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A Letter from John Carpenter on “The Thing” – January 2, 1983

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

In 1983, shortly after the release of his film The Thing, I got a letter from John Carpenter about the film.

John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing is now considered a masterpiece, something I’ve always thought, but when it first came out in the Summer of 1982, roughly at the same time as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, audiences opted for the cute little Reese’s pieces eating alien over Carpenter’s relentlessly nihilistic vision of a visitor from outer space, and the film was almost universally reviled by critics – proving, once again, that when a work is ahead of its time, it can almost be assured of an uncomprehending, hostile reception.

Carpenter had argued with Universal, who produced both films, that pitting them against each other would have disastrous results, suggesting that the release be delayed to Halloween, which of course is the title of Carpenter’s iconic 1978 indie film, which was shot for roughly $300,000, and went on to gross more than $70 million worldwide. But Universal insisted on putting the two films out within weeks of each other, and Spielberg’s film took off, while Carpenter’s film languished.

As Carpenter told one interviewer about the film’s initial reception, “I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit. I don’t think the studio knew what kind of movie they were getting. I think they wanted Alien, a crowd-pleaser. And it was way too ferocious for them. They were upset by the ending—too dark. But that’s what I wanted: Who goes there? Who are we? Which one of you is real? The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane.”

In the Fall of 1982, I was teaching film at Rutgers University, and as part of my fall class schedule, I wanted to run The Thing in 16mm CinemaScope format, but figured it was out of my budget range. Nevertheless, I called up Universal’s non-theatrical booking agency in Manhattan, chatted with a young woman there who was as enthused about the film as I was, and eventually negotiated a rental price of $100 – a fraction of the going rate – for the class screening.

At the same time, I mentioned to her how disappointed I was in the poor critical reception the film was receiving, and asked if I could have John Carpenter’s address so that I could write a letter to him in support of the film. In those much more egalitarian times, this was no problem, and she gave me Carpenter’s production company address, and I dispatched a letter to him giving my thoughts about the film, and various related topics, on December 15, 1982.

On January 2, 1983, I received a lengthy response from Carpenter, which I’ll quote most of here – with the note that for many years, I considered this letter lost, until it surfaced only a few days ago at the home of a friend in New Jersey, where apparently I had left it one evening. (Parenthetically, I’m a terrible archivist; I once had a signed letter from Orson Welles, no less, and lost that, too!)

But in any event, here is what Carpenter had to say to about the film, and horror films in general: “My favorite Gothic directors are Roman Polanski, Mario Bava (simply for style alone), George Romero, Terence Fisher and James Whale. Each of these directors brought a personality and a style to the horror film. I’ve always thought that Freddie Francis was a better Director of Photography. William Castle was more a producer / entrepreneur.

You asked me about the issue of cinematic violence, which is really, I feel, the issue of stylistic realism. Sam Peckinpah popularized the ‘too real effect’ in The Wild Bunch [1969]. Human beings don’t really die with little blood bag explosions popping out all over the place, but the effect soon became a kind of realism used widely in movies and even television; you shoot someone, you pop a couple of blood bags here and there.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Halloween didn’t use this stylistic realism. The brutal, sadistic killings were suggested, sparing us any enjoyment of the sadism. We’re voyeurs, true, but there’s a point to which we want to be thrashed around in that dark corner of our minds.

The Thing was a monster movie, meaning simply that the protagonist was ‘an other,’ non-human alien. I felt that in order to convince the audience that The Thing was real, stylistic realism was in order. [Special effects artist] Rob Bottin came in to me with a concept of the actual visual manifestations that seemed to coincide with the amorphous, non-evil-acting ‘otherness’ reality that had to be a part of The Thing.

Systematic inclusion of graphic violence or sex or whatever may enhance a film, or may destroy it, or simply relegate it to pornography or exploitation. [That being said], there should be no restrictions, other than the intentions of the director.

Your idea of the ‘the icon’ is a sound one. Movies carry our mythology now [emphasis added]. Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster is as much as legend now as Prometheus. Perhaps The Thing could be seen as an examination of exactly what constitutes ‘humanness.’ The creature itself is just simply non-human, but like a cancer, it grows and takes us over, distorts, ravages. It isn’t gory, at least not to me.”

Carpenter closed with the thoughts that he was especially fond of the films of director Luis Buñuel, and the films The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, Invisible Invaders, The Big Sleep (the 1946 version, please) and Los Olvidados. I’ve always been grateful that Carpenter took the time and effort to type such a long letter in response to a total stranger at the time, and that he so carefully and perceptively articulated precisely what he was up to with The Thing, which was based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There?, and first brought to the screen by Howard Hawks as The Thing from Another World (1951).

Carpenter, of course, is a big fan of Howard Hawks, with excellent reason, and his first real feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) has distinct debts to Hawks which Carpenter readily acknowledges. Hawks’ version of The Thing is a brilliant film, but it has an upbeat, optimistic ending – as all Hawks films do – as a ragtag group of dedicated survivors pull together to defeat the threat of a hostile invasion from outer space. Carpenter’s film offers no such assurances, and as such is more in tune with the noirish temper of the present day era, in which “every person for themselves first” seems to be the governing principle.

