A trio of panellists – Dean Brandum (left, Assault on Precinct 13), myself (middle, The Thing) and Tristan Jones (right, In the Mouth of Madness) – stepped up to discuss the films of John Carpenter following a very special Cinemaniacs’ presentation of Christine on Saturday 8th July 2017.
We were pressed for time and, of course, we all had too much to say so, while the live audience got the gist of my blind adoration of The Thing, there was a plethora of information that never made it out of my mouth (of madness). Here’s the full transcript of the intended presentation for posterity…
With special thanks to my friend Lee Gambin for always trusting me with projects that are close to his heart.
THE THING PRESENTATION
In 1982, John Carpenter released his first studio movie: THE THING.
It was based on a science fiction novella by John W. Campbell called Who Goes There?; and the 1951 film, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, which was made in 1951 by Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks.
It was a very important film for John Carpenter because:
(A) It marked his emergence into the Hollywood studio system
(B) It was by far his biggest budget at $15 million (his next biggest budgeted film had been ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK in 1981 at $6 million)
(C) It was his most ambitious project yet for a number of reasons, such as the shooting conditions – often in the snow and blizzards, etc.), the extensive SFX requirements (handled spectacularly by Rob Bottin, who had just come off THE HOWLING) and the demands of directing an ensemble cast (something Carpenter was skilled at, as he’d already demonstrated with his work on ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13).
THE THING was definitely a turning point in Carpenter’s career. But not in the way he had hoped.
In the very early 1980s, Carpenter’s star was on the rise and it appeared that he could do no wrong. For example, among many highlights across the 1970s, he made the now-legendary HALLOWEEN on a budget of $300,000 that took $47 million at the box office, and pretty much consolidated a new sub-genre of horror movies in the process.
With THE THING, Carpenter was, in some ways, harking back to where he began: a science fiction monster film. As a student, he had dabbled in schlock science fiction shorts and his first feature film, DARK STAR (1974), was very much a precursor to THE THING – although with a comedic bent, rather than horror, and in space rather than on Earth.
THE THING’s exploration of aliens on Earth or alien invasion would set a tone for Carpenter’s future space science fiction projects, such as STARMAN from 1984 starring Jeff Bridges, and the excellent THEY LIVE from 1988 starring no less than wrestling sensation Rowdy Roddy Piper.
DARK STAR was similar to THE THING because iti s also a monster movie. And I personally very much admire the imagination that went into creating the ‘cheeseball’ (as Carpenter himself calls) the monster in it, which is essentially a painted beachball with hands. As you can see here…
Interestingly, Carpenter’s close collaborator (you could even call him ‘co-filmmaker’) on DARK STAR was fellow University of Southern California film student Dan O’Bannon. For anyone who may have seen this film, O’Bannon also starred in it as the character ‘Pinback’.
DARK STAR took O’Bannon and Carpenter years to create – it started as a short film then received a budget boost to make it into a feature – and it took a similar amount of time to get distribution. O’Bannon and Carpenter lived with this film across an extremely significant, influential and exhausting period in their filmmaking development. So it’s not surprising that both would draw heavily from DARK STAR – in a more sophisticated, bigger budget way – further on in their careers.
For Carpenter, DARK STAR would be most prominently reflected in THE THING and, for O’Bannon, that would be in his co-creating and writing of a little film called ALIEN in 1979 (you might know it).
Incidentally, O’Bannon was broke as hell and sleeping on his mate Ron Shuster’s couch when they wrote ALIEN together. He’d chosen unwisely turning down work on STAR WARS to instead do Jodorowsky’s version of DUNE, which never made it into principal photography and left him pants and without a home. ALIEN was his saving grace. And how.
The parallels between THE THING, DARK STAR and ALIEN are numerous. I won’t go into them in-depth, because that would require a separate presentation, but the structure and story arc of all three films is remarkably similar and highly accomplished, and this includes DARK STAR despite the filmmakers being at the beginning of their careers.
As you will see from the screen here, THE THING and ALIEN both feature iconic chest-bursting scenes. But the reverse of each other. Academics would call the ALIEN example phallic, while THE THING is a vagina dentate (a cavity, rather than a protrusion), which is interesting in itself considering THE THING has an all-male cast. You could say this is the only vagina in the movie.
Carpenter did not write the screenplay for THE THING (BAD NEWS BEARS writer Bill Lancaster did) and he claims he did not originate the project – it came to him as an assignment – but THE THING still manages to be an authentic Carpenter movie with his fingerprints all over it. Carpenter was actually initially reticent to take on the project because of his love for the original Hawks/Nyby film.
For me, THE THING is perfect in every way. It is definitely in my top 10 films of all-time, if not in my top 5, it depends on the day.
