The Thing – USA, 1982

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‘Man is the warmest place to hide’

The Thing – also known as John Carpenter’s The Thing – is a 1982 American science fiction horror feature film directed by John Carpenter (Vampires; ChristineHalloween, The Fog), written by Bill Lancaster, and starring Kurt Russell (They Live, Escape From New York).

The film’s title refers to its primary antagonist: a parasitic extraterrestrial lifeform that assimilates other organisms and in turn imitates them. The Thing infiltrates an Antarctic research station, taking the appearance of the researchers that it absorbs, and paranoia develops within the group.

The Thing is based on John W. Campbell, Jr.’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, which was more loosely adapted by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby as the 1951 film The Thing from Another World. 

Carpenter considers The Thing to be the first part of his Apocalypse Trilogy, followed by Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness. Although the films are narratively unrelated, each features a potentially apocalyptic scenario; should “The Thing” ever reach civilisation, it would be only a matter of time before it consumes humanity.

On 20 November 2017, The Thing was re-released by Arrow Video, upgraded to 4K Blu-ray.

Buy Blu-ray: Amazon.co.uk

  • Brand new restoration from a 4K scan of the original negative, supervised and approved by director John Carpenter and director of photography Dean Cundey
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original Mono and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Audio commentary by John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell
  • Who Goes There? In Search of The Thing an all-new feature-length documentary produced by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures exploring the history of The Thing, from the original novella to John Carpenter’s terrifying science fiction classic. Featuring new interviews with the cast and crew, as well as authors, historians, and critics
  • 1982: One Amazing Summer an all-new retrospective documentary produced by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures about the unforgettable films released in the summer of 1982
  • John Carpenter’s The Thing: Terror Takes Shape archive documentary on the background and production of the film
  • Vintage Featurettes
  • Outtakes
  • Behind-the-scenes
  • Trailers, Teasers, TV and Radio Spots
  • Still Galleries
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin

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Buy: Amazon.com

On September 20, 2016, Scream Factory released the film on Blu-ray in North America.

• 2K scan of the Inter-positive supervised and approved by director of photography Dean Cundey
• 4.1 sound created from the original 70mm Six Track Dolby Stereo soundtrack
• Audio Commentary with director of photography Dean Cundey
• The Men of Outpost 31 – interviews with Keith David, Thomas Waites, Peter Maloney and more…
• Assembling and Assimilation – an interview with editor Todd Ramsay
• Behind the Chameleon – interviews with visual effects artists Peter Kuran and Susan Turner, special make-up effects artist Rob Burman and Brian Wade and more….
• Sounds from the Cold – interviews with supervising sound editor David Lewis Yewdall and special sound effects designer Alan Howarth
• Between the Lines – an interview with novelization author Alan Dean Foster
• Audio Commentary by director John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell
• John Carpenter’s The Thing: Terror Takes Shape – a documentary on the making of The Thing featuring interviews with John Carpenter, Kurt Russell, special effects make-up designer Rob Bottin, legendary matte artist Albert Whitlock plus members of the cast and crew (80 minutes – SD)
• Outtakes (5 minutes – SD)
• Vintage featurettes from the electronic press kit featuring interviews with John Carpenter, Kurt Russell and Rob Bottin (12 minutes – SD)
• Vintage featurettes – The Making of a Chilling Tale and The Making of The Thing (1982 – 14 minutes – SD)
• Vintage Product Reel – contains a promotional condensed version of the film with additional footage not in the film (19 minutes – SD)
• Vintage Behind-the-Scenes footage (2 minutes – SD)
• Annotated Production Archive – Production Art and Storyboards, Location Scouting, Special Make-up Effects, Post Production (48 minutes – SD)
• Network TV Broadcast version of The Thing (92 minutes – SD)
• Teaser Trailer & Theatrical Trailers (U.S. and German Trailer)
• TV spots & Radio Spots
• Still Gallery (behind-the-scenes photos, posters and lobby cards)

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In the Antarctic, a Norwegian helicopter pursues a seemingly normal dog to an American research station, a marksman aboard taking pot-shots along the way. Upon landing the helicopter, a Norwegian accidentally drops a grenade, destroying the helicopter and killing the pilot. A surviving Norwegian pursues the dog, firing a rifle until he is killed by Garry (Donald Moffat, Monster in the Closet), the station commander.

