On June 25th, 1982, The Thing was unleashed into theaters across the US. John Carpenter’s updated vision of the Howard Hawks’ classic and re-adaptation of the short, Who Goes There?, faced some stiff competition at the box office. As the story goes, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was “phoning home” all the cash that summer (forgive me) with its Spielberg-ian, family friendly brand of sci-fi. Audiences just didn’t seem to be in the mood for Carpenter’s bleak, gory alien tale. While that might be true, it’s likely more to do with the fact that E.T. had only been released two weeks prior and was still hogging the ticket-buying spotlight. Afterall, it was quite the phenomenon upon release. In addition to that, audience members seeking more high-minded sci-fi had Blade Runner (also released on the 25th) to catch their attention. All of this to say, on a budget of 15 million to total box office draw of around 20 million, The Thing was far from a smash hit.
Huge turnouts weren’t the only thing missing upon the film’s release; from those who did see it, there was a lack of positive word of mouth too. The most vocal opinion was one of disdain from the audience reactions, critical reception, and even genre magazines of the time. However, these many years later it’s hard to imagine The Thing being considered anything less than a genre masterpiece. Nonetheless, Carpenter’s career was even put on ice for months after the film failed to light Hollywood on fire. The distributor, Universal, had signed a multi-picture deal with the rising director/producer. His follow up was to be the Stephen King adaptation, Firestarter. Mortified by the outcome of their first collaboration with Carpenter, Uni paid off the director’s contract and sent him on his way.
Carpenter spotted the writing on the wall early on:
“I had this sixteen year old ask me what happened at the end – which one of them was the Thing? I told her she had to use her imagination. She told me she hated that. So I realized I was in deep trouble with that film. And I was right. The industry turned against me because they thought I had gone too far with the gore. I think it probably changed my career.”
Carpenter has even relayed another incident from an early screening where a man rushed from the auditorium to unpack his lunch…so to speak. The effects were too much for the man to handle. Of course, the gory bits and creature designs from legendary Rob Bottin are now considered the absolute pinnacle of practical effects work, but in the eyes of critics the summer of 82′ – they went too far. Roger Ebert called The Thing a “barf-bag movie” and “a geek show, a gross-out movie in which teenagers can dare one another to watch the screen.”
As of right now, the film sits at a nice, ripe 81% on Rotten Tomatoes. Of course, that ‘Fresh” rating is mostly culled from reappraisals and retrospective reviews. If you narrow the blurbs down to “Top Critics” you’ll find 6 reviewers all labeling the film “Rotten”, except for one – James Berardinelli. Of those 6 reviews, Berardinelli’s review also seems to be the only modern take of the lot. So, yeah, critics weren’t keen on The Thing upon its initial release.
“John Carpenter’s The Thing is a foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is fun as neither one thing or the other…
…It qualifies only as instant junk.”
Ouch. For the sake of comparison, how did Canby feel about E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial? Of the Spielberg classic, he wrote, “[E.T.] may become a children’s classic of the space age.” I’m sure you may be thinking that these are mainstream critics. Of course they didn’t understand the film at the time. Unfortunately, it seems that genre outlets weren’t too high on it either.
Cinemafantastique ran a cover story on The Thing asking, “Is This the Most Hated Film of All Time?” Even Starlog, originally a Star Trek fan-zine that grew to cover all things sci-fi, was the source of one of the more scathing takes on the material. Beyond throwing jabs at some of Carpenter’s previous work (seen in the clipping above), the reviewer (Alan Spencer) goes on to say this:
“I’ve seen John Carpenter’s The Thing twice. Once with a paying audience, and the second time in a private screening at a producer’s home. Both times the reactions were the same. Then again, when anyone passes by a city dump . . . who on earth likes the smell?
John Carpenter’s The Thing smells, and smells pretty bad. It bears plenty of Carpenter’s trademarks as a director. It has no pace, sloppy continuity, zero humor, bland characters on top of being totally devoid of either warmth or humanity.”
Starlog manages to double-down on the The Thing mudslinging by including a smaller panel within the review from Kenneth Tobey, actor from 51’s The Thing from Another World. Tobey was invited to a cast and crew screening and asked by Starlog to share his thoughts. While he claims to believe Carpenter is a fine director, he also points out the many mistakes he felt were made during the remake’s production: the callbacks to the original, the effects that “were too horrifying’, the title, he thought, should have been “Who Goes There?” since Carpenter’s film bared little resemblance to the original, and in regards to the ending:
“I also thought it was wrong for the ending to be so inconclusive, instead of showing
good winning out over evil. I don’t think it was fair to do that to the audience…”
I’d always heard The Thing wasn’t well received back in 82′, but I didn’t fully understand how rough it was until doing my research for this article. It’s hard to wrap my mind around one of the greatest examples of paranoid-horror, or horror in general, being trampled on as harshly as this film was back in the day. Thankfully, after 35 years of VHS, DVD, and now Blu-ray (and upcoming 4k restoration!), John Carpenter must feel vindicated. The Thing amassed quite the impressive following, and even that 81% on Rotten Tomatoes looks a little low.