25 Monstrous Facts About John Carpenter’s The Thing
The impact of a horror film often lessens the older it gets, but there are a handful of scary cinematic masterpieces that are as powerful now as they were upon their initial release. One such timeless and still terrifying horror great is John Carpenter’s The Thing, which first hit screens all the way back in 1982. Below are some fascinating facts about a horror classic that you simply have to watch.
25. It’s a remake of a 1951 black and white film
The Thing is a remake of The Thing From Another World, a black and white horror film from 1951. Widely regarded one of the best films from the 1950s sci-fi ‘creature feature’ boom, it was directed by Christian Nyby, and co-written and produced by Howard Hawks, the influential filmmaker behind such diverse, enduring hits as Scarface, Bringing Up Baby, The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo.
Like John Carpenter’s 1982 version, The Thing from Another World was based on Who Goes There?, a novella by writer John W Campbell Jr., which was first published in the August 1938 issue of best-selling pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. Years later, an extended novel-length version of Campbell’s story was discovered; this finally saw print in 2019.
24. Jeff Bridges and Nick Nolte both turned down the chance to play MacReady
After John Carpenter signed on to direct The Thing, one of his first orders of business was finding a leading man. This proved surprisingly difficult. The role of MacReady was turned down by both Nick Nolte and Jeff Bridges (who later worked with director John Carpenter on Starman), whilst Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood were amongst those also considered for the part.
The role of course eventually went to Kurt Russell, who wound up being the last actor in The Thing to be cast. This was despite the fact that the actor was good friends with Carpenter, and had already spent weeks helping the director develop the film. Carpenter had initially been reluctant to cast Russell as they’d already worked together twice (on TV movie Elvis and Escape from New York), and the director was wary of them being typecast as a package deal.
23. Special effects legend Stan Winston refused credit for his work
One of the key elements of The Thing to have been consistently celebrated over the years is the astonishing practical effects work used to create the shape-shifting alien threat. The majority of these very ahead-of-their-time special effects were created by a 22-year-old Rob Bottin, whose heavy workload on the project ultimately led to him suffering from severe exhaustion.
In order to take pressure off the overworked Bottin, the seasoned and respected special effects maestro Stan Winston stepped in to help out, creating the film’s terrifying ‘Dog-Thing.’ However, Winston (whose other credits include The Terminator, Aliens and Predator) was keen for Bottin to take all the plaudits, so refused to receive any credit whatsoever for his work.
22. Kurt Russell was very nearly injured by a stunt explosion
The Thing is relatively low on gun violence and hand-to-hand fight scenes, but it does feature heavy use of flamethrowers and dynamite. While such sequences were carefully coordinated, there were still moments when the cast were at real risk of being hurt, and leading man Kurt Russell himself had one particularly hairy moment which could easily have been a lot worse.
The scene in which MacReady destroys the alien version of Palmer with a stick of dynamite require a controlled special effects explosion to be set off close to Kurt Russell. Unfortunately, the actor had not been informed how big the explosion would be, meaning that he was standing far too close to it and gave an entirely genuine reaction to flames that very nearly touched his face.
21. A big chunk of the film’s budget went towards keeping the cast and crew warm
The Thing is set at an American scientific research base in Antarctica, although it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the film wasn’t actually shot there. Instead, the American cast and crew flew out to an icy region considerably closer to home: the town of Stewart in the Canadian Province of British Colombia.
Still, even though they weren’t making the movie in a literally Antarctic region, the weather conditions for the cast and crew of The Thing were still relatively harsh. During the production, temperatures ranged from zero degrees to minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of this, around $75,000 of the film’s budget wound up being spent on keeping the film’s cast and crew warm.
20. John Carpenter says MacReady and Childs are both human at the end of the film
The Thing ends on a dark and ambiguous note, with the wounded MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David) sitting facing one another, neither knowing whether or not the other is really the man they claim to be, or yet another facsimile created by the Thing. Fan theories have persisted for years that in fact both men have been assimilated.
The most enduring theory notes that neither character seems to have any visible breath emanating from their mouths as they sit in freezing conditions, which may demonstrate that neither of them are human. However, this theory has been debunked by John Carpenter, who insists that both men are still themselves in that final scene – although the director admits he did want to promote that sense of uncertainty.