The Americans send a helicopter pilot, MacReady (Russell), and doctor Copper (Richard Dysart, Prophecy) to the Norwegian camp for answers but they find a charred ruin. Outside, they discover the burned remains of a humanoid corpse with two faces, which they bring back with them. Biologist Blair (Wilfred Brimley, The China Syndrome) performs an autopsy on the corpse, finding a normal set of human internal organs.

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The attention-seeking dog is placed safely in kennels, whereupon it immediately proves unsafe, opting to change into a grotesque monstrosity, a flame-thrower being employed by mechanic, Childs (Keith David, They Live) to prevent it harming both the other animals and the humans at the base. Putting their collective foot on the ball, they perform an autopsy of the mutilated mess of the dog, as well as investigating the Norwegians’ journals.

The findings are not promising, Blair discovering that the life-form imitates its host perfectly, evidently, the inhabitant of a spacecraft found buried in the ice for millennia, now on the prowl. Blair’s hypothesis is that with such an advantage over Man, it could take over the world, by stealth in next to no time. As such, he shows true fighting spirit and points the finger at everyone else, already suspicious that another of his colleagues could be playing host.

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Blair’s fears are confirmed when meteorologist, Bennings (Peter Maloney, The Amityville Horror, Manhunter) goes both gooey and sprouty and is given the torch treatment by the radio operator, Windows (Thomas G. Waites) before he can transform completely. Blair meanwhile, has gone loopy, killing the remaining dogs and destroying their only transport and is locked up in a shed.

With everyone now deemed under suspicion, all the team is subjected to a blood test which is hoped will determine friend from foe – in a tense scene, MacReady is presumed guilty before trial and threatens to dynamite the base to pieces unless everyone comes to their senses. This doesn’t go strictly to plan, with a ghoulish harlequinade of legs, teeth and tentacles giving more than a quick hint as to some of the ‘men’s’ identities.

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The remaining men consider their options and first turn their attention to the AWOL Blair who appears to be as inhuman as the suspected, not only escaping but evidently part-way through building a spacecraft to escape in. The station’s power generator is found destroyed and in a somewhat circular plot device, they realise they have been left to freeze to death, their eventual rescuers doomed to suffer the same fate as the rest of their men. Ultimately only two survive – but who are they really and what will become of them?

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Review:

In 1982, Carpenter’s star could scarcely have shone brighter, Halloween, The Fog and Escape From New York cementing him firmly as America’s most consistent and exciting new director. The Thing would be his first under the umbrella of a major studio, Universal. With a source novella and film version, of which Carpenter was extremely fond, the screenplay was entrusted to the relatively un-tested Bill Lancaster, son of screen legend, Burt. Lancaster junior was unfamiliar with either of the two earlier sources, a poisoned chalice or huge advantage, depending on your viewpoint. His vision was to concentrate on the men themselves, their paranoia and lack of trust being at least the equal of the other menace at the base.

With the action of the film beginning part-way through a crucial incident integral to the plot, we are immediately put on edge and are as in the dark as the rest of the camp, discovering the background to the Norwegian incident at the same time as them. Ultimately, even by the film’s end, we are left to make our own conclusions, the film being most concerned with the aftermath and nature of fear itself, rather than the mechanics of the reasons for the events happening.

Incredibly, despite the film being particularly talky and an unusually large cast (considering the small filming area) all with necessarily individual quirks and motives, the script remained essentially untouched throughout shooting, save for the odd name change and budgetary reining in of some planned effects work.

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The film was shot near the small town of Stewart in northern British Columbia and the research station built by the crew during summer, with the movie shot in sub-freezing winter conditions. The only female presence in the narrative is the voice of a chess computer, voiced by Carpenter regular (and then-wife) Adrienne Barbeau, as well as the female contestants viewed on a videotaped episode of Let’s Make a Deal.

