step was, you could literally drop 500 feet.”
13. The computer animation graphics were designed by Carpenter’s college friend, John Wash—he also did graphics for Escape from New York. Carpenter noted that someone who had previewed The Thing said the graphics wouldn’t have existed at the time; “Now when you look at it, it’s so crude. It looks like (Carpenter’s favorite video game) Asteroids.” The director put the segment in to explain how the Thing could basically take over the population of Earth. “This will be an apocalypse if action is not taken.” Russell spoke of the crew having many discussions “…over whether you would know you were the Thing. Would you try to hide it or act normal? We finally realized you couldn’t ever possibly figure it out. But it was fun to think about.”
14. Russell and Carpenter both brought up the fact that there were no women in the film. The director said that hadn’t happened in a long time. Carpenter’s wife at the time, Adrienne Barbeau (“Maude, Carnivàle,” The Fog, Creepshow) did provide the computer voice.
15. In this scene, when the group must work together to subdue Blair, Keith David’s left hand is hidden. The actor had broken it in a car accident; they put a glove over it and painted it black to hide it. Carpenter said he ran two cameras and “let Will go.” Brimley “was worried about the scuffle—there were nine guys charging him.”
16. Carpenter: “When Dysart’s Copper checks out the open bags of blood and all the men come into room, it was probably the biggest nightmare (of his) as a director. I walked in and all the actors were ready with their lines and I had no idea what to do…it turned out terrific, but I had no clue how to do it the morning I got there. Paranoia is the most disturbing part of the movie. Men—under these conditions without a leader—it comes down to a grim scene. It seems to easy to direct movies when you’re looking at them, but boy when you get out and do them, it’s tough.” The blood burning scene was written on location.
Kurt Russell: “I like to—at this point in a movie—think, If I were there, what would I be doing?” John: “I think I’d be on the floor crying.”
17. “The blood test brings up AIDS.” At the time he was making the movie, Carpenter said he “…was reading about a new disease. People were dying, it was oddly similar because you couldn’t tell who had it—didn’t know what was causing it, or how you got it.”
18. The director called this the “Craziest effects scene, trying to revive Charlie Hallahan (Norris)—everything was built in this set—he had to lay down there for eight hours.” Russell laughed through the entire scene. Carpenter: “Pretty disgusting, isn’t it?”
19. “Rob Bottin came up with everything—the head starts to grow appendages and walk—it was operated from under the floor. The Thing in the background was radio controlled.” Russell asserted that the best line in the movie is Palmer’s (David Clennon) reaction: “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding.”
20. Blowing up the camp is “An experience I’ll never forget as long as I live.” Carpenter said he “…couldn’t believe what it felt like to blow up shacks of that size; remote cameras were used to film the sequence.” The director was nervous, even with the fire department standing by. “I’d hate to be responsible for burning down Burbank.”
After much discussion over whether MacReady should or shouldn’t be assimilated, Russell came up with the final moment. Carpenter extremely happy with it. Russell: “The only thing we did know was that MacReady was not.” Carpenter: “He could be.” (Both men laughed.)
Cindy Davis is not a thing.