Foremost is the creation of a monster – and not a man-in-a-suit, as was the case with the original film, but of a non-CGI puppet & goo monster that could look like anything, and only really reveals itself when it’s in transition from one human life form to another.
Even though The Thing is one ‘thing’, in reality, Rob Bottin had to create a number of different monsters in order to depict the one. An example of one of those monsters you can see now on the screen…
It feels like Kurt Russell’s character of Macready is the lead but, really, THE THING is a powerful example of an ensemble performing, and being directed to perform, at its best.
Ensemble films are notoriously difficult to pull off, especially in terms of creating audience familiarity with different characters quickly and making sure the characters are distinct from each other. Considering THE THING’s cast are all men (mostly white men, bar two black men) and the action takes place in a cold climate, which means their identities are obscured by lots of layers of clothing, coloured in browns and other neutral tones, Carpenter’s direction and establishment of this ensemble is even more impressive.
You could say that Wilford Brimley in the character of Dr Blair just as equally shoulders the hypothetical lead role as Kurt Russell – and let’s not forget the dog performance by half-dog/half-wolf Jed, who is just as important to the storyline as any of the human characters or even the central Thing monster itself.
All ambitious projects are a gamble and, for John Carpenter, this gamble did not pay off, at least not immediately. THE THING was a commercial and critical failure at the time of its release – I must emphasise that because it has since been universally recognised as a classic. In filmmaking, as in life in general, timing is everything and, unfortunately, for everyone involved with THE THING, it’s timing was all wrong for cinematic release. But not for the home video market, which is where THE THING would eventually find its feet.
Even though THE THING was riding on the coattails of ALIEN’s stunning success, it is a far bleaker film than ALIEN (which is saying something), the first film in what John Carpenter calls his Apocalypse Trilogy, or what I like to call his ‘we’re all going to die’ trilogy. PRINCE OF DARKNESS would be the next film, concluding with IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, which Tristan is going to talk about shortly.
Criticism aimed at the THE THING was largely due to the extent of its violence and gore, the fact that it had an all-male cast, and the bleak nature of its ending. For those who come to THE THING for the first time in a modern-day light, such criticisms may seem odd but, in 1982, THE THING was a little too confronting. And that reaction coloured everything to do with THE THING. The remarkable Ennio Morricone score even nominated for a 1983 Razzie Award for Worst Original Score, which I personally find unbelievable.
THE THING’s theme of a monster ‘disease’ that hides in people before destroying them and moving onto another person reflected, maybe a little too prematurely, the rise of the AIDS epidemic, which was causing collective hysteria across the world by 1982. Once again, Carpenter’s timing in tackling the AIDS debate may have come a little too early for audiences because David Cronenberg fared far better with this subject when he released the absolutely fantastic THE FLY in 1986.
THE THING also came out two weeks after ET: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (another film that is very close to my heart) and got swamped by a worldwide yearning for lovable aliens, definitely not the kind of ALIEN that is portrayed in THE THING.
THE THING’s budget was $15 million and it only took a total of $14 million, not even breaking even. Given that Carpenter’s film before THE THING, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, took $25 million with just a $6 million budget, you can imagine how sobering – or deflating – the experience of THE THING was for Carpenter. It was literally his first flop, both financially and critically.
The movie we’ve watched tonight, CHRISTINE, was John Carpenter’s comeback film and, essentially, a knee-jerk response to THE THING in order to please his established fan-base and get him back on track.
As John Carpenter told me for an interview I conducted with him:
“CHRISTINE came about because THE THING was a pretty big failure in box office terms. I was attacked for doing awful things because of the violence. And I was hated by the fans, which serves me right for going down that path. I should’ve realised because they’ll turn on you like bad pets – they’ll bite you. So I needed a job, and I’d missed out on a movie because of THE THING, and along came CHRISTINE.”
I think there is a lot to admire about John Carpenter for recognising that he had done wrong in creating a film that his fans were just not ready for. That’s the thing about Carpenter – he is aware of the commerciality of the film business and he makes himself accountable to his audience. He doesn’t see himself as an ‘artist’ somehow better than the people who are watching his films so he copped the blow of THE THING’s failure on the chin and accepted responsibility.
I read a recent article by Kyle Anderson on the Nerdist website that argued THE THING is very Lovecraftian in its style of ‘cosmic horror’ – “the realization that there are ancient, wholly ‘inhuman’ creatures that exist in our own universe that do not care about us all.” Not sure about you, but I can see that reflected in the news everyday at the moment.
In saying ‘Lovecraftian’, this refers to the works of early 20th century horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. But THE THING is not the most Lovecraftian of John Carpenter’s movies, don’t you think, Tristan?