The all-male cast has provoked a certain amount of criticism over the years, ranging from Carpenter exhibiting macho chest-beating, to a very basic anti-female bent. The lack of female characters was certainly intentional and adds an unusual texture to the film – the decisions made are often knee-jerk and regrettably far-reaching, the lack of a clear alternative viewpoint ramping up the odds and the tension. MacReady is regularly discredited and both science and fight or flight are all met with similarly disastrous results. It is also entirely reasonable for a late-70’s/early 80’s Government-funded scientific project would be all-male in any case.

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The Thing took three months to shoot on six artificially frozen sound stages in Los Angeles, with many of the crew and actors working in cold conditions. The final weeks of shooting took place in northern British Columbia, near the border with Alaska, where snow was guaranteed to fall.

John Carpenter filmed the Norwegian camp scenes at the end of production. The Norwegian camp was simply the remains of the American outpost after it was destroyed by an explosion. The factor of the weather and also an expected strike at Universal gave Carpenter the luxury of the opportunity to view footage as it was shot, crucial in ultimately ironing out issues which could have blighted the film.

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The special effects, some of the most innovative and effective in any horror film, were the work of Rob Bottin and his crew, with the exception of the dog creature, which was created by Stan Winston (Gargoyles; The Bat People; Pumpkinhead). Winston was brought in when Bottin’s team found themselves overloaded with work on the other creatures seen in the film. Bottin had already worked on Carpenter’s The Fog, as well as the likes of Piranha and The Howling.

During one scene, where a character’s head stretches, Bottin decided to melt plastic to aid the effect. Little did he know that the melted plastic released explosive paint thinner so when the director decided to put a flame under the camera lens the entire prosthetic exploded.

Ironically, upon release, the effects, though hailed as visionary, were deemed by some to detract from the ‘unseen menace’ and muddle the psychology with schlock. Perhaps time has been kind but it’s difficult to support this view. When re-watching the film, what is remarkable is what remains un-filmed, some deaths remaining a complete mystery as to the culprit and a large part of the assumptions of the characters remaining just that.

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The film’s ending has caused much discussion also, the ‘is he, isn’t he?’ aimed at MacReady’s character never being resolved (on-screen that is – Carpenter has since revealed his own verdict – one you will have to seek elsewhere rather than on this uber-spoiler free piece!)

The nihilistic ending was originally due to have a cheerier counterpart, ready in the wings should test screenings or balking from Universal dictating that moderation should prevail. Carpenter ultimately didn’t give either the option but sadly, this wasn’t the factor which hobbled the films initial release.

The Thing DVD

Buy DVD: Amazon.com

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In a hugely unfortunate coincidence, the film appeared just two weeks after the air-punching glee of another alien film, E.T., and on the same day as the artier leanings of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (actually another misfire at the time). The Thing opened #8 and remained in the top 10 at the box office for three weeks. The film was released in the United States on June 25, 1982, in 840 cinemas and was issued an “R” rating by the Motion Picture Association of America (limiting attendees to 17 and older without a guardian). The film cost $15,000,000 to produce.

Film critic Roger Ebert called the film “disappointing”, though said he found it scary and that it was “a great barf-bag movie.” However, he criticized what he felt were poor characterisations and illogical plot elements.

Other reviews:

“It was a disastrous flop, and threatened Carpenter’s once unassailable reputation as the king of the new horror. It’s hard to imagine now: with the benefit of hindsight (and, more importantly, repeat viewings), ‘The Thing’ has emerged as one of our most potent modern terrors, combining the icy-cold chill of suspicion and uncertainty with those magnificently imaginative, pre-CG effects blowouts.” Tom Huddleston, Time Out

The Thing is a terrifically tense and alarming film that does exactly what you what from a sci-fi horror, it terrifies. I consider it a masterpiece of filmmaking and it’s a film that hasn’t dated it still works as well today as it did back in 1982. The acting really is superb with Kurt Russell the pick of the actors. Put simply The Thing is a must-see film.” Dr. Loomis, Popcorn Cinema Show

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After its cinema run, the film was released on VHS and laserdisc, and a re-edited version was created for television by TBS and Universal Studios. The edited version was heavily cut to reduce gore, violence, and profanity; additionally it featured a narrator during the opening sequence (in the same manner as the original 1951 film), a voiceover during Blair’s computer-assisted study, and an alternate ending.