19. The film got scathing reviews on release
As hard as it may be to believe now, the initial reviews for The Thing were almost universally negative. The Los Angeles Times described the film as “bereft, despairing and nihilistic”; The New York Times called it “instant junk”; and other outlets were no kinder. Even SF/fantasy/horror magazine Cinefantastique had their knives out, asking on their cover, “Is this the most hated movie of all time?”
Director John Carpenter reflected in 2008, “The movie was hated. Even by science fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust… Even the original movie’s director, Christian Nyby, was dissing me.” Still, while The Thing wasn’t a blockbuster, it wasn’t a total flop either: off the back of its $15 million budget, it made just shy of $20 million, which isn’t too huge a loss at the box office.
18. Its negative reception may have been the fault of E.T.
In very simple terms, The Thing is a story of humankind encountering intelligent life from another world. The movie hit screens mere weeks after another film had explored that idea in a very different manner: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Steven Spielberg’s family-friendly fantasy tugged at the heartstrings of audiences young and old, and left everyone with a warm, fuzzy feeling.
The Thing, of course, could be considered the anti-E.T.: where Spielberg’s film is heartwarming and optimistic, Carpenter’s film is harsh and almost entirely bereft of hope. Many have blamed this for the initial negative response to the film: as Carpenter himself has remarked, “due to Steven Spielberg’s success [the film industry] began to punish me, because I didn’t see what the audience wanted… it wasn’t doing something uplifting and positive for humanity.”
17. It opened on the same day as Blade Runner
It’s strange to think that while today The Thing is widely regarded as a classic of the science fiction genre, it was a critically lambasted box office failure when first released. What makes this even more curious is the fact that The Thing opened on the very same day as another movie that suffered the exact same fate: Blade Runner.
Director Ridley Scott’s futuristic film noir, starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer and Sean Young, hit screens in the US on June 25, 1982, the very same day that John Carpenter’s similarly bleak sci-fi shocker opened. Both films went down like a lead balloon at the time, but were soon thereafter rediscovered on home video and eventually re-evaluated as all-time greats.
16. Rejected music for the film by Ennio Morricone would later be used in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight
As well as being his first major studio movie, The Thing stands apart from most other John Carpenter movies in one notable respect: Carpenter himself is not credited with providing the film’s score. A skilled musician as well as a talented filmmaker, Carpenter composed and performed most of the music for his films, usually with a heavy emphasis on synthesizers.
For The Thing, esteemed Italian composer Ennio Morricone was hired – but Carpenter didn’t wind up using much of the music Morricone provided. Indeed, the soundtrack is so sparse that many assumed it was again Carpenter’s own work (and the director did include some pieces of his own composition, uncredited). Years later, some of the unused music Morricone composed for The Thing was appropriated by writer-director Quentin Tarantino for use in The Hateful Eight, which also starred Kurt Russell.
15. The defibrillator scene involved a double amputee actor
The Thing has no shortage of shockingly gruesome moments, but probably the most famous (or, depending on who you talk to, infamous) is the defibrillator scene. In this moment, the chest of Norris (Charles Hallahan) suddenly bursts open to reveal a heavily fanged mouth, which bites off the hands of the unfortunate Copper (Richard Dysart).
As it involves a man losing both arms, special effects artist Rob Bottin figured the best way to realise the scene was by using a genuine double amputee as a body double for Richard Dysart. The double was fitted with a face mask replica of Dysart and a pair of prosthetic arms, filled with all manner of viscera that came spilling out as he stepped back. Delightful!
14. Childs was Keith David’s first starring role
One of the cast members who makes the biggest impression in The Thing is Keith David. Aged just 26 at the time of filming, David was an experienced stage actor who had (aside from a bit part in Disco Godfather) never taken a film role before he played Childs. Other actors in contention for the role included Ernie Hudson, Carl Weathers and Bernie Casey.
David reunited with John Carpenter in 1988 for They Live (famed for David’s lengthy fight scene with Roddy Piper), and his best-known films include The Quick and the Dead, There’s Something About Mary and Pitch Black. As a voice actor, David portrayed Black Panther on the 90s Fantastic Four cartoon and took the title role in animated series Spawn. More recently, David voiced the US President in Rick and Morty.
