In the early 1980s, John Carpenter was an exciting young director wowing audiences and critics alike with his odd blend of action, horror, sci-fi, and synth music. Before his thirty-fourth birthday, Carpenter had already directed classics like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Escape from New York (1981), and of course, the iconic Halloween (1978). Up until this point, all of Carpenter’s films were indie productions, but the filmmaker finally got his chance to make a big studio movie in 1982, courtesy of Universal.
The film, of course, was The Thing (1982), an adaptation of Joseph W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? and loosely inspired by Howard Hawks' 1951 film The Thing From Another World? The plot follows a group of Antarctic researchers who find themselves trapped with a shapeshifting alien that has a bad habit of absorbing its victims and imitating its prey. Thanks to the Thing’s unique power, the Antarctic crew is never sure who to trust, and the film’s paranoia is punctuated with bursts of incredibly gory violence.
Carpenter assembled a brilliant cast of character actors led by star Kurt Russell and hired makeup artist Rob Bottin to create the myriad of monsters that hunt our human heroes. The result was a brilliant mash-up of fangs, tentacles, and Kurt Russell’s awesome beard. Unfortunately, when the film hit theaters on June 25, 1982, it was more-or-less a failure. True, it wasn’t a genuine bomb like, say, a certain sci-fi flick featuring another character known as “The Thing,” but still, the film had a $15 million budget…and earned a measly $20 million.
Even worse, The Thing was lambasted by critics. Roger Ebert called the film “a geek show,” and David Denby of New York magazine said it was “more disgusting than frightening, and most of it is just boring.” Vincent Canby of The New York Times said it was “too phony to be disgusting,” and that it qualified as “instant junk.” Cinefantastique magazine wondered if The Thing was the most hated movie ever, and Alan Spencer of Starlog—after slamming the movie as boring, sloppy, and bland—wrote, “John Carpenter was never meant to direct a science-fiction horror movie. Here’s something he’d be better suited to direct: traffic accidents, train wrecks, and public floggings.”
Now, even if you hate this movie, you’ve got to admit, that’s just mean.
So why was The Thing so despised when it was first released? Well, there were a lot of factors at play, but possibly the biggest culprit in The Thing’s demise was a little lovable alien who snacked on Skittles, levitated bicycles, and ran up the priciest phone bill in the galaxy. That’s right. We’re talking about E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982). Unfortunately for Carpenter, Steven Spielberg’s family flick came out two weeks before The Thing, and this uplifting tale of a boy and his otherworldly pal won the hearts of moviegoers around the world.
As you can probably guess, The Thing and E.T. are about as different as Elliot’s California home and Outpost #31. Both films feature aliens…and that’s where the similarities stop. One is a sentimental tearjerker, and the other turns the apocalyptic ick factor up to eleven. Going from one film to the other must’ve felt like cinematic whiplash, and The Thing’s blood and guts scared most movie moviegoers away.
Plus, E.T. was more in tune with the times. This was the ‘80s after all, and things in America were a lot more upbeat than they had been during the ‘70s. Perhaps if The Thing had come out a few years earlier, it would’ve been more of a success. After all, the film deals with issues of paranoia and distrust, just like the conspiracy thrillers that were so popular during the “Me Decade.” But instead, Carpenter’s sci-fi flick was outperformed by happier, friendlier films like Annie (1982) and Rocky III (1982).
Of course, that doesn’t really explain Poltergeist (1982). Despite its disturbing face-peeling sequence and swimming pool full of skeletons, Tobe Hooper’s horror film was the eighth highest grossing film of the year whereas The Thing was number forty-two. Why was one bloody horror film more successful than the other? Was it because of The Thing’s ambiguous ending? Or did it have more to do with the rating? In the era before “PG-13,” Poltergeist was awarded a “PG”—despite its gory special effects—while The Thing earned an “R.” Thanks to the Motion Picture Association of America, younger moviegoers (who probably would’ve loved The Thing) weren’t allowed to watch Kurt Russell battle an evil alien. Instead, they flocked to the haunted house flick, a movie that debuted one week before E.T. (which, incidentally, was the highest grossing film of the year).
Interestingly, The Thing wasn’t the only future classic that bombed that month. On the very same weekend Carpenter’s film was released, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) was similarly abandoned by critics and audiences. Just like The Thing, Blade Runner was also up against E.T., but perhaps moviegoers passed on these two films because they were tired of science fiction. As Ryan Lambie of Den of Geek points out, the summer of 1982 was saturated with speculative fiction. In addition to The Thing, E.T., and Blade Runner, there was also Tron (1982) and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), both of which did better than Carpenter’s and Scott’s modern-day masterpieces. Perhaps when presented with so many choices, audiences simply went with the more lighthearted fare.
Fortunately for cinephiles everywhere, The Thing eventually became one of Carpenter’s most beloved films, and today, it’s considered one of the great sci-fi films of the ‘80s. The very elements that turned audiences off back in 1982—the crazy special effects, the utter hopelessness, and the amazing, ambiguous ending—are the very things modern moviegoers admire so much about this film. Much like the titular creature itself, The Thing just needed to lay low a little while and wait for the next batch of victims, er, film lovers to come along.