June 25, 1982, was a good day for genre fans. Hell, that summer saw a spate of genre classics released, including “The Road Warrior,” “Poltergeist,” and “E.T.” But June 25th in particular saw not only the release, as we discussed earlier today, of “Blade Runner,” but also another legendary sci-fi picture, which like Ridley Scott’s film, wasn’t well-received at the time, and flopped at the box office, but went on to be enshrined in the geek hall of fame. No, it’s not Barry Bostwyck vehicle “MegaForce,” but John Carpenter‘s terrifying “The Thing,” which despite the efforts of last year’s poor retread/prequel, remains one of the greatest sci-fi/horrors ever made.
Technically a remake of Howard Hawks‘ well-loved 1951 “The Thing From Another World,” which Carpenter pays tribute to in the opening moments, the new film took a very different approach, ramping up both the paranoia and the eye-popping physical effects, which maintain the power to disgust even today. To mark the 30th anniversary of John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” we’ve assembled five facts you may not be aware of. Unless you’re one of them… Check them out below.
1. “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” helmer Tobe Hooper was the first director attached.
Producer Stuart Cohen (who keeps an excellent and detailed blog about the making of the film), David Foster and Lawrence Turman took the prospect of a remake of Howard Hawks‘ “The Thing From Another World” (or more accurately, a new, more faithful adaptation of John W. Campbell’s story “Who Goes There?“), to Universal, where Turman-Foster Productions had a deal, in the mid 1970s. “The Sugarland Express” writers Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins had the rights, but they passed on the new adaptation, and Universal picked up the book from them. While Cohen says he wanted his old USC classmate John Carpenter involved from the start, the director hadn’t yet broken out with “Halloween,” and Universal had Tobe Hooper, director of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” under contract at that point, and he was hired along with writing partner Kim Henkel. However, producers weren’t pleased with their script, described by Cohen as “a sort of Antarctica ‘Moby Dick’ with an Ahab-like character (I believe his name was The Captain) battling a large, but decidedly non-shape shifting creature…a tone poem with a stab at a Southern, Davis Grubb-like feel” After a meeting with “Animal House” helmer John Landis, playwright David Wiltse was brought on, but that draft too failed to meet muster, and neither did a treatment from “Logan’s Run” scribe William F. Nolan. The project then languished for a few years until the success of “Alien” saw it pick up steam again, and Carpenter, who’d reinvented the horror genre with “Halloween,” was loosely attached, although didn’t want to write the script himself. A number of scribes were approached, including sci-fi legend Richard Matheson (who turned it down), “Quatermass” creator Nigel Kneale, and “The Deer Hunter” writer Derek Washburn, but it was Bill Lancaster, son of screen legend Burt Lancaster, and writer of the “Bad News Bears” movies, who proved the right fit, with Carpenter declaring his eventual draft — delivered three and a half months late — as the best script he’d ever read. Even then, there was nearly another hitch — just as the film threatened to be greenlit, Carpenter thought that a horror-western passion project “El Diablo,” was close to being made at EMI Films, and nearly bailed. Walter Hill, Michael Ritchie and even Sam Peckinpah were all discussed as replacements before Carpenter came back to the fold.
2. Australian actor Jack Thompson was nearly cast in the lead role, while Ernie Hudson, Donald Pleasance, Brian Dennehy and Lee Van Cleef all came close to parts too.
Kurt Russell had starred in two of Carpenter’s last three pictures: 1979’s TV movie “Elvis” and 1981’s “Escape From New York,” but the director was wary of working with him too many times, and initially looked elsewhere for an actor to play MacReady. Overtures were made to Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken, Nick Nolte, Kris Kristofferson and Sam Shepard, but all were unavailable, or turned the project down. More serious meetings were held with John Heard, Tom Berenger, Fred Ward, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Peter Coyote and Tim McIntyre (the latter four all passing on the project), while Carpenter favorite Tom Atkins (“The Fog,” “Escape From New York“) was an early front-runner. Surprisingly, it was Australian actor Jack Thompson who’d won Best Supporting Actor at Cannes for “Breaker Morant” (and has gone on more recently to parts in films including “December Boys,” “Australia” and the upcoming “Great Gatsby“) who came closest, being flown in to read for Carpenter personally. But ultimately, the director decided the project would be best served with a reunion with Russell. Other Carpenter vets were in the running for parts too — “Halloween” star Donald Pleasance was considered for Blair, but it was decided to go for a less familiar face, and Wilford Brimley got the gig instead. Meanwhile, Lee Van Cleef was up for Garry, along with Jerry Orbach, Kevin Conway, Richard Mulligan and Powers Boothe, while Russell’s “Escape From New York” co-star Isaac Hayes was in consideration to play Childs, as were Geoffrey Holder, Carl Weathers and Bernie Casey, while Ernie Hudson came very close. In the end, Donald Moffat and Keith David took the roles. Finally, Brian Dennehy, who’d also been up to play MacReady, was very nearly Dr. Copper (William Daniels also read), before Carpenter decided on Richard Dysart.
