The Thing is a 1982 American science fiction horror film directed by John Carpenter and written by Bill Lancaster. Based on the 1938 John W. Campbell Jr. novella Who Goes There?, it tells the story of a group of American researchers in Antarctica who encounter the eponymous “Thing”, a parasitic extraterrestrial life-form that assimilates, then imitates other organisms. The group is overcome by paranoia and conflict as they learn that they can no longer trust each other and that any one of them could be the Thing. The film stars Kurt Russell as the team’s helicopter pilot, R.J. MacReady, and features A. Wilford Brimley, T. K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, Joel Polis, and Thomas G. Waites in supporting roles.
Production began in the mid-1970s as a faithful adaptation of the novella, following 1951’s popular The Thing from Another World. The Thing went through several directors and writers, each with different ideas on how to approach the story. Filming lasted roughly 12 weeks, beginning in August 1981, and took place on refrigerated sets in Los Angeles as well as in Juneau, Alaska, and Stewart, British Columbia. Of the film’s $15 million budget, $1.5 million was spent on Rob Bottin’s creature effects, a mixture of chemicals, food products, rubber, and mechanical parts turned by his large team into an alien capable of taking on any form.
The Thing was released in 1982 to very negative reviews. It was described as “instant junk”, “a wretched excess”, and proposed as the most hated film of all time. Reviews both praised the special effects achievements and criticized their visual repulsiveness, while others focused on poor characterization. The film earned $19.6 million during its theatrical run. Many reasons have been cited for its failure to impress audiences: competition from films such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which offered an optimistic take on alien visitation; a summer that had been filled with successful science fiction and fantasy films; and an audience, living through a recession, diametrically opposed to The Thing‘s nihilistic tone.
The film found an audience when released on home video and television. In the years since, it has been reappraised as one of the best science fiction or horror films ever made, and has gained a cult following. Filmmakers have noted its influence on their work, and it has been referred to in other media such as television and video games. The Thing has spawned a variety of merchandise, including a 1982 novelization, haunted houses, board games, and sequels in comic books, a video game of the same name, and a 2011 prequel film of the same name.
In Antarctica, a Norwegian helicopter pursues a sled dog to an American research station. The Americans witness the Norwegian passenger accidentally blow up the helicopter and himself. The Norwegian pilot fires a rifle and shouts at the Americans, but they cannot understand him and he is shot dead in self-defense by station commander Garry. The American helicopter pilot, R.J. MacReady, and Dr. Copper leave to investigate the Norwegian base. Among the charred ruins and frozen corpses, they find the burned remains of a malformed humanoid which they recover to the American station. Their biologist, Blair, performs autopsies on the remains and finds a normal set of human organs.
Clark kennels the sled dog, and it soon metamorphoses and absorbs the station dogs. This disturbance alerts the team and Childs uses a flamethrower to incinerate the creature. Blair autopsies the new creature and learns that it can perfectly imitate other organisms. Recovered Norwegian data leads the Americans to a large excavation site containing a partially buried alien spacecraft, and a smaller, human-sized dig site. Norris estimates that the alien ship has been buried for at least 100,000 years. Blair grows paranoid that the creature could assimilate all life on Earth in a matter of years. The station implements controls to reduce the risk of assimilation.
The “dead”, malformed humanoid creature assimilates an isolated Bennings, but Windows interrupts the process and MacReady burns the Bennings-Thing. Blair sabotages all the vehicles, kills the remaining sled dogs, and destroys the radio to prevent escape. The team imprison him in a tool shed. Copper suggests a test to compare each member’s blood against uncontaminated blood held in storage, but after learning that the blood stores have been destroyed, the men lose faith in Garry, and MacReady takes command.
MacReady, Windows and Nauls find Fuchs’s burnt corpse and surmise he committed suicide to avoid assimilation. Windows returns to base while MacReady and Nauls investigate MacReady’s shack. On their return, Nauls abandons MacReady in a snowstorm, believing he has been assimilated after finding his torn clothes in the shack. The team debate whether to allow MacReady inside, but he breaks in and holds the group at bay with dynamite. During the encounter, Norris appears to suffer a heart attack.