In the alternate ending (aside from Carpenter’s aborted plan), the “Thing”, which has once again mimicked one of the sled dogs, looks back at the burning camp at dawn before continuing on into the Antarctic wilderness. Subsequent releases of the film have garnered it a huge following, the film regularly featuring in top five lists of ‘scariest films ever made’.

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Given a Universal-sized budget capable of achieving it, Carpenter fulfilled another ambition by hiring the services of Italian maestro Ennio Morricone to provide the musical score. Whilst Carpenter’s initial involvements in soundtrack creation were sparked by financial necessity, there was now the opportunity to employ a dedicated composer. Morricone had done very little in the horror field, aside from the films he created with Dario Argento (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’ Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet) , so he wasn’t an obvious choice in that sense. The notion of having such single-minded auteurs working together was fraught with dangers, most of which, sadly, they failed to avoid.

The attraction to Carpenter to Morricone was his ability to marry together differing styles and instruments to characterise both actors and environment, key to a film where the Antarctic backdrop is as domineering as any person. As such, Morricone’s brief was to create a score which was both ‘cold’ and reflective of the in-escapability of their plight.

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The initial problems were obvious, Morricone being proud to this day that he hasn’t felt compelled to learn English, Carpenter not speaking Italian. Through telephone interpreters and cuts of the film being shuttled across the Atlantic, a blueprint was drawn up, the composer tasked with using an absolute minimum of notes and key changes; the audience was to know from the very beginning that in the very real sense of the word, that the character’s were in a hopeless situation with the doom escalating as the story progressed.

Morricone perhaps had selective hearing or maybe there was a problem with the translation. Having recorded in Rome, the tapes were sent to Carpenter in America. Carpenter immediately had a problem with it. It was entirely orchestral. It was as perfectly bleak and ominous as Carpenter could ever have wished for but his vision was for a synthetic score to replicate the unEarthly alien changing at will. How this was conveyed to Morricone is unclear but he was gracious enough, having been given both Halloween and Escape from New York to listen to, to re-score using synths.

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A steely pulse dominates the sound of the score, neither driving it forward nor allowing it to stagnate, it is simply always there. The two repeated tones of the main theme suggest the rises and falling of an ever-present entity, never obviously breaking out but looming throughout. Morricone himself explained:

“Nothing happens. It seems to suggest that something is going to happen; however, nothing happens. You could describe it as a flat encephalogram;; it’s starting to move, something happens – no, nothing happens; but still it moves. That’s the characteristic. It’s like a big question mark”.

For Carpenter it still wasn’t what he had envisioned. Eventually, only a small number of the many cues Morricone had created were used in the film, Carpenter utilising ‘re-imaginings’ of his primary theme ‘Humanity Part 2’ to suggest an omnipresent threat throughout. This is used particularly powerfully in the final scene as the two survivors find themselves in isolated despair, the audience unclear as to whether they have ‘won‘ or they too are victims of the alien invasion.

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Never craving the plaudits of Hollywood, Morricone couldn’t really have cared less  what Carpenter thought. At the same time as scoring The Thing, he was also creating the soundtrack to Sam Fuller’s terrifically mental racist dog flick, White Dog and Ferdinando Baldi’s much forgotten 3D Indiana Jones rip-off, Treasure of the Four Crowns. Here indeed is the case in point. Morricone did not compose, as a rule, to fit specific timings; he composed according to instructions given from the director, the script and his own impressions made from viewing the film without music. Neither did he score for films based on the fact he felt they were Oscar-worthy or delivered an important social message to the audience – he composed simply because that’s what he did.

With Morricone distracted in Italy, Carpenter approached Alan Howarth to fill in the gaps he felt were still there, largely electronic cues seen as necessary to punctuate specific events and his now trademark ‘drones’ which were used to add bulk to Morricone’s incredibly subtle and delicate suites. The combined efforts of all three composers are what eventually what the audience experiences.

