Audiences didn't want that close an encounter with "Thing"
By Ted Mahar
There can be such a thing as too much success, and John Carpenter's THE THING of last summer seems to be a classic case.
It's a bit reminiscent of the archetypical shaggy dog story, the very long one about the lost, very, very shaggy dog, the punchline of which is, "Not that shaggy!"
Audiences seem to like tense and/or gory movies, as evidenced by the lucrative success of JAWS, THE EXORCIST, Carpenter's own HALLOWEEN and it's many ripoffs, including the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies.
Those and others, such as THE AMITYVILLE HORROR seemed to have done well with lots of gore. Audiences seemed to be asking, in essence, "Send us more gore!"
The box-office response: "Not that gory!"
Some connected with THE THING have said they were done in by E.T., that audiences didn't want gory movies all of a sudden. They didn't want nasty aliens from space. They wanted nice space guys, cousins of those Steven Spielberg conjured hopefully in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. A coproducer, Stuart Cohen, said in a Cinefantastique magazine article that THE THING suffered from an E.T. backlash.
That may be, yet Spielberg's production of POLTERGEIST, discussed in the same issue of Cinefantastique, managed to suck up $36 million in domestic rentals alone, and it is not without both tension and gore. CONAN THE BARBARIAN, featuring decapitation (of Conan's mommy), amputations, impalings, literal human butchering and a transformation from man to snake, managed to knock off $23 million in domestic rentals.
THE THING, made for a reported $15 million, managed to pullin only $10.5 million before Universal Pictures pulled it out of release. It will show up on cable soon, probably; it's already been on pay-TV. Whether or not you saw or liked THE THING, you would have to assume it was better than FRIDAY THE 13TH III - 3-D, which earned some $16.5 million.
Nevertheless, the predominant comment on THE THING was that it was an exercise in gory special effects. It was; I said so, too, and I said it in a generally unenthusiastic review. Like most other critics, I said it was all but impossible to care much what happened to the characters. While the film was perfectly well acted, the characterizations simply weren't there in the script. An actor can't act what isn't written.
I still couldn't endorse THE THING for general audiences, even the general audiences who made POLTERGEIST, the gory but well-made FIRST BLOOD and the gory and not well-made SHARKEY'S MACHINE ($18.3 million) profitable.
Some things will always be true of THE THING. It will always seem a bit slow and repetative. It will always be claustrophobic. It will always be phenomenally gory, unless it is somehow edited (with a combine) for TV, which should result in a very puzzling 50-minute filmlet. It will never be a film in which the characters elicit sympathy as anything more than rather anonymous men on an Arctic survey team.
Moreover, where one of the great appeals of the Howard Hawks 1951 version of this story (sort of) was the rapport and easy camaraderie among the characters, the guys in Carpenter's film are isolated from one another and are emotionally distant from the viewer.
Somehow THE THING stays on my mind. Perhaps because the Hawks film is one of my alltime favorites, I have a grudging admiration for Carpenter's version. Hawks fan Carpenter remade Hawks' RIO BRAVO as ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, and the opening credits of his film are a direct homage to Hawks' THE THING.
Also, to be fair, Carpenter didn't so much remake THE THING as he filmed the original story for the first time. Hawks couldn't have done it before Carpenter did; no one could. The technology just wasn't there.
Without ever being filmed directly, John W. Campbell's long short story "Who Goes There?" inspired several movies and even other stories and books. It's an apt title, for Campbell's premise was that a space creature, buried more than 100,000 years in Arctic ice, was freed by accident. This being had the capacity to invade and duplicate any living organism, showing up first in a sled dog.
Campbell even leaves a loose end that can be interpreted as meaning a host being, who must be destroyed to kill the creature, may not be aware it is no longer itself. In effect, its ignorant mentality remains intact in an alien host.
Many films and stories were made on a similar premise: THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, INVADERS FROM MARS, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE and others in which characters could be taken over without their friends realizing it, at least for a while.
Like Campbell, Carpenter and special makeup whiz Rob Bottin developed the story, not the characters. Kurt Russell, star of Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, played a loner, a helicopter pilot among scientists and technicians. He became the central character of the story and behaved much as the Campbell character did.
Carpenter's film may do (or may have done) better in Europe; it has elements European critics, at least, praise. The hero is a true loner, and, as in many B-movies and films noir, no one can trust anyone else, a perfect metaphor for the spiritual condition of the 20th century.
Moreover, what Americans saw as excesses might be considered artistic courage in Europe. Carpenter and Bottin dared to take the story as far as Campbell did. Campbell describes his characters as being hardly able to watch the unexpected transformations of the creature. It was sloppy, noisy, sickening, fearsome; and it always meant the death of another of their dwindling number. Someone they liked and trusted last week could suddenly get all gooshy and begin to metamorphize with nauseating cracks and liquid sounds.
Would the gore and the truly ingenious, landmark special effects have disgusted patrons if they cared more for the characters? If Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Harrison Ford, Richard Pryor and James Garner had been in Russell's camp, would there have been the kind of emtional identification that would make the transformation scenes fearfully thrilling rather than vividly gruesome?
We'll never know, of course.
As it is, Carpenter's THE THING will probably be forever a footnote in film history for two reasons.
One, Bottin and his crew devised, staged and photographed truly amazing special effects. At least in the trade, they will stand as a pinnacle of development. They are not merely remarkable and impressive in themselves, but they are phenomenal in the amount of time devoted to them onscreen. There are no cutaways from the horrible to let viewer imagination fill in the details. It's all on the screen, and there's lots of it, a little new and different each time.
Two, Carpenter may ruefully ponder the fact that, in an industry famous for scrapping whole stories to get an idea or two (as Hawks did in the version we all love), his project foundered because of excessive fidelity to its original source.