As Copper attempts to defibrillate Norris, his chest transforms into a large mouth and bites off Copper’s arms, killing him. MacReady incinerates the Norris-Thing, but its head separates from the body and attempts to escape before also being burnt. MacReady is forced to kill Clark in self-defense when the latter lunges at him from behind with a knife. He hypothesizes that the Norris-Thing’s head demonstrated that every part of the Thing is an individual life form with its own survival instinct. He sequentially tests blood samples with a heated piece of wire. Everyone passes the test except Palmer, whose blood jumps from the heat. Palmer transforms and infects Windows, forcing MacReady to burn them both.
Childs is left on guard while the others go to test Blair. They find that Blair has escaped, and has been using vehicle components to assemble a small spacecraft. On their return, Childs is missing and the power generator is destroyed. MacReady speculates that the Thing intends to return to hibernation until a rescue team arrives. MacReady, Garry, and Nauls decide to detonate the entire station to destroy the Thing. As they set explosives, Blair kills Garry and Nauls disappears. Blair transforms into an enormous creature and destroys the detonator. MacReady triggers the explosives using a stick of dynamite, destroying the base.
MacReady sits nearby as the station burns. Childs returns, saying he became lost in the storm while pursuing Blair. Exhausted and slowly freezing to death, they acknowledge the futility of their distrust and share a bottle of scotch.
Development of the film began in the mid-1970s when producers David Foster and Lawrence Turman suggested an adaptation of the 1938 John W. Campbell novella Who Goes There? to Universal Pictures. It had been loosely adapted once before in Howard Hawks’s and Christian Nyby’s 1951 film The Thing from Another World, but Foster and Turman wanted to develop a project that stuck more closely to the source material. Screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins held the rights to make an adaptation, but passed on the opportunity to make a new film, so Universal obtained the rights from them. In 1976, Wilbur Stark had purchased the remake rights to 23 RKO Pictures films, including The Thing from Another World, from three Wall Street financiers who did not know what to do with them, in exchange for a return when the films were produced. Universal in turn acquired the rights to remake the film from Stark, resulting in him being given an executive producer credit on all print advertisements, posters, television commercials, and studio press material.
John Carpenter was first approached about the project in 1976 by co-producer and friend Stuart Cohen, but Carpenter was mainly an independent film director, so Universal chose The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) director Tobe Hooper as they already had him under contract. The producers were ultimately unhappy with Hooper and his writing partner Kim Henkel’s concept. After several more failed pitches by different writers, and attempts to bring on other directors, such as John Landis, the project was put on hold. Even so, the success of Ridley Scott‘s 1979 science fiction horror film Alien helped revitalize the project, at which point Carpenter became loosely attached following his success with his influential slasher film Halloween (1978).
Carpenter was reluctant to join the project as he thought Hawks’s adaptation would be difficult to surpass, although he considered the film’s monster to be unnotable. Cohen suggested that he read the original novella. Carpenter found the “creepiness” of the imitations conducted by the creature, and the questions it raised, interesting. Carpenter drew parallels between the novella and Agatha Christie’s mystery novel And Then There Were None (1939), and noted that the story of Who Goes There? was “timely” for him, meaning he could make it “true to [his] day” as Hawks had in his time. Carpenter, a fan of Hawks’s adaptation, paid homage to it in Halloween, and he watched The Thing from Another World several times for inspiration before filming began. Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey first worked together on Halloween, and The Thing was their first big-budget project for a major film studio.
After securing the writer and crew, the film was stalled again when Carpenter nearly quit, believing that a passion project of his, El Diablo (1990), was on the verge of being made by EMI Films. The producers discussed various replacements including Walter Hill, Sam Peckinpah and Michael Ritchie, but the development of El Diablo was not as imminent as Carpenter believed, and he remained with The Thing.
Universal initially set a budget of $10 million, with a modest $200,000 for “creature effects,” which at the time was more than the studio had ever allocated to a monster film. Filming was scheduled to be completed within 98 days. Universal’s production studios estimated that it would require at least $17 million before marketing and other costs, as the plan involved more set construction, including external sets and a large set piece for the original scripted death of Bennings, which was estimated to cost $1.5 million alone. As storyboarding and designs were finalized, the crew estimated they would need at least $750,000 for creature effects, a figure Universal executives agreed to after seeing the number of workers employed under Rob Bottin, the special make-up effects designer. Associate producer Larry Franco was responsible for making the budget work for the film; he cut the filming schedule by a third, eliminated the exterior sets for on-site shooting, and removed Bennings’s more extravagant death scene. Cohen suggested reusing the destroyed American camp as the ruined Norwegian camp, saving a further $250,000.