So, if you haven’t seen The Thing, do so now, but only in the proper CinemaScope ratio; in addition to Bottin’s astounding and thankfully pre-digital special effects, the actors Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart and Keith David – superb performers all – have seldom had better roles. Then, too, Bill Lancaster’s astonishingly bleak screenplay and dialogue for the film make a distinct contribution to the proceedings. The production of the film was by all accounts grueling, but the end result is more than worth it. And so it’s nice to see this letter again after some thirty years (!!) and have a chance to share it with the readers of this blog.

A special thanks goes out to David Dutcher, who found this letter, and sent it on – thanks, Dutch!

The Thing from Another World (1951) vs. The Thing (1982)

Monday, September 12th, 2011

James Arness as The Thing in the Hawks/Nyby The Thing from Another World (1951)

Nominally directed by Christian Nyby — although most of the cast members assert that Nyby only directed one scene before deferring to producer/director Howard Hawks; Nyby had been Hawks’ editor for many years, and was superbly gifted at this, but he seems to have been out of his depth as a director — the 1951 film The Thing from Another World is a dense, fast-moving thriller, an an iconic film of its time and place.

In any event, The Thing from Another World features all the hallmarks of a Hawksian universe; men and women banding together as a group, in adverse circumstances, to defeat an external threat that seeks to destroy them — it might as well be Hawks’ Rio Lobo, or El Dorado, or Carpenter’s homage to Hawks, Assault on Precinct 13. But the pervading spirit is one of hope; people will die, there’s a real struggle going on, but in the end, the group will triumph, and the film ends on a note of optimism.

In contrast, John W. Campbell’s source novella is a much more downbeat affair, from its first lines on: “The place stank. A queer, mingled stench that only the ice-buried cabins of an Antarctic camp know, compounded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber. An overtone of liniment combated the musty smell of sweat-and-snow-drenched furs. The acrid odor of burnt cooking fat, and the animal, not-unpleasant smell of dogs, diluted by time, hung in the air.” (You can read the entire text of the novella here.)

Bill Lancaster, Burt’s son, wrote a screenplay for the Carpenter film that hews much more closely to Campbell’s original text, simply because Hawks realized that The Thing’s ability to assimilate and imitate any life form at will was beyond the reach of 1950s special effects, except perhaps with stop motion animation, and Hawks wasn’t about to get involved with that.

John Carpenter, however, working with the young and ridiculously ambitious Rob Bottin at the start of his career (with a slight assist from the late Stan Winston on the scene with the dog morphing into a spider), created a vision of nihilistic hell, in which the members of the Antarctic base camp, instead of coming together, fall apart completely, becoming more and more paranoid as the The Thing successfully takes over one person after another.

In addition to the superb ensemble acting, Carpenter’s patient direction, and Dean Cundey’s moody scope cinematography, what makes the film so compelling is the tactile realism of Bottin’s special effects work. There’s only one shot in the final film that’s stop motion (a tentacle of The Thing pulls a dynamite plunger into a hole in the floor — there’s more stop motion in the outtakes, but Carpenter wisely decided not to use it), and there is, of course, no CGI, since this is 1982; all the film’s remarkable, still-unsurpassed special effects are done “on the floor,” prosthetically, and so they have a degree of verisimilitude that CGI can never attain.

Nor are there any women in Carpenter’s, Campbell’s and Lancaster’s bleak world — other than the synthetic female voice in a Chess Wizard machine — and when trouble strikes, the men revert to almost infantile behavior, putting themselves before the group with disastrous consequences, culminating in a narrative conclusion in which The Thing is (it seems) triumphant; it will freeze again in the Arctic cold, only to be resurrected another day.

Then, too, there’s an interesting touch; Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), the head research scientist in Hawks’ version, seeks to shield The Thing from those who would oppose it, even to the point of allowing other members of the expedition to be sacrificed; in Carpenter’s version, the lead scientist, Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) figures out rapidly that if allowed to escape, The Thing will infect the entire world, and destroys all means of getting out of the base camp.

Soon, however, Blair too has been subsumed by The Thing, leading to a final scene in which only two members of the “group” survive; the hot-tempered Childs (Keith David) and group leader R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), after destroying the camp — and thus ensuring their own deaths, as they’ll freeze to death in the cold — the two men share a bottle of scotch and engage in some final, hopeless banter.

Childs: Temperature’s up all over the camp. Won’t last long though.
MacReady: Neither will we.
Childs: How will we make it?
MacReady: Maybe we shouldn’t.
Childs: If you’re worried about me…
MacReady: If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think either one of us is in much shape to do anything about it.
Childs: What do we do now?
MacReady: Why don’t we just wait here for a little while… see what happens…

and thus the film ends. Carpenter’s film is every bit as good as Hawks’, and closer to the spirit of the original text, and both versions are clearly masterpieces; one of the few times in cinema history when the remake (or revision) of the original is as good as its predecessor. Hawks holds out for hope; Carpenter realizes that there is none. That’s why Carpenter’s version failed at the box office in 1982, but perhaps its unyielding fatalism is why it resonates so powerfully today.

Kurt Russell in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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