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The Thing at 40: How the Sci-Fi Horror Film Became John Carpenter’s Best Work

Despite its initial financial and critical failure in 1982, The Thing has become revered in the past 40 years because it remains Carpenter’s best.

It is June 1982. After being hijacked by the independent auteurs of the New Hollywood movement throughout the ’70s, a few key box office juggernauts, such as Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and George Lucas’ Star Wars​​​​​​, have swayed the filmmaking business back in the favor of classically-rooted, big-budget blockbusters. This results in filmmakers like Spielberg and Lucas, who got their respective starts making fairly low-profile independent works, jumping over to big-budget studio productions. One such independent filmmaker is John Carpenter, a writer/director who spent the latter half of the ’70s forging his reputation with numerous independent success stories before signing on to make his studio debut with Universal’s The Thing.

With audiences’ appetites whet for both big-budget science-fiction films and Carpenter’s uniquely masterful blend of suspense and terror, The Thing looks guaranteed to be a smash hit. And then, E.T. happens. Released June 11, 1982, Spielberg’s E.T. becomes a pop culture-defining event film and leaves Carpenter’s decidedly less friendly alien invasion film (which was released two weeks later on June 25, 1982) to fall upon deaf ears. But now, 40 years later, it’s clear that not only is The Thing a science-fiction horror masterpiece, but it’s also John Carpenter’s greatest film.

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After attending USC School of Cinematic Arts in the late ’60s, John Carpenter burst onto the scene in the ’70s with a string of low-budget films. The first of these, Dark Star, was a science-fiction film co-written by future Alien-scribe Dan O’Bannon. Released in 1974 and made on a shoe-string budget, Dark Star afforded Carpenter an early chance to explore how he could meld his favorite genres together into a uniquely cohesive whole and how to make a low budget work in his favor. Carpenter served as writer, director, producer, editor and composer for Dark Star, a multitasking precedent that would persist throughout his career.

Dark Star introduced Carpenter to the filmmaking business, but it was the release of Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976 that truly kicked off his career. A taut, low-budget action thriller that showcased Carpenter’s gifts for staging impactful setpieces, orchestrating classical suspense and foregrounding immediacy in his characterizations, Assault on Precinct 13 became a robust independent success. This acclaim led to Carpenter becoming one of the hardest working people in independent filmmaking, working as a scribe-for-hire on films such as The Eyes of Laura Mars, Zuma Beach and Better Late Than Never while also making films such as Someone’s Watching Me!, Halloween, Elvis, The Fog and Escape From New York all in the span of just four years. Each of Carpenter’s films were incredible successes, all of which also saw him rigorously refining his craft and expanding his professional palette.

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This culminated with Carpenter’s move to the big leagues, signing on to his first major studio gig with Universal, making The Thing. Right from the get-go, it seemed too good to be true: Carpenter, a filmmaker who accredited his passion for filmmaking to Howard Hawks and the atomic dread-fueled science-fiction horror movies of the ’50s was going to remake Howard Hawks’ own seminal ’50s science-fiction horror film, The Thing From Another World, as his first big-budget swing. Remaking one of his favorite films was clearly not something Carpenter took lightly, bringing some of his most notable and influential collaborators aboard with him in the hopes of delivering something truly worthy of the title

He and his team absolutely succeeded. From top to bottom, John Carpenter’s The Thing is a stone-cold masterpiece. Bill Lancaster and Carpenter’s screenplay brilliantly strikes a balance between the structure and characterizations of The Thing From Another World and the more abstract creature details of John W. Campbell’s original novella, all while trading out the ’50s atomic dread for a palpable sense of Cold War-era tension. Cinematographer Dean Cundey relishes the opportunity to work on his largest canvas yet, delivering isolating landscapes and harrowing close-ups that further refine his trademark lighting techniques. Ennio Morricone’s score is a minimalist, pervasively unsettling all-timer. Rob Bottin’s practical effects work remains some of the very best ever put to screen, even a full four decades later. The entirety of the all-male cast brings their A-game, but performers like Kurt Russell, Keith David and Wilford Brimley go even further, delivering flat-out career-defining work.

As for Carpenter, he took every lesson he had learned over the previous decade of professional filmmaking and refined them into an astonishing cohesive whole. In a career full of remarkable films, The Thing is a cut above the rest in terms of just how pure a distillation it is of Carpenter’s authorial voice. From the refining of the Panavision camera systems he and Cundey had spent the last few years pushing to their limits to the innovative multi-layered approach to orchestrating suspense to the way in which the film actively interacts on a metatextual level with its own source material and legacy, no John Carpenter film is quite as much a John Carpenter film as The Thing.

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This is why it hurt Carpenter so much on a personal and professional level for The Thing to fail at the box office, with critics and with audiences upon release in 1982. In the fallout of The Thing, Carpenter’s singular vision was visibly shaken for the first time in his career. He spent the next few years delving outside his established genres, making films like 1984’s Starman and 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China, as part of what he perceived to be a necessary apology tour. But wonderfully, Carpenter returned to the genre in 1987 with Prince of Darkness and seemed to have come to a definite conclusion: regardless of how it was received, The Thing was his magnum opus.

Prince of Darkness is an excellent film that saw Carpenter returning to the same niche of science-fiction horror, even going so far as to label the film a thematic sequel to The Thing. Subsequent films like 1988’s They Live, 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness and even 1996’s Escape from L.A. all saw Carpenter embracing the idiosyncratic passions that had led him to The Thing in the first place, and it made his work feel wholly his own once again.

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As for The Thing itself, while audiences in 1982 were decidedly not ready for the film, the years have done right by it. Over the course of the past 40 years, it’s gone from being perceived as a maligned failure to a cult classic to a flat-out masterpiece. The astounding craftsmanship on display, the metatextual elements that redefined the relationship a remake could have to its source material, the Cold War tension; it’s all aged like fine wine, with the film growing even more prescient in the years since its release.

The film that once brought Carpenter such heartache and nearly derailed his entire career is now his most unanimously praised film. But even back in 1982, The Thing was a masterpiece. For as much as E.T. came to define 1982, The Thing was 1982: a palpably terrifying encapsulation of paranoia and dread, in which “nobody trusts anybody now… and we’re all very tired.” Its horrors and anxieties on full display, The Thing was a far too accurate indictment of America in 1982; one that audiences were simply not ready for.

Will Jones is an ardent adorer of all things cinematic, from writing about films to making films. He came onboard with CBR in 2022, after having previously worked at sites such as WhatCulture and BigShinyRobot.

John Carpenter’s Road to The Thing

Retrofitting The Thing for a New Generation of Dread

The Failure and Resurgence of The Thing

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