When filming began in August, The Thing had a budget of $11.4 million, and indirect costs brought it to $14 million. The effects budget ran over, eventually totalling $1.5 million, forcing the elimination of some scenes, including Nauls’s confrontation of a creature dubbed the “box Thing”. By the end of production, Carpenter had to make a personal appeal to executive Ned Tanen for $100,000 to complete a simplified version of the Blair-Thing. The final cost was $12.4 million, and overhead costs brought it to $15 million.
Kurt Russell was involved in the production before being cast, helping Carpenter develop his ideas. Russell was the last actor to be cast, in June 1981, by which point second unit filming was starting in Juneau, Alaska. Carpenter had worked with Russell twice before, but wanted to keep his options open. Discussions with the studio involved using actors Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, or Nick Nolte, who were either unavailable or declined, and Sam Shepard, who showed interest but was never pursued. Tom Atkins and Jack Thompson were strong early and late contenders for the role of MacReady, but the decision was made to go with Russell. In part, Carpenter cited the practicality of choosing someone he had found reliable before, and who would not balk at the difficult filming conditions. It took Russell about a year to grow his hair and beard out for the role. At various points, the producers met with Brian Dennehy, Kris Kristofferson, John Heard, Ed Harris, Tom Berenger, Jack Thompson, Scott Glenn, Fred Ward, Peter Coyote, Tom Atkins, and Tim McIntyre. Some passed on the idea of starring in a monster film, while Dennehy became the choice to play Copper. Each actor was to be paid $50,000, but after the more-established Russell was cast, his salary increased to $400,000.
Geoffrey Holder, Carl Weathers, and Bernie Casey were considered for the role of Childs, and Carpenter also looked at Isaac Hayes, having worked with him on Escape from New York. Ernie Hudson was the front-runner and was almost cast until they met with Keith David. The Thing was David’s first significant film role, and coming from a theater background, he had to learn on set how to hold himself back and not show every emotion his character was feeling, with guidance from Richard Masur and Donald Moffat in particular. Masur and David discussed their characters in rehearsals and decided that they would not like each other. For Blair, the team chose the then-unknown Wilford Brimley, as they wanted an everyman whose absence would not be questioned by the audience until the appropriate time. The intent with the character was to have him become infected early on off-screen, so that his status would be unknown to the audience, concealing his intentions. Carpenter wanted to cast Donald Pleasence, but it was decided that he was too recognizable to accommodate the role. T. K. Carter was cast as Nauls, but comedian Franklyn Ajaye also came in to read for the role. Instead, he delivered a lengthy speech about the character being a stereotype, after which the meeting ended.
Bottin lobbied hard to play Palmer, but it was deemed impossible for him to do so alongside his existing duties. As the character has some comedic moments, Universal brought in comedians Jay Leno, Garry Shandling, and Charles Fleischer, among others, but opted to go with actor David Clennon, who was better suited to play the dramatic elements. Clennon had read for the Bennings character, but he preferred the option of playing Palmer’s “blue-collar stoner” to a “white collar science man”. Powers Boothe, Lee Van Cleef, Jerry Orbach, and Kevin Conway were considered for the role of Garry, and Richard Mulligan was also considered when the production experimented with the idea of making the character closer to MacReady in age. Masur also read for Garry, but he asked to play Clark instead, as he liked the character’s dialogue and was also a fan of dogs. Masur worked daily with the wolfdog Jed and his handler, Clint Rowe, during rehearsals, as Rowe was familiarizing Jed with the sounds and smells of people. This helped Masur’s and Jed’s performance on-screen, as the dog would stand next to him without looking for his handler. Masur described his character as one uninterested in people, but who loves working with dogs. He went to a survivalist store and bought a flip knife for his character, and used it in a confrontation with David’s character. Masur turned down a role in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to play Clark. William Daniels and Dennehy were both interested in playing Dr. Copper, and it was a last-second decision by Carpenter to go with Richard Dysart.
