With horror industry heavy hitters already in place from the 1970s, the 1980s built upon that with the rise of brilliant minds in makeup and effects artists, as well as advances in technology. Artists like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Tom Savini, Stan Winston, and countless other artists that delivered groundbreaking, mind-blowing practical effects that ushered in the pre-CGI Golden Age of Cinema. Which meant a glorious glut of creatures in horror. More than just a technical marvel, the creatures on display in ‘80s horror meant tangible texture that still holds up decades later. Grotesque slimy skin to brutal transformation sequences, there wasn’t anything the artists couldn’t create. It Came From the ‘80s is a series that will pay homage to the monstrous, deadly, and often slimy creatures that made the ‘80s such a fantastic decade in horror.
In 1982, there was apparently only room for one extra-terrestrial at the box office. Released just weeks apart, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was met with critical acclaim and huge profits while John Carpenter’s The Thing was a flop panned by critics. It’s hard to believe that could ever be the case, but it took years for opinion to turn around on Carpenter’s now universally loved masterpiece. In the 36 years since release, much has been said already on Carpenter’s expertly crafted atmosphere steeped in paranoia, the talented cast, and how special makeup effects creator and designer Rob Bottin was integral in shaping The Thing. But as celebrated as Carpenter’s seminal film now is, it’s been understated just how brilliant Carpenter and Bottin were at assembling the best possible team and how painstaking the film’s production truly was.
Bottin, who had previously worked with Carpenter on The Fog, was only in his early twenties during production on The Thing, fresh off special makeup effects creative work on The Howling. By the lengthy production’s end, Bottin was hospitalized with exhaustion, pneumonia, and a bleeding ulcer. While Carpenter initially envisioned the Thing as a single entity, it was Bottin that suggested the creature assimilate its victims and be ever changing. This meant a much larger scope of effects work. Bottin oversaw a crew of 35 special makeup effects artists, seeking out and enlisting many of the most talented people. Even still, he’d hoard a lot of the workload himself. For 14 months of production, Bottin and his team worked around the clock, many of whom never had a single day off during that time.
One of the film’s most jolting scenes featured one of horror’s most iconic jump scares of all time; the defibrillator shock. Bottin and his team created a fiber glass dummy of actor Charles Hallahan, who played Vance Norris, even going so far as to meticulously recreate the hair pattern on his chest. Prosthetics and viscera were created, as well as multiple body moldings and a hydraulic rig that clamped down on the doctor’s arms to rip them away while Hallahan was in a harness beneath the fiberglass suit. Cleverly, a double amputee was hired for the shot, wearing the arm prosthetics and a mask of Dr. Copper to really sell that Dr. Copper had his arms chewed off. The monstrous creature that then emerged from the chest cavity took a whopping 10 hours alone just to set up the shot. Just think what that meant whenever they had to reset the effect for any additional takes.
The special makeup effects crew utilized seemingly endless quantities of rubber foam latex, fiberglass, plastic, gelatin, creamed corn, mayonnaise, bubble gum, strawberry jam, and more for the creation of the various iterations of the Thing. Through use of marionettes, prosthetics, hydraulics, and puppetry, there’s a reason The Thing is a pinnacle of special effects work. All of it built toward the most daunting version of the Thing during the climax; the Blair-Thing. The foam latex team had their work cut out for them, molding a Blair-Thing monster that was about 5 feet high and 8 feet in circumference. Bottin enlisted the work of animation effects artist Randall William Cook (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), who in turn worked with miniature supervisor Susan Turner, to work on a stop motion animation sequence involving a smaller scaled Blair-Thing. Many hours went into to animated sequence, but Carpenter ultimately cut it from the final film.
The tireless work of the special effects team may not have paid off during the film’s initial theatrical release, but it’s a major component of why The Thing is so beloved today. Bottin spent 57 weeks, 7 days a week, working around the clock to the point where he eventually was hospitalized. His team was just as hard working, too, a lot of whom slept only a few hours a night at the studio to pull off the ambitious makeup effects. This doesn’t even touch on the visual effects team, stunt work, art department, Dean Cundey’s glorious cinematography, and every other department that contributed to making The Thing a masterpiece that was ahead of its time.
A shining example of what happens when everyone involved in the making of the film is as committed as they are talented, this film also exists as a time capsule. Films simply aren’t made like this anymore, and 57 weeks spent on special makeup effects is practically unheard of now. An achievement on every level, The Thing will forever remain an all-timer.