The fascination is that what we now have are three versions of one score written for ‘The Thing’ – Morricone’s original, largely orchestral version, the amalgamation of this with Carpenter’s electronic soundscapes added and, 30 years on, Alan Howarth’s own interpretation of Morricone’s vision, played entirely on synths. Which is best? You can only ever argue the one that was eventually used – the electronics do indeed add a malevolent edge, describing something nearly human but clearly of unknown origin. Morricone’s original work is beautiful and is exactly what he was asked to produce but borders on being too subtle.

Either way, Carpenter has spent the years since hailing Morricone’s work whereas the Italian has expressed extreme dismay, certainly at the time, as to how his material was manipulated. Recent attempts have seen both distancing themselves from their earlier standpoints but a huge question mark over the score remains.

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The Sci Fi Channel planned to do a four-hour mini-series sequel to the film in 2003. Carpenter stated that he believed the project should proceed, but the Sci Fi Channel later removed all mention of the project from their homepage. In February 2009, a positive review of the abandoned screenplay for the Sci-Fi miniseries was published on Corona’s Coming Attractions.

In 2004, John Carpenter said in an Empire magazine interview that he has a story idea for The Thing II, which centres around the two surviving characters, MacReady and Childs. However, Carpenter felt that due to the higher price associated with his fee, Universal Studios will not pursue his storyline. Carpenter indicated that he would be able to secure both Kurt Russell and Keith David for the sequel.

In his story, Carpenter would explain the age difference of the actors between the two installments by having frostbite on their face due to the elements until rescued. The assumption of the sequel would rely on a radio signal being successfully transmitted by Windows before Blair destroyed the communications room. Thus, after the explosion of the base camp, the rescue team would arrive and find MacReady and Childs still alive. Carpenter has not disclosed any other details. Ultimately, a largely disappointing remake took the place of this, 2011’s The Thing.

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In 2007, the Halloween Horror Nights event at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, the film property was designed as a haunted attraction called The Thing – Assimilation. Guests walked through Outpost 3113, a military facility where the remains of Outpost 31 were brought for scientific research. Scenes and props from the film were recreated for the attraction, including the bodies of MacReady and Childs. In 2009, the event’s icon house, Silver Screams, contained a room based on the film.

Universal Studios also featured Haunted Attractions based on “The Thing”‘s 2011 prequel at both the Florida and Hollywood editions of Halloween Horror Nights in 2011.

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A novelisation of the film based on the second draft of the screenplay was published in 1982 by Alan Dean Foster. Although the novel is generally true to the film, there are minor differences: the Windows character is named Sanders, and an episode in which MacReady, Bennings and Childs chase after several infected dogs which escape into the Antarctic wastes was added. The disappearance of Nauls is also explained in the novel; pursued by Blair-Thing into a dead end, he kills himself rather than allow it to assimilate him.

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In 2002, The Thing was released as a survival horror third-person shooter for PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox, acting as a sequel to the film. The video game differs from the comics in that Childs is dead of exposure, and the audiotapes are present (they were removed from Outpost 31 at the start of The Thing from Another World: Questionable Research). At the completion of the game, R.J. MacReady is found alive and helping the main character complete the last mission. The game used elements of paranoia and mistrust intrinsic to the film. Some retailers, such as GameStop, offered a free copy of the 1998 DVD release as an incentive for reserving the game. In 2011, a region of the Entropia Universe was created based on the theme of The Thing.

The story follows on where the film left off: Childs is found dead and frozen where he was last seen at the end of the film, but at the end of the game it is revealed that R.J. MacReady survived as he evacuates the game’s main character in a helicopter.

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In September 2000, as part of the third series of its “Movie Maniacs” line of toys, McFarlane Toys released two figures based on the film. One was the Blair Monster seen near the ending of the film, and the other is the Norris Creature seen during the defibrillator scene. The latter included a smaller figurine of the disembodied head with spider legs also seen in the film. Sota Toys also released a bust of the spider head, as well as a box set of the kennel scene showing the Thing imitating the dogs.

Daz Lawrence, HORRORPEDIA

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Buy this image as a mouse mat

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3 Comments on “The Thing – USA, 1982”

  1. I wanna be the devil’s advocate here and say yes, undoubtedly a HUGE HORROR movie in it’s own right, but there are many (too many) underrated horror movies out there made in the U.S.A. that can easily compete with The Thing.

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