In early drafts, Windows was called Sanchez, and later Sanders. The name Windows came when the actor for the role, Thomas Waites, was in a costume fitting and tried on a large pair of dark glasses, which the character wears in the film. Norbert Weisser portrays one of the Norwegians, and Jed appears uncredited as the Dog-Thing. The only female presence in the film is the voice of MacReady’s chess computer, voiced by Carpenter’s then-wife Adrienne Barbeau. Russell described the all-male story as interesting, since the men had no one to posture for without women. Foster, Franco, and Lancaster, along with other members of the crew, make a cameo appearance in a recovered photograph of the Norwegian team. Camera operator Ray Stella stood in for the shots where needles were used to take blood, telling Carpenter that he could do it all day. Franco also played the Norwegian wielding a rifle and hanging out of the helicopter during the opening sequence. Anita Dann served as casting director.
The Thing was storyboarded extensively by Mike Ploog and Mentor Huebner before filming began. Their work was so detailed that many of the film’s shots replicate the image layout completely. Cundey pushed for the use of anamorphic format aspect ratio, believing that it allowed for placing several actors in an environment, and making use of the scenic vistas available, while still creating a sense of confinement within the image. It also enabled the use of negative space around the actors to imply something may be lurking just off-screen.
Principal photography began on August 24, 1981, in Juneau, Alaska. Filming lasted approximately 12 weeks. Carpenter insisted on two weeks of rehearsals before filming as he wanted to see how scenes would play out. This was unusual at the time because of the expense involved. Filming then moved to the Universal lot, where the outside heat was over 100 °F (38 °C). The internal sets were climate-controlled to 28 °F (−2 °C) to facilitate their work. The team considered building the sets inside an existing refrigerated structure, but were unable to find one large enough. Instead they collected as many portable air conditioners as they could, closed off the stage, and used humidifiers and misters to add moisture to the air. After watching a roughly assembled cut of filming to date, Carpenter was unhappy that the film seemed to feature too many scenes of men standing around talking. He rewrote some already completed scenes to take place outdoors to be shot on location when principal photography moved to Stewart, British Columbia.
The Thing‘s special effects were largely designed by Bottin, who had previously worked with Carpenter on The Fog (1980). When Bottin joined the project in mid-1981, pre-production was in progress, but no design had been settled on for the alien. Artist Dale Kuipers had created some preliminary paintings of the creature’s look, but he left the project after being hospitalized following a traffic accident before he could develop them further with Bottin Carpenter conceived the Thing as a single creature, but Bottin suggested that it should be constantly changing and able to look like anything. Carpenter initially considered Bottin’s description of his ideas as “too weird”, and had him work with Ploog to sketch them instead. As part of the Thing’s design, it was agreed anyone assimilated by it would be a perfect imitation and would not know they were the Thing. The actors spent hours during rehearsals discussing whether they would know they were the Thing when taken over. Clennon said that it did not matter, because everyone acted, looked and smelled exactly the same before being taken over. At its peak, Bottin had a 35-person crew of artists and technicians, and he found it difficult to work with so many people. To help manage the team, he hired Erik Jensen, a special effects line producer who he had worked with on The Howling (1981), to be in charge of the special make-up effects unit. Bottin’s crew also included mechanical aspect supervisor Dave Kelsey, make-up aspect coordinator Ken Diaz, moldmaker Gunnar Ferdinansen, and Bottin’s longtime friend Margaret Beserra, who managed painting and hair work.
The lack of information about the film’s special effects drew the attention of film exhibitors in early 1982. They wanted reassurance that The Thing was a first-rate production capable of attracting audiences. Cohen and Foster, with a specially employed editor and Universal’s archive of music, put together a 20-minute showreel emphasizing action and suspense. They used available footage, including alternate and extended scenes not in the finished film, but avoided revealing the special effects as much as possible. The reaction from the exclusively male exhibitors was generally positive, and Universal executive Robert Rehme told Cohen that the studio was counting on The Thing‘s success, as they expected E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to appeal only to children. While finalizing the film, Universal sent Carpenter a demographic study showing that the audience appeal of horror films had declined by 70% over the previous six months. Carpenter considered this a suggestion that he lower his expectations of the film’s performance. After one market research screening, Carpenter queried the audience on their thoughts, and one audience member asked, “Well what happened in the very end? Which one was the Thing…?” When Carpenter responded that it was up to their imagination, the audience member responded, “Oh, God. I hate that.”