13. It’s the first part of a trilogy
Aside from Escape from LA, John Carpenter didn’t make sequels to his beloved classics, but the director does class The Thing as the first instalment of what he calls his Apocalypse trilogy: three films which, while completely unrelated in terms of plot and the characters, explore similar themes pointing toward the end of the world.
The second film in this unofficial trilogy is 1987’s Prince of Darkness, in which a group of scientists find themselves trapped in a derelict church with an ancient canister containing what seems to be the essence of the Devil himself. Carpenter’s third and final apocalypse movie is 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness, which sees reality itself becoming unraveled via the writings of a best-selling horror author.
12. The final confrontation with the Thing originally featured stop-motion animation
While The Thing is noted for its reliance on practical make-up effects created live on camera, one scene was originally intended to feature use of an old-fashioned visual effects technique: stop-motion animation. Famously pioneered by Willis O’Brien (King Kong) and Ray Harryhausen (Clash of the Titans), stop-motion had long been a popular mode of presenting the impossible on film.
This technique was originally used for wide shots in the final confrontation between Kurt Russell’s MacReady and the Thing. However, by the 80s stop-motion was starting to look pretty dated, and John Carpenter had concerns that it would ruin the sense of realism established by The Thing’s otherwise entirely practical effects work. For this reason, the stop-motion shots were removed, though you can view the outtakes on YouTube.
11. An alternate ending was shot in which MacReady was rescued
The Thing’s chilling conclusion implies that MacReady and Childs (if they are indeed still themselves) are doomed to simply sit in the snow and freeze to death. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not everyone thought that such a grim conclusion was the best way to go, so at the suggestion of editor Todd Ramsey, Carpenter shot an additional coda as a back-up.
This final moment, which has never been released amongst the film’s deleted scenes, saw Kurt Russell’s MacReady in a medical centre, having been found and rescued. Here, MacReady is given a blood test which confirms he’s human. In the end, however, Carpenter felt this was extraneous and preferred his more ambiguous conclusion, so the scene hit the bin.
10. Adrienne Barbeau makes an uncredited cameo as the voice of MacReady’s computer
One of the most frequently noted aspects of The Thing is its near-total lack of femininity. With an entirely male cast headed-up by a heavily bearded Kurt Russell, The Thing is a very masculine movie indeed. With that said, at least one woman does have a small role to play in the action, and she’s no stranger to fans of John Carpenter’s work.
The actress in question is Adrienne Barbeau, who had previously appeared in Carpenter’s earlier films The Fog and Escape from New York (she and Carpenter were also married at the time). Barbeau provides the voice of the computer that MacReady plays chess against. The only other woman seen in the film is a contestant on the game show Let’s Make a Deal, which the crew watch on video.
9. The Thing’s failure got Carpenter fired as the director of Firestarter
Carpenter has remarked of The Thing, “My career would have been different if that had been a big hit.” It was Carpenter’s first film for studio Universal (indeed, all of his earlier films had been independently produced), and he had provisionally been poised to follow it up with another high-profile horror movie for Universal: an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Firestarter.
Alas, the critical and commercial drubbing of The Thing left Universal executives wary of giving Carpenter more work. He was dismissed from Firestarter, and Mark L Lester was hired in his place: the 1984 film starred Drew Barrymore, and was not a big hit. Meanwhile, Carpenter bounced back with another Stephen King adaptation, Christine, for Columbia Pictures.
8. Donald Pleasence was the first choice for Blair before Wilfred Brimley was cast
Box office and reviews notwithstanding, The Thing proved to be a career landmark for supporting actor Wilfred Brimley. Aged 48 at the time, the American actor had been working steadily in bit parts since the late 60s but had never taken a high profile role before he was cast as Blair, the scientist who becomes paranoid after calculating the likelihood of the alien being assimilating all life on Earth.
Brimley wasn’t John Carpenter’s first choice for Blair: the director originally wanted Donald Pleasence, with whom he had previously worked on Halloween. In the end, it was decided that the more well-known actor would prove distracting among a cast of comparative unknowns. (This was also part of why Carpenter was at first reluctant to cast Kurt Russell.) Carpenter would later reunite with Pleasence on Prince of Darkness.
7. The original creature designs were even more ambitious and repulsive
As a story about an amorphous alien being which imitates other life forms, bringing The Thing to life on film was always going to pose a challenge. Even though the filmmakers had a budget of $15 million (a significant sum back in 1982), they still didn’t have the technical resources to realise some of the earliest designs, which were even more ambitious than what appears in the final film.
Early concept art by Dale Kuipers envisioned an alien monster with mandibles to clamp onto a victim’s head, and which would then lay eggs down the victim’s throat as part of the assimilation process. Later designs by Mike Ploog were closer to what we see in the final film, but even more grotesque and complex. The technical limitations of animatronics at the time forced the filmmakers to downscale these early ideas.
6. It’s John Carpenter’s favourite out of all the films he has directed
Although he never really got his dues at the time, today it’s widely agreed that director John Carpenter is one of the most accomplished genre filmmakers of all time, with a remarkable run of great films including Halloween, The Fog, Big Trouble in Little China and They Live. On top of that, most fans and critics agree that The Thing is the best film Carpenter ever made.
The director himself is in complete agreement there. Carpenter – now retired as a filmmaker, and with his attentions in recent years devoted to his music and gaming – declared to French film critic Gilles Boulenger in 2001, “I love the movie a great deal. I never stopped loving The Thing. I think it’s just a wonderful film. It’s my favourite film of my own.”
5. A 2011 prequel had its practical effects covered over by CGI at the studio’s request
After 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, Hollywood rushed out a wave of high profile horror remakes. By 2011 it was the turn of The Thing, with Dutch filmmaker Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. hired to call the shots on what was officially a prequel to John Carpenter’s classic, but to all intents and purposes was a remake.
2011’s The Thing (which explores the story of the Norwegian scientists briefly seen at the start of the 1982 film) met an unfriendly reception from fans and critics, and proved a box office failure. Reports later revealed that the film was hindered by interference by studio executives, who insisted that the film’s alien should be computer-generated, even after filmmakers had already shot a number of the sequences using practical effects.
4. Another remake is currently in development
Despite the critical and commercial failure of the 2011 take on The Thing, the film’s title and concept are still considered a hot property in the sci-fi/horror field. It was announced in October 2020 that plans are in motion for yet another remake of The Thing, with a new take being developed at studio Universal in conjunction with Blumhouse Productions.
Blumhouse are the biggest name in contemporary horror, responsible for such hits as Get Out, Paranormal Activity, The Purge and the recent reboot of John Carpenter’s Halloween. The remake will reportedly incorporate elements of the original film as well as the original and expanded versions of John W Campbell Jr’s source novella.
3. Drew Struzan’s poster art was later used in The Mist
The Thing is one among many films from the 80s to boast an iconic poster from one of the best movie poster artists of all time, Drew Struzan. The striking image Struzan created captures the essence of the film, whilst not actually recreating any scene or character (this was because the artist was given very little information about the film beforehand, and simply had to use his imagination).
25 years later, the poster for The Thing appeared alongside a number of other Drew Struzan works in 2007’s The Mist (an apocalyptic horror close in tone to The Thing). Director Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novella casts Thomas Jane as a movie poster artist, and an early scene presents Struzan’s work as his own.
2. Carpenter says the 2002 video game sequel is canon
20 years after the film was first released, a new generation discovered The Thing thanks to a popular video game. Released for Xbox, Playstation 2 and Windows, Black Label Games/Konami’s The Thing is a third person survival horror game which follows on from the events of the 1982 movie, and casts the player as a Special Forces captain on a rescue mission to the Antarctic research station.
The Thing video game solves the big mystery from the end of the movie by confirming that MacReady and Childs were in fact both still human. John Carpenter, who also voices the character of Dr Sean Faraday in the game, has confirmed that this should be considered canon to the film; the director also thinks the video game to be a true sequel.
1. It’s technically the second remake of The Thing from Another World, after Horror Express
The Thing is frequently listed among the very best remakes of all time. While this is an entirely fair assessment, it should be noted that John Carpenter’s film was not the first remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World. The story had already been retold on film a second time in the British 1972 production Horror Express.
Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Telly Savalas, Horror Express draws heavily on John W. Campbell Jr.’s Who Goes There?, the same novella on which The Thing is based. The setting is radically different, however: Horror Express is set aboard a Trans-Siberian steam train in 1906. A 2021 episode of Shudder TV series Creepshow prominently features footage from the film.