John Carpenter’s masterpiece was an infamous bomb when it was first released. Its qualities demonstrate how little box office numbers truly matter.
June 25th marks the 40th anniversary of John Carpenter’s The Thing: an unquestioned horror masterpiece ranking among the greatest efforts in the legendary director’s career. The occasion has been marked by screenings and fresh evaluations of the film, including a Full Fathom Events re-release, which the director himself pushed on Twitter. It matches the festivities around another classic released 40 years ago: E.T. The Extraterrestrial, which receives an IMAX release this August and similar pomp and circumstance.
That would come as a huge surprise to those who witnessed the two movies’ initial release a few weeks apart in June of 1982. E.T. became the highest-grossing film of all time — a record it held for 15 years — and one of the signature films of the decade. The Thing, conversely, was hailed as a major disaster by critics at the time and bombed heavily at the box office. The fact that both now stand more or less as equals in the eyes of pop culture speaks volumes about how little box office returns really matter.
Steven Spielberg built his career in part on an uncanny connection to the zeitgeist of the moment. He instinctively knew what audiences wanted and consistently found new and original ways to give it to them. In many ways, E.T. was the apex of that tendency. Sweet, heartfelt, and openly nostalgic, it found a fresh take on family stories of the “boy and his dog” variety, reimagined in the Instamatic tract home suburbs of the 1980s and with the family of a single mother as the focus. It struck all the right chords in all the right ways on its way to grossing $790 million worldwide.
In contrast to Spielberg, Carpenter was a cinematic iconoclast whose work reflected an underlying darkness and a deep distrust of authority figures. His sensibilities were far grittier than Spielberg’s and, at the time, seemed out of touch with what audiences wanted. The Thing was grim, nihilistic and rife with paranoia — a far cry from the optimism of E.T. — while its downbeat and deliberately ambiguous ending is still debated among horror fans. Even so, the critical beating the film received was stunning in its intensity. The New York Times condemned it as “instant junk,” while Cinemafantastique infamously asked whether The Thing was the worst movie ever made in its double issue, Volume 13, Numbers 2 and 3. That and the abysmal box office numbers put a huge crimp in Carpenter’s career. It would be years before he recovered professionally.
The reasons why are complicated, but it comes down to the audience’s mood at the time. Many of the harsh reviews were directed at Rob Bottin’s special effects, which are now regarded as some of the greatest ever put on film but were just too much for audiences more interested in magical adventures on flying bikes. Roger Ebert’s comparatively benign review at the time called it a “barf-bag” movie, a condemnation leveled by a number of his contemporaries. It was likely a reflection of the slasher movie trend, which Carpenter helped foster with 1978’s Halloween and which critics could quickly (and often rightfully) cite for emphasizing gimmicky violence over good storytelling.
That led to a second criticism of the film: The characters were thinly drawn ciphers who existed only to be eaten by the monster. The Thing took a great deal of heat, not only in comparison to E.T. on this front — which was widely praised for its heart and humanity — but also compared to the original 1951’s The Thing from Another World, which similarly focused on the dialogue over the monster. As with Bottin’s effects, the negative impression was wrong and simply took time to dissipate. The Thing’s array of characters was drawn as deliberately minimalist, with nuances — such as MacReady’s presumed dark past in Vietnam or the unknown source of Garry’s false bravado — that only come out upon multiple viewings.
In short, the very qualities that made The Thing so special couldn’t be perceived amid a fire-and-forget box office environment that only rewarded the whims of the moment. It took video and cable TV — and the repeat viewing that they enabled — for the film’s strengths to reveal themselves as the very things critics and audiences condemned it for upon first release. 40 years later, box office returns are still held as a gold standard of movie success, even with streaming and similar outlets providing far more access to a given movie. Those numbers never meant nearly as much to a film’s quality as cited, a fact to which The Thing will eternally attest.
A native Californian, Robert Vaux has spent over 20 years as a professional film and television critic: working for such outlets as Collider, Mania.com and The Sci-Fi Movie Page. His favorite superhero is Nightcrawler and his lucky numbers are 4, 9, 14, 16, 36, and 40.