After returning from a screening of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the audience’s silence at a The Thing trailer caused Foster to remark, “We’re dead”. The response to public pre-screenings of The Thing resulted in the studio changing the somber, black-and-white advertising approved by the producers to a color image of a person with a glowing face. The tagline was also changed from “Man is the warmest place to hide”—written by Stephen Frankfort, who wrote the Alien tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream”—to “The ultimate in alien terror”, trying to capitalize on Alien‘s audience. Carpenter attempted to make a last-minute change of the film’s title to Who Goes There?, to no avail. The week before its release, Carpenter promoted the film with clips on Late Night with David Letterman.
In 1981, horror magazine Fangoria held a contest encouraging readers to submit drawings of what the Thing would look like. Winners were rewarded with a trip to Universal Studios. On its opening day, a special screening was held at the Hollywood Pacific Theatre, presided over by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, with free admission for those in costume as monsters.
The Thing was released in the United States on June 25, 1982. During its opening weekend, the film earned $3.1 million from 840 theaters—an average of $3,699 per theater—finishing as the number eight film of the weekend behind supernatural horror Poltergeist ($4.1 million), which was in its fourth weekend of release, and ahead of action film Megaforce ($2.3 million). It dropped out of the top 10 grossing films after three weeks. It ended its run earning a total of $19.6 million against its $15 million budget, making it only the 42nd highest-grossing film of 1982. It was not a box office failure, nor was it a hit.
Since its release, cultural historians and critics have attempted to understand what led to The Thing‘s initial failure to connect with audiences. In a 1999 interview, Carpenter said audiences rejected The Thing for its nihilistic, depressing viewpoint at a time when the United States was in the midst of a recession. When it opened, it was competing against the critically and commercially successful E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial ($619 million), a more family-friendly film released two weeks earlier that offered a more optimistic take on alien visitation. Carpenter described it as the complete opposite of his film. The Thing opened on the same day as the science fiction film Blade Runner, which debuted as the number two film that weekend with a take of $6.1 million and went on to earn $33.8 million. It was also regarded as a critical and commercial failure at the time. Others blamed an oversaturation of science fiction and fantasy films released that year, including Conan the Barbarian ($130 million), Poltergeist ($121.7 million), The Road Warrior ($34.5 million), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan ($97 million), and Tron ($33 million). Some analysts blamed Universal’s poor marketing, which did not compete with the deluge of promotion for prominent films released that summer.
Another factor was the R rating it was given, restricting the audience to those over the age of 17 unless accompanied by an adult. Poltergeist received a PG rating, allowing families and younger children to view it.
The Thing received nominations from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films for Best Horror Film and Best Special Effects, but lost to Poltergeist and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, respectively. The film was nominated in the Razzie Awards for Worst Musical Score.
The impact on Carpenter was immediate—he lost the job of directing the 1984 science fiction horror film Firestarter because of The Thing‘s poor performance. His previous success had gained him a multiple-film contract at Universal, but the studio opted to buy him out of it instead. He continued making films afterward but lost confidence, and did not openly talk about The Thing‘s failure until a 1985 interview with Starlog, where he said, “I was called ‘a pornographer of violence’ … I had no idea it would be received that way … The Thing was just too strong for that time. I knew it was going to be strong, but I didn’t think it would be too strong … I didn’t take the public’s taste into consideration.” Shortly after its release, Wilbur Stark sued Universal for $43 million for “slander, breach of contract, fraud and deceit”, alleging he incurred a financial loss by Universal failing to credit him properly in its marketing and by showing his name during the end credits, a less prestigious position. Stark also said that he “contributed greatly to the [screenplay]”. David Foster responded that Stark was not involved with the film’s production in any way, and received proper credit in all materials. Stark later sued for a further $15 million over Foster’s comments. The outcome of the lawsuits is unknown.