Some movies are products of their time while others arrive distinctly ahead of it. It’s tough to imagine a worse moment for John Carpenter’s “The Thing” to have opened than in June of 1982 when audiences en masse had fallen madly in love with a cuddly intergalactic castaway by the name of E.T. Carpenter’s film featured an alien as well, one that on the PBS show “Sneak Previews” Roger Ebert described as “the most nauseating thing I’ve ever seen on a movie screen.” Clammy, paranoid and relentlessly downbeat, “The Thing” was incongruously grim and grotesque for a summer entertainment.
“Foolish, depressing, overproduced… it looks as if it aspired to be the quintessential moron movie of the ‘80s,” scowled The New York Times. Wildly hostile reactions to “The Thing” got Carpenter canned from his follow-up gig directing the Stephen King adaptation “Firestarter” and prompted Universal Pictures to buy him out of a multi-movie contract. The film opened in eighth place at the box office and vanished from theaters within weeks, but funny how almost 40 years later it’s considered a masterpiece by genre aficionados. A 35mm print of “The Thing” is screening every Saturday night at the Coolidge Corner Theatre for the rest of January, where strong-stomached audiences can experience it in all its snowy, gross-out glory. You might be surprised by how contemporary it feels.
A loose reworking of producer Howard Hawks and director Christian Nyby’s 1951 classic “The Thing from Another World,” the film takes place in a desolate Antarctic outpost, where a flying saucer that crashed thousands of years ago has been unearthed from the ice, releasing a shape-shifting alien predator that replicates the appearance of its victims. The creature hides inside of them until threatened, when its hideous, Lovecraftian form bursts forth. Icky viscera ensue.
The original Hawks picture is wildly entertaining, full of screwball banter, gutsy dames and can-do camaraderie among the professional men pitted against the beast. (There have long been rumors that the producer took over directing duties from Nyby, fueled by the film’s obvious similarities to Hawks’ great 1939 “Only Angels Have Wings.”) Carpenter’s take on the material — both are based on a novella by John W. Campbell called “Who Goes There?” — couldn’t be more temperamentally opposed, with weak, frightened dudes squabbling amongst themselves amid a gloomily oppressive atmosphere of dread.
It owes a lot to Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” with its blue-collar crew of regular fellas and the whole chest-busting body horror aesthetic, of course. But “The Thing” doesn’t share Scott’s feminized subtext of rape and impregnation, instead unfolding in a far corner of the world without any women in it at all. (The only female presence is a computer chess program voiced by the director’s then-wife Adrienne Barbeau, pointedly doused with whiskey and short-circuited by the movie’s sore loser protagonist.) Kurt Russell’s haunted, alcoholic chopper pilot MacReady is a tough one to warm up to, sullen and withdrawn even before he’s fending off slimy tentacle creatures with a flamethrower.
“The Thing” eventually found an audience on cable, where I know I wasn’t alone in watching it late at night when I was far too young to be doing so. The sheer nastiness of it all had an imprinting effect on a generation of budding cinema buffs — it’s one of the first films I can recall seeing that felt like it was trying to hurt you. (The movie’s really, really mean.) Even “Alien” took time to tease the monster, hiding it in shadows and around corners. But here the creature is always viewed head-on, fully lit and granted ghastly close-ups. Twenty-two-year-old F/X wizard Rob Bottin did the makeup, and after the grueling shoot was hospitalized for exhaustion, double pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer. His herculean efforts are all up there on the screen.
One young moviegoer profoundly affected by “The Thing” was Quentin Tarantino, who freely admits to borrowing the movie’s close-quartered alpha males circling one another with suspicion for his 1992 debut “Reservoir Dogs.” He went even further a few years ago with “The Hateful Eight,” swiping the snowbound setting, star Kurt Russell and composer Ennio Morricone. (Some of Morricone’s unused tracks from his score for “The Thing” found their way onto “The Hateful Eight” soundtrack.) And anyone who’s seen “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” can tell you that the flamethrower action in “The Thing” was obviously a big influence.
The script is credited to Bill Lancaster, son of movie legend Burt and author of the brilliant 1970s social satire “The Bad News Bears.” But the film’s haunting, ambiguous final scene was something cooked up on the set by Carpenter and Kurt Russell, who hilariously recount their process on a delightful 1998 DVD commentary track full of backslapping bonhomie. (A big topic is how difficult it was to get beer in the remote British Columbia location, and Russell roars with laughter at every ugly evisceration. Well worth a listen.)
That unresolved ending is, I think, one of the main reasons “The Thing” has endured. Far more terrifying than the grisly special effects is the story’s central idea that your friends and neighbors are no longer who they appear to be, hiding something deadly and foul beneath placid, familiar surfaces. When MacReady says, “Why don’t we just wait here for a little while, see what happens?” he denies audiences the closure expected from this kind of scare picture, allowing the movie’s nagging questions to follow you home and creep into your dreams.
It’s a finish that would have felt right at home a few years earlier at the height of feel-bad ‘70s cinema, and probably would have been lauded a decade later during the indie revolution of the 1990s, but it couldn’t have been more out of step with the mood of 1982, when an adorable extraterrestrial, Little Orphan Annie and Rocky Balboa were dominating the box office. Luckily, time has a way of sorting this stuff out. Just look at that summer’s other critically panned, science-fiction flop which just so happened to open in empty theaters on the same day as “The Thing” — a little movie called “Blade Runner.”
“The Thing” screens at the Coolidge Corner Theatre every Saturday night for the rest of January.