3. Keep your eyes (and ears) peeled for cameos from John Carpenter and his then-wife Adrienne Barbeau.
Thanks to Alfred Hitchcock, directors are more keen to make some kind of brief cameo in their own work (or worse, want to cast themselves in a lead role they’re entirely ill-suited for — M. Night Shyamalan, we’re looking at you…) And true to form, Carpenter. who made physical or vocal cameos in most of his films from “Dark Star” to “Memoirs Of An Invisible Man,” does crop up in “The Thing,” as one of the Norwegians in the video footage. Meanwhile, the director’s then-wife Adrienne Barbeau, who’d starred in “The Fog” and “Escape From New York,” lends her voice to the chess computer. Probably less recognizable is the rifle-carrying Norwegian in the opening; the part was played by Larry J. Franco, who was an associate producer, the 2nd unit director, and at the time, was married to Russell’s sister Jill (he’s gone on produce “Batman Begins” and “2012” among many others). Carpenter claims on the DVD commentary that Franco was making up his Norwegian lines, speaking nonsense, but in fact, it does make sense, albeit in a broken way. It does give the game away to any Norwegian viewers, however; the lines translate as “”Get the hell outta there. That’s not a dog, it’s some sort of thing! It’s imitating a dog, it isn’t real! Get away you idiots!”
4. Special effects whiz Rob Bottin was only 22 when he handled most of the effects, although Stan Winston was brought on for one particular creature.
Undoubtedly one of the most sickeningly memorable aspects of the film are the gruesome special effects, handled with puppets (and occasionally stop-motion, although Carpenter scrapped much of what was planned, finding it unconvincing); they still hold up, and churn stomachs today, even in adorable claymation form (see below). The man responsible for achieving most of the effects was Rob Bottin, who was a mere 22 years old when the film was in production. Bottin had been hired by effects legend Rick Baker at the age of 14, and went on to work with the maestro on “King Kong” and “Piranha,” among others (as well as some of the “Star Wars” creatures — Bottin even plays in the cantina band in the original film). The 20-year-old was introduced to Carpenter by DoP Dean Cundey, and got a credit for contributing special makeup for “The Fog,” before going on to his first solo gig on Joe Dante‘s “The Howling,” where he created an astonishing werewolf transformation sequence that still vies with Baker’s in “An American Werewolf In London” for the finest ever. He went straight onto “The Thing,” and created and operated the majority of effects himself, working seven days a week, and had to check himself into hospital once shooting wrapped to recover from exhaustion. He did, however, have a little help; the late Stan Winston did create the nausea-inducing dog-thing puppet, although was so impressed by Bottin’s work that he refused credit.
5. An alternate, happy ending was shot, but has never been shown.
The DVD and Blu-Ray do include one alternate ending, where the Thing, taking the form of the sled-dog once again, looks back at the flaming camp before running off into the wilderness, suggesting that attempts at containing the threat have failed, and that mankind is likely doomed. However, a far happier ending does exist, although it’s been seen by only a few who weren’t involved with the production. On the DVD documentary “Terror Takes Shape,” editor Todd C Ramsay details that he suggested to Carpenter that they cover themselves by shooting a happy ending while they still had Russell available (the actor was going on to shoot “Silkwood“), in case it became necessary later on. Carpenter agreed, and an alternate conclusion was filmed, whereby MacReady is rescued, and given a blood test that proves he’s not a creature. Thankfully, it was never used, and has never been included on any release of the film (although a radically different TV edit, disowned by Carpenter, featuring opening voiceover, cuts for violence and language, and longer introductions to the cast, was created by Universal in the 1980s). As for the canonical ending, Carpenter still insists that he doesn’t know which of MacReady or Childs is really The Thing at the end. And that